Scripture: John Chapters 9 and 11 Nigel Bunce
How could it be that today’s Scriptures present a seemingly uncaring Jesus? It’s the opposite of the caring and inclusive Jesus with whom we are familiar. The issue presents itself in two stories from John’s Gospel. The man born blind in Chapter 9 and the death of Lazarus in Chapter 11. Both stories are difficult, as I will explain. It would be easy just to not preach on them. But one of my seminary professors said that if the text is difficult, you must preach on it. Otherwise your congregation will think that you agree with it.
This Lent, we are reading four stories from John’s Gospel. They fall into two pairs. Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman each challenged Jesus over the meaning of eternal life. These next two stories present a picture of Jesus that makes me uncomfortable.
Jesus meets a sightless man
The first part of the story of the man who had been blind since birth has a modern feel. People in the ancient world thought that misfortunes were due to sin. In the Book of Exodus: “God will visit the sins of the father on the children, to the third or the fourth generation.” So the disciples asked Jesus, “Who sinned? This man or his parents?” Jesus said that neither the man or his parents had sinned.
Today, I think we would continue by saying that the man’s blindness was just the luck of the draw – that bad things do indeed happen to good people. No-one is going to claim that you do or don’t catch COVID-19 depending on how sinful you are. At least, as a Progressive Christian, I hope not.
Should we worry?
But whatever stripe of Christian a person might be, this is a very worrying time. We are all facing extraordinary restrictions on our daily activities, and these add to the stress of wondering whether we will become infected witt this new disease, and if so, how seriously ill we might become.
I don’t think, under these exceptional circumstances, that most of the Do not worry passage from Matthew’s Gospel [Chapter 6: 25-34] is very helpful at this time. At least, not until you get to the very last verse.
 “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” Indeed. Jan, for example, wondered what we might do about Easter at St. George’s this year. My thought was exactly that of the last verse of Do not worry. Easter might as well be a million miles away, because things are changing so quickly. Today’s trouble is enough for today.
Jesus said that the man’s blindness was to reveal God’s glory. Is this an uncaring Jesus?
The Gospel writer John’s stated agenda was to show that Jesus was divine. We always have to keep in mind that all the Gospels date from many decades after Jesus lived and died. The writers had to put words into Jesus’ mouth to bring the stories to life. In John’s telling, Jesus said that the man was born blind to reveal God’s works when he got a cure. Jesus doesn’t seem to care about the man himself.
To me, this is an appalling idea. Why would God deliberately make the man spend his life sightless till Jesus showed up? So that Jesus could reveal God’s mighty works by curing him? I’m sorry. This seemingly uncaring Jesus is not my understanding of God or God’s Messiah. I see God in the words of the 23rd Psalm. My God rejoices with us in our good times, in the figurative green meadows and beside the cool clean waters. But this God also comforts us in our difficult times, when life makes us walk in the dark valley of the shadow of death.
I can’t believe that the God of Psalm 23 lets bad things happen to us, just so that we will recognize [his] glory when things improve. Scholars have debated is the extent to which Greek culture influenced John’s Gospel, more than Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Unlike the God of Israel, the Greek gods often treated human beings are their playthings. Was that John’s concept of God?
Jesus and the death of Lazarus
We also meet this seemingly uncaring Jesus in the story of the death of Lazarus. Lazarus was the brother of Martha and Mary, Jesus’ friends. When Lazarus fell ill, the sisters sent Jesus a message. “The one you love is ill.” They must have hoped that he would come. Jesus responded (callously in my opinion). “This illness is for God’s glory, to glorify the Son of Man.” So he stayed away for two days, before he decided to visit Martha and Mary. They were his friends, and yet he stayed away? Apparently, again an uncaring Jesus.
When Jesus finally showed up, Lazarus had died four days earlier. There was, in the words if the King James Bible, “a stink”. But Jesus revived Lazarus anyway. This healing miracle is completely beyond belief. It asks us to accept that Jesus had the power to reverse biological decomposition.
That aside, this was a physical resuscitation or revitalization. It wasn’t resurrection, despite the story’s similar details – the tomb in a cave, the stone to roll away. Lazarus lived again but had to die again.
The ‘Synoptic’ Gospels treat similar stories differently
Jesus was a great faith healer. All four Gospels record stories in which Jesus cured blindness and resuscitated people who seemed to be dead. For example, in Mark Chapter 5: 21-24; 35-43, a leader of the synagogue asked Jesus to come because his daughter was near death. He wanted Jesus to lay hands on her, and save her life. When Jesus arrived the girl appeared to have died already. Jesus said, “She is not dead. She’s sleeping.” He took her hand and said, “Little girl, get up,” and she came back to life.
Mark also relates two different occasions where Jesus cured blindness. The account in Chapter 8 verses 22-26 is quite similar to the one in John’s Gospel. In both cases Jesus rubbed saliva on the man’s eyes. That promoted the healing miracle. But Mark’s account is very understated compared with John’s.
For me, the ultimate question is whether these stories represent historical events in Jesus’ ministry, or whether they should be read symbolically. Consider blindness. Was the person’s condition due to the inability to see the physical world around them? Or was it spiritual blindness? Mark’s story has a hint of the latter. The man’s sight returned in two stages. First he saw dimly. When Jesus laid hands on him again, he saw clearly. That might be a metaphor for how we come to faith. Not all at one, but in stages.
There’s something similar in John’s story. The blind man’s friends and neighbours couldn’t believe that he was no longer blind. Some of them thought it must be a lookalike, even though the man kept telling them who he was. If we read the story symbolically, their own blindness could show their lack of faith.
What if we interpret these stories as metaphors or parables?
As with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman, is this John’s way of saying that they didn’t understand what they had witnessed? In this sense, they were blind. But the story also draws on a prophesy from Hebrew Scripture. “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, and recovery of sight to the blind.” John’s readers would surely have understood the reference. Giving sight to the blind depicts the dawn of the Messianic age. Jesus gives sight. So he is the Messiah.
In another detail, the Pharisees reject the man’s testimony that Jesus is a prophet. For them, Jesus cannot be the Messiah because he healed the blind man on the Sabbath. Steeped in the Law of Moses, they couldn’t possibly imagine that the Messiah would do such a thing. They were blind, just like the friends and neighbours of the blind man. The irony is that they cannot recognize Jesus as the Messiah, whereas a blind man does.
Perhaps we can “rescue” the death of Lazarus similarly. When Jesus eventually arrived at the home of Martha and Mary, they had a discussion about resurrection. Jesus responded, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live even though they die. Everyone who believes in me will never die.” This is the same question that arose with Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman. It is how to achieve eternal life through belief in Jesus Christ.
To sum up
That is our question too. Where are our own blind-spots of faith? And what can we do about them? It’s easy to say, “Just believe in Jesus, and you’ll have eternal life.” But what exactly does that mean?
My best answer is this. If we accept that Jesus is our Saviour, our divine protector from harm, then we may achieve continuing life with God the Creator, after this physical life is over.
But please, my friends, my Christian brothers and sisters, do not worry too much. Today’s troubles are enough for today.