A reflection for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, 22nd March 2020
Welcome to those of you who are unable to attend worship today and who have come here for a moment of reflection. The words for today are thoughts on the Gospel reading that, but for the current world crisis, would have been read in many churches today – Saint John Chapter 9 Verses 1-41.
“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” John 9:2
The reading today is very apt on a day when tales of suffering and hardship fill the news. There were evangelical Christians living at the time of the Irish potato famine in the 19th Century who said that the suffering was a judgement on the people. Perhaps there are still Christians who believe that such things happen, that suffering is divine judgement.
The attitude that people get what they deserve is deeply ingrained. Many people will have grown up with thinking that went along the lines that, “God looks after those who look after themselves.” The message was clear, work hard, behave yourself and someone will make sure that you are rewarded.
The idea of God looking after those who looked after themselves didn’t spring from nowhere; it was deeply rooted in the pages of the Old Testament. In the book of Deuteronomy Chapter 28, it was clearly summed up, be honest, keep the rules, work hard and you will be abundantly prosperous.
The view of life was that if you looked after yourself, then God would look after you. Psalm 37 says, “I was young and now I am old, yet I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging for bread.”
The message is clear, keep the rules and all will go well. The message is also clear for those who are going through hard times, “they must have done something to deserve it”.
Jewish people had a very firm belief that God was active at all times and in all places; if someone was suffering, then God must have a reason for it.
In today’s Gospel reading, in Saint John Chapter 9, there is a description of Jesus having a row with the Pharisees. Jesus heals a man who has been born blind and Jesus’ own disciples ask him, “who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” The logic of the Pharisees was clear: if God looked after those who kept the rules, if there was something wrong, then you must have done something wrong to deserve it.
The Old Testament attitude towards life became very deeply rooted in the popular thinking of Protestant countries: work hard and all will go well; if things go wrong, then it’s your own fault.
So, when the great famine hit Ireland in the 1840s years ago the response of the government here in England was based on this thinking. The Times newspaper in London commented, “It is the old thing, the old malady breaking out. It is the national character, the national thoughtlessness, the national indolence”. The English logic was that if Irish people were dying of starvation, then it must be their own fault, because that was the way the world worked.
Even worse than the logic of the London Times was the argument of Protestant evangelicals like Alexander Dallas and the Society for Irish Church Missions who viewed the famine as God’s judgment on the Irish people for remaining Roman Catholics, the famine was caused by what Dallas saw as their sin.
To say to people that God is causing their children to die because they belong to the wrong church seems very far from Jesus.
“God looks after those who look after themselves,” can motivate people to get up and work hard, it can also make people who have suffered misfortune in their lives feel that God has not favoured them and that they have no part in a church community where everyone else is outwardly successful.
It is important that to understand this ethos of health and wealth in order to understand today’s Gospel reading. If people obeyed God, if people kept the rules, then Deuteronomy promised that people would receive abundant blessings.
In the light of what people heard in the scriptures, the disciples’ question made perfect sense, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Jesus rejects this traditional teaching. In Chapter 9 Verse 3, he says, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Far from being someone who was being punished for sin, the man is someone in whom we might see God at work.
The Pharisees do not like this, they are determined to hold on to their ideas that people got what they deserved, even a miracle does not bring a change of heart. In verse 34, they say to the man, “You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?” John adds a sad note to their words, “And they drove him out”. A man in whom God’s work has been revealed is put out of the synagogue, driven out of his community.
How do people now respond to the words and works of Jesus in Saint John Chapter 9?
Anyone who has read those chapters from Deuteronomy, anyone who has read the lines from Psalm 37, will know that this is not the way the world is. Everyone has known good, honest, hard-working people who have endured terrible hardship, suffering or tragedy; everyone has known people who have obeyed God and laboured hard all their lives and never had a penny to spare.
Jesus questions the attitudes of those around him and, in so doing, he questions Christians now. Of course, he expects people to work hard; of course, he expects people to regard what they have as a blessing from God; but he does not expect people to be like the Pharisees, he does not expect people to see the misfortune of others as their own fault.
Jesus challenges the thinking that faith brings health and wealth, he challenges people to see in their own lives, and in the lives of those around them, the works of God being revealed. “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day”, says Jesus in Verse 4. Sometimes, those works will appear unlikely ways, sometimes they will appear in unexpected ways, but the way they will always appear is in God’s way.
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