I have to admit that I have more than once been the victim of misconceptions. Perhaps you have been also. Most of them aren’t especially dangerous, but I’m grateful anyway to have them corrected. Here are a few that have been put right for me over the years:
• There is no evidence that Vikings wore horns on their helmets. That goes back to the costumes in an 1876 production of Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
• Medieval Europeans did not believe the earth was flat. In fact, from the time of the ancient Greek philosophers onwards, belief in a spherical earth remained almost universal among European intellectuals.
• George Washington did not have wooden teeth.
• Benjamin Franklin did not propose that the wild turkey be used as the symbol for the United States instead of the bald eagle.
• Napoleon Bonaparte was not short. Quite the opposite: he was slightly taller than the average Frenchman of his time.
• The Twinkie does not have an infinite shelf life; its listed shelf life is approximately forty-five days.
For the most part, misconceptions such as these are quite harmless (unless you happened to be George Washington’s dentist). There are more serious misconceptions out there, however, and we come across one of them in our Gospel reading for this morning.
Jesus and his disciples were walking through the crowded, dusty streets of Jerusalem, when they came across a blind man crouched down by a wall, holding out his begging bowl. I suspect that the disciples were inclined to ignore the man. Perhaps they were not even conscious of him, as such people were commonplace, especially in Jerusalem. It was Jesus who noticed him, and that prompted the disciples to ask a question. “Rabbi,” they asked, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Jesus’ followers were living under the impression that disease and physical impairment were somehow tied to an individual’s sin. That notion was not something that they had come up with on their own. It was not uncommon in their day and was even promulgated by some of the rabbis of the time. Today such a perspective seems intolerably cruel to us—as though a disability were not enough to suffer from, much less the guilt that it might be the result of some sin that I might have committed even before my birth.
Yet I dare say that there are probably just as many misunderstandings and hang-ups about sin today. Sad to say, the word “sin” has often been used by religious people as a stick to beat others down, to exclude them, even to dehumanize them. Yet, deep within all of us (if we are prepared to admit it) there is a nagging sense that things are not as they should be. As someone said to me years ago, “I don’t know about you, John, but if there is a video of my life, I don’t ever want to see it.” How important it is that we shed ourselves of dangerous misconceptions in something that is so pervasive, so central to our lives—that we come to a true biblical understanding of what sin really is.
I have been tremendously helped in that respect by a book by contemporary American theologian Neal Plantinga, and I am going to ask your forgiveness for reading to you a rather long quotation from it. He begins by quoting biographer Harry Wills, who wrote,
We are hostages to each other in a deadly interrelatedness. There is no “clean slate” of nature unscribbled on by all one’s forebears… At one time a woman of unsavory enough experience was delicately but cruelly referred to as ‘having a past’. The doctrine of original sin states that humankind, in exactly that sense, ‘has a past’.
Then Plantinga continues,
But, of course, our past also includes saints, civilizations, generous laws for gleaners, hospices, relief agencies, virtuoso peacemakers, and rural traditions of pitching in at a neighbor’s barn raising… It includes exultant worship, fifty-year wedding anniversaries, and, on some May mornings, a sense of life’s sweetness and of God’s goodness so sharp that we want to cry out from the sheer promise of it. Evil rolls across the ages, but so does good. Good has its own momentum. Corruption never wholly succeeds. (Even blasphemers acknowledge God.) Creation is stronger than sin and grace stronger still. Creation and grace are anvils that have worn out a lot of our hammers.
To speak of sin … apart from the realities of creation and grace, is to forget the resolve of God. God wants shalom and will pay any price to get it back. Human sin is stubborn, but not as stubborn as the grace of God and not half so persistent, not half so ready to suffer to win its way. Moreover, to speak of sin by itself is to misunderstand its nature: sin is only a parasite, a vandal, a spoiler. Sinful life is a partly depressing, partly ludicrous caricature of genuine human life. To concentrate on our rebellion, defection, and folly … is to forget that the center of the Christian religion is not our sin but our Savior. To speak of sin without grace is to minimize the resurrection of Jesus Christ, the fruit of the Spirit, and the hope of shalom.
But to speak of grace without sin is surely no better. To do this is to trivialize the cross of Jesus Christ, to skate past all the struggling by good people down the ages to forgive, accept, and rehabilitate sinners, including themselves, and therefore to cheapen the grace of God that always comes to us with blood on it. What had we thought the ripping and writhing on Golgotha were all about? To speak of grace without looking squarely at these realities, without painfully honest acknowledgment of our own sin and its effects, is to shrink grace to a mere embellishment of the music of creation… In short, for the Christian church … to ignore, euphemize, or otherwise mute the lethal reality of sin is to cut the nerve of the gospel. For the sober truth is that without full disclosure on sin, the gospel of grace becomes impertinent, unnecessary, and finally uninteresting.
… that God’s works might be revealed in him
How important it is that we not ignore sin or trivialize it, and at the same time not be obsessed by it. The disciples’ were mistaken in connecting the man’s blindness with any sin. Jesus, on the other hand, was able to look upon both the man and his disability in an entirely different manner. Read literally from the Greek, his words in verse 3 were, “Neither this man sinned nor his parents, but that the works of God might be revealed in him.”
What did Jesus mean by this? I don’t believe that Jesus said what he did merely in anticipation of the miracle that he was about to perform. I believe that he was seeking to share a much deeper truth with his disciples. That was that this man, even in his blindness, crouched by the wall and covered in the dust from people’s sandals, either ignored or pitied by passers-by, was made in the image and likeness of God. Jesus was able to see in him a nobility that was invisible to the disciples—and that was a characteristic of his ministry. As we saw last week, he spoke with respect to a Samaritan woman. He welcomed children into his presence when his disciples regarded them as nothing but a nuisance. He honored the selfless act of a prostitute. He reached out and touched a leper who may not have felt the warmth of human contact for years. He invited himself into the home of a corrupt and hated tax collector.
The man who sat by the side of the road and begged was blind. Yet Jesus’ disciples suffered from another form of blindness in their inability to perceive the image of God in him. One of the challenges to me in this passage is to develop our senses so that we can see people as Jesus did, as men and women and children who bear the image of God and in whom God’s beauty dwells. Again and again I have found myself being rebuked in this area—by blind people who were able to see in ways that I could never imagine, developmentally disabled people who were able to respond to the love of God in ways that were beautifully uncomplicated yet more profound than anything I can express, physically handicapped people who showed a strength of character and determination that staggers me.
All through his ministry the apostle Paul suffered from a disability. He called it his “thorn in the flesh” and I can only imagine that it was the cause of much pain and sorrow for him. “Three times I appealed to the Lord about this …,” he wrote to his friends in Corinth, “but he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.’ So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me… For whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:8-10).
Blindness and sight
We would have missed the point of this passage if we left it without observing one more lesson, however. It has to do with blindness and sight. We have seen already the physical blindness of the man who sat by the road. And I have alluded to the blindness of the disciples who were unable to see God’s image in him. Yet as the passage continues we are exposed to a deeper and more pernicious blindness: the blindness of those who cannot see and yet willfully insist that they do.
It is such a monstrous irony that the very people who should have been praising God for the miracle that had been done in the blind man’s life were the ones who spoke with scorn and condemnation. What was it that motivated them to treat the newly healed man with such contempt? Were they jealous that they could not perform such acts of healing—or perhaps that they were not the beneficiaries of them? I believe that ultimately it was an insistence on their own rightness. This is the root of the condemnation that the risen, glorified Christ levels against the church in Laodicea in the book of Revelation:
You say, ‘I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.’ You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent.
The man born blind had spent all his life depending on others. He depended on his parents to house and feed him. He depended on friends to lead him to and from his begging place on the street. He depended on passers-by to toss their spare change into his bowl. He was painfully aware of his incompleteness, of his need for healing; and when Jesus offered him the opportunity to be made whole, he leapt at the chance.
All of which brings us back to where we began. If we are to receive the healing that Jesus offers, it will not come by ignoring our sins or hiding them, or pretending that they don’t exist or don’t matter. It will come as we acknowledge them, as we willingly receive the forgiveness, cleansing and restoration that Jesus holds out to you and to me from the cross.