Throughout the Scriptures, in both the OT and the NT, there is a theme that permeates its pages. That theme is God’s use of the ‘distinct other’ to carry forth his message, purpose and mission in the world.
One example of God’s use of the distinct other can be found in John 9:1-41.
In this passage we find that God uses a man born blind to point others to the truth of who Jesus actually is. In other words, the blind man is God’s ‘distinct other.’ How is this so? Let’s look at the opening verses of John 9 (read verses 1-3).
Here we find Jesus traveling along with his disciples and as they travel they come upon a man who was born blind. In verse 2 the disciples ask Jesus a question which is a demonstration of the prevailing Jewish mindset of the day—they ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents?” The assumption here is that the man’s blindness is the direct result of sin, either his own or someone else. It was believed that any sickness, malformation, disease and so forth was the direct result of sin, thus, those dealing with such issues either deserved it or were cursed of God. This often left such people on the fringes of the community or usually ignored altogether. For example, there is some documentation that Rabbis, out of fear of becoming unclean, would not even eat an egg from a market if they knew a leper had walked by the same market. This mindset is essentially the root of the disciples’ question to Jesus. However, God has something else in mind.
In verse 3 Jesus answers the disciples’ question, but not in a way that they were anticipating. In this verse Jesus says, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” Here is the true purpose for this man’s blindness—God has a plan to use it for his glory. The blind man, who has been ignored and even looked down upon by others, is God’s ‘distinct other.’ How is the blind man used by God as his ‘distinct other’? This question brings us to another aspect that presents itself in this passage. Throughout John 9 God uses the blind man to teach others about the true identity of Jesus Christ.
Throughout this account there is a contrasting parallel between the blind man and the Pharisees which involves the issue of physical and spiritual eyesight:
- The Pharisees—have physical eyesight, but lack spiritual eyesight (cf. vv. 16, 18, 24, 28-29, 40).
- The Blind Man—has no eyesight, but gains both physical and spiritual eyesight (cf. vv. 11, 17, 33, 38!)
There is a lesson here for us today. In some sense, the blind man could symbolize Majority World Christianity. They have something to offer the rest of the world. They possess a vibrant and steadfast faith regardless of their context which is often one of need and persecution.
The Pharisees, on the other hand, could symbolize Western Christianity. Christians in the West have at times, both knowingly and unknowingly, demonstrated a notion of superiority or pride in her interactions with the Majority World.
Speaking to this issue, Duane Elmer, in his book “Cross-Cultural Servanthood,” shares the following:
“Usually superiority appears in disguises that pretend to be virtues—virtues such as:We can see what Duane Elmer describes playing out in John 9 in regard to the attitude and actions of the Pharisees. Their continuing refusal to believe what obviously took place is a demonstration of their attitude of superiority. They were not willing to learn from someone they thought was cursed of God and the result was their failure to see God’s greater purpose in the situation. When Western Christianity acts in superior ways we are guilty of the same thing. Perhaps a better approach could be summed up in the following Proverb:
(1) I need to correct their error (meaning I have superior knowledge, a corner on the truth).
(2) My education has equipped me to know what is best for you (so let me do most of the talking while you do most of the listening and changing).
(3) I am here to help you (so do as I say).
(4) I can be your spiritual mentor (so I am your role model).
(5) Let me disciple you, equip you, train you (often perceived as ‘let me make you into a clone of myself’).
These and other so-called virtues corrupt our attempts to serve others…Superiority cloaked in the desire to serve is still superiority. It’s not our words that count but the perceptions of the local people who watch our lives and sense our attitudes.” (pg. 17)
Proverbs 1:5 – Let the wise listen and add to their learning, and let the discerning get guidance.Taking this a step further, perhaps it would do Western Christians well to realize and seek to understand the changing landscape of World Christianity. Perhaps God still has much to teach us through his ‘distinct other’ today.
For example, M. Daniel Carroll R. touches on this in his book “Christians at the Border.” He speaks to this point when he reminds us of the following:
“The greater part of Christians now live outside North America and Western Europe. Some characterize this movement of Christianity’s center of gravity as the ‘browning’ or ‘globalizing’ of the faith.” (pg. 60-61)One of the results of this shift involves a high number of Hispanic Christians who are entering America. This places American Christians in an interesting situation. How will we respond to those migrating to America? M. Daniel Carroll R. addresses one perspective for us to keep in mind when he writes:
“Many Hispanics and pastors sincerely believe that God has led them here for a purpose: to play an important role in a revival of the Christian faith in this country.” (pg. 61)The leads us to a key question: What will be our posture as the receiving culture? Will we humble ourselves before God and others (his ‘distinct others’)? Will we be open to listen and learn from those who do not look like us, think like us, talk like us or act like us in order to receive what God may have for us? Or will we follow the path of the Pharisees and refuse to listen and learn from those who we deem to be below us?
God has always used the ministry of the ‘distinct other’ to carry out his purpose and he still does so today. May we have open eyes to see this happening today in our own context, and may we have open arms to receive God’s ‘distinct other’ into our community.