By the Rev. Joel Bergeland
RCL reflection, Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A
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March 19, 2023
Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” -John 9:41
If the story of the man born blind were merely about Jesus’ power to grant sight, it would have ended at verse seven. But the scene plays out for 34 more verses! The act of power is the not the end of the story but the beginning.
One of the gifts of these 34 verses is an ironic twist: Jesus giving sight to the man results in less clarity for everyone else. The Pharisees are divided and confounded, and the man’s neighbors are in such disbelief that they seek out his parents to confirm that he is, in fact, the same person.
Maybe things are murky for them now because they were never actually clear to begin with. They’ve seen this man around town, but it seems they’ve never known him. They’ve let his condition of blindness become synonymous with his personhood and used it as a canvas upon which to paint their own story of him. Rather than learn about the man, they are content to know only that he is blind and to fill in the rest of the details themselves from there.
We witness the disciples doing this first. They see a man who is blind, and they immediately assume someone has sinned, and they go about trying to determine whom. We get glimpses of stories that others are telling about this man – he is a beggar, or a disciple of Jesus, or born entirely in sin. Notice, too, that all these characters prefer to speak about the man rather than to him.
No wonder Jesus’ deed of power throws them for a loop. The man’s new physical sight reveals their entrenched spiritual blinders and challenges what they’ve told themselves is true. But stories are stubborn, and so instead of adapting, the people doubt the man’s own testimony about what happened. Some even reject the idea that this indeed is him, even above his repeated protestations. They see, but they refuse to believe their eyes.
All of this behavior stands in contrast with the one who washed in the pool of Siloam, who speaks clearly about what he knows to be true, and equally clearly about what he does not know. The man who was blind does not know where Jesus is, or whether he is a sinner, but one thing he does know – that although he was born blind, now he sees. He stands firm and confident in his testimony and does not see the need to fill in the remaining details with his own assumptions.
Part of stewarding God’s gifts is taking stock – what do we have? How much of it? When we take stock of what we have, we’re also acknowledging what we do not. This is easy when it comes to something concrete – money, perhaps, or volunteers. But this gospel reminds us that we are also stewards of information and stories, and it warns us not to speak beyond what we actually know or understand.
Jesus says to the Pharisees at the end of the story, “now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” I hear in his words that we are in danger when we assume we understand more than we really do. It’s better to admit the limits of our knowledge, like the man to whom Jesus gives sight. We witness in this passage how foolish people look when they write another’s story for them – how often are we guilty of doing the same?
Are you in the practice of saying “I don’t know?” Do you consider refusing to speak about what you don’t know as a faith practice? Is it a habit of yours to leave space in the stories you tell? We would do well to leave space, for it is here that we trust Jesus to act with power once more.
John 9 is one of the longest passages in the three-year cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary. In a culture where we’re accustomed to receiving wisdom in soundbites, much of the meaning and drama in this passage could be lost by reading it straight through. One could easily break this up into parts, as many congregations do with the Passion narrative on Good Friday. Find readers to serve as in the roles of narrator, the disciples, Jesus, the man born blind, the Pharisees, and the parents. The congregation could play the part of the neighbors/the Judeans (or “the Jews,” in some translations).
Another option is to break up the Gospel with stanzas from Amazing Grace, though admittedly a bit out of order. Stanza 1 could be sung before the reading, stanza 4 after verse 7, stanza 3 after verse 23, stanza 2 after verse 38, and stanza 5 at the close of the reading (or a repeat of stanza 1).
The gospel passage is a great way to introduce your youth to concepts from disability theology. Disability theology lifts up the experiences and wisdom of people with disabilities in interpreting Scripture and theology, and it often exposes the ableist lens from which many of us are unknowingly operating. For example, look closely at the reading: The disciples assume a connection between a physical condition (blindness) and sin. But Jesus rejects this notion, saying instead this man was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. The ableism that many of us possess may lead us to assume that God’s works are revealed in this man when Jesus gives him sight, but that’s not actually what Jesus says. Jesus indicates that the man’s blindness is part of how God’s works are revealed. For more on disability theology, peruse resources from the Institute on Theology and Disability, or read this short interview with Amy Kenny, author of My Body is Not a Prayer Request.
Children can use their bodies to begin to interpret Psalm 23. The psalm is full of actions that are ripe with meaning. Start by having children lie down (v.2) and probe what that feels like for them – are they feeling relaxed? Still? Safe? What does it mean that God helps them to lie down? Then have them walk (v.4), and help them notice that no matter where they go, they can’t see behind them. It can be scary for us to not be able to see everything, but God does, and God journeys with us, and so we need not fear. Finally, have them sit down and give them a snack (v.5). Ask them what they felt and how they behaved when the food came out. Were they excited, and how did they show that excitement? God loves making us excited about life and gives us what we need.
The Rev. Joel Bergeland serves as pastor of Zion Lutheran Church, Pittsfield, Mass.