Tuesday, 29 March 2011

The road that leads to blindness: a reflection on John 9

Over the last few weeks, I have rediscovered the wonderful metaphors and layers of meaning that are part and parcel of the gospel of John. The juxtaposition of night/day, light/dark, coupled with the symbols of living water and bread of life, metaphors about shepherds and vines, make this gospel both a spiritual and literary goldmine.

And we find that in this week’s lectionary reading, the story of the healing of the man born blind, Jesus again begins with statements about day and night, and light and dark. If you know John’s gospel, you would know this is a preface that alerts readers immediately to expect a story about ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. And in this story, we meet another symbol used by John. You know the old phrase “seeing is believing”? John is doing something similar here, and uses "seeing" as a metaphor for “believing”.

The man whose sight is restored by Jesus starts a journey towards understanding and belief. Unlike the Samaritan woman, the man does not understand who Jesus is suddenly or easily. He needs Jesus to seek him out a second time for that.

Now this blind man might have been a little slow to grasp the truth. Nevertheless, his openness and growing faith contrast sharply with the doubtful questions of his neighbours, the reluctance of his parents to admit to knowing anything, and the judgmental reaction of many of the religious establishment. John’s description is quite evocative, and you can almost hear the controversy.

‘What?’, the Pharisees cry. ‘Healing on the Sabbath, and breaking with tradition? How can this Jesus be "of God"?’ The blind man’s parents are fearful, and the Pharisees dispute with one another over these questions. The obvious moral of John’s story is that those who see physically in this story, do not “see” spiritually. They do not know Jesus. "The man born blind" comes to see God's truth much more clearly. All the other characters in the story remain unchanged through the story; by the end, they have learnt nothing. By contrast, the healed man's life is transformed, and he finds himself in a very different place by the end of the story.

This to me was the obvious storyline a sermon should pursue. But other things were niggling away at me, initially raised by a general discussion of John’s gospel at the lectionary study group John and I convene in the Central zone of our Presbytery. So I could have followed this course for a sermon. But for me, there is much more to this story than the obvious meaning. I decided to take the opportunity to explore other things in the story. And at this point, I need to express a debt of gratitude to Rev. Dr Jione Havea, Lecturer in Hebrew Bible at United Theological College, who taught me the importance of considering “the other” (meaning the other characters, the ones other than the one I naturally identify with) in the story.

So who are these ‘others’ in the story? What is their story and should we consider how we might identify them? Are some of these ‘other’ characters closer to ourselves than what we are prepared to admit?

For most us, I suspect that it is very tempting to identify with the man born blind, rather than with the disciples, the neighbours, the Pharisees or the parents. We want to see ourselves as humble believers, convinced that we would have recognised Jesus if we had been in the village when the miracle happened.

But in all honesty, I also suspect that at different times, we belong more rightly with the disciples, the neighbours, the Pharisees and the parents.

Let us consider this further. We are probably not used to even thinking about these characters, and what their motivations and feelings might have been.

Firstly, let’s look at the disciples. They are faithful servants of Jesus. They have given up much to follow him. But they can’t help being prey to superstition and some awkward grass roots beliefs. They assume, on the basis of such community rumours and beliefs, that the blind man has sinned, or his parents have sinned. Why else would he be blind?

Surely here is something we can identify with. How many times have we listened to community rumours and retold the stories as fact? How many times have we blamed someone for their situation? If only that person got a job, or stopped drinking, or attended church, their life would be different. The homeless, the poor, the desperate of our society are seen as bringing ruin on themselves. They have sinned, and this is their punishment. Can we honestly admit to ourselves that there are times when we have acted and thought this way?

Next we meet the neighbours. They would be people involved with their community, and with each other. They probably shared a grinding stone, some livestock and some crops together. The women may have worked together. The men would have made decisions at the town gate, or public area. This is how first century communities fed, clothed and policed themselves. They were probably hard working decent people. But they do not all recognise the former blind man, despite his protests as to his identity. The implication is that they have often walked right past him, but never really seen him.
Presumably he sat on the street every day, and every day they walked right by him. After his sight was restored, they weren’t sure who he was -- others had to fetch his parents before to identify him. Or maybe they'd previously identified him by the sin they thought was inside him. For whatever reason, it would seem that they had never looked him in the eye or really noticed his face.

How much direct notice do we take of the poor and marginalised in our society? Do we look at them directly and know them, or creep past averting our eyes? As God's people, can we look people of all the poorer nations in the eye before we take their money, or buy the cheap goods produced for us in sweatshop conditions? And in the face of the recent election, are we seduced to see our fellow Australians who are less fortunate as columns and figures representing social problems? Can we face the people in need of shelter as refugees, or do we reduce them to symbols to use for political or financial gain, or to prop up the worldview we are comfortable with? Can we honestly admit to ourselves that there are times when we with the neighbours?

Next, we have the parents of the man born blind. They deflect the Pharisees’ questions, and while acknowledging that he is their son, they refuse to give an opinion as to how he received his sight. Ask him yourself, they say. They are afraid of the consequences if they tell the truth. John tells us that if anyone confessed Jesus as Messiah, they were put out of the synagogue. These parents must have known they were guilty of fudging the facts, and not bravely saying that Jesus healed their son. They want to keep on good terms with their neighbours, and fellow worshippers. This is entirely understandable, when you live in a community where everyone is dependent on each other. But their silence may have contributed to their son being driven out of the village.

I suspect that many of us behave this way sometimes. How often do we see an injustice and look away, because we don’t want to be involved? How often do we fail to take action to protect the vulnerable of society? How often do we fail to speak out when we should? We do not share our faith openly because we fear criticism. We do not invite people into our church because we fear rejection. I think we are like the parents much of the time, keeping quiet. Unlike the blind man, we are unwilling to risk all to support Jesus.

Last of all, we have the Pharisees. The puzzled neighbours have fetched them. After all, they think, we can trust those who are our church leaders to guide us. But the Pharisees are divided. Some think because Jesus appears to have broken the law, he cannot be a man of God. Others saw it differently. Someone who performs signs must be from God. By the end of the story, they drive the man out of the village.

Christians tend to condemn all Pharisees because of this sort of behaviour, behaviour commonly represented in all four gospels. We use "Pharisee" as a synonym for "hypocrite". This is very unfair. The Pharisees were not moral or legalistic bean-counters who didn't care about justice. They were not in the habit of lurking in grain fields to catch unwary Sabbath transgressors. Indeed, the prophetic books cited most by Jesus, Paul, and the early Christians, were books like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Micah. They are in the Jewish canon of scripture because the Pharisees saw them as inspired works. The Pharisees were also the ones that worked in the rural communities of their day, helping people to live in accordance with God’s will, interpreting the intricacies of the Law to them, offering pastoral care. As a result, they were very popular leaders.

The particular Pharisees in this story talk more about God’s law than actually putting it into practice. They spend so much energy figuring out how God's justice and God's compassion were operating in the situation, that they have no energy left to believe the reality of the blind man’s restored vision when it's right under their noses.

Do we as people devote more energy to talking about what Jesus said rather than emulating what Jesus did? Churches are often unwittingly guilty of this. Or perhaps we might find ourselves occupied with our own modern version of "ritual purity" and "preserving the law". Does tradition matter more than change in our church today? Do we have unspoken rules about ‘how things are done’ and where the furniture goes? Do we fail to see what really matters and judge others who do not conform to our standard of Christian? Like the Pharisees, as the respectable religious establishment, we might be blind to the truth right in front of us, especially if that truth is outside the normal borders of whow we define the practice of religion. Can we honestly admit to ourselves that there are times when we most closely identify with the Pharisees of the story?

In our world, as in the world of Jesus, what we see, what we know and how we act will really determine who we are. The story gives us many different ways of seeing the world. All these positions have their strengths and weaknesses. But one thing is clear in the story - it’s not just what we see or don’t see, but how we interpret what we see that determines our actions, our responses and our beliefs. We can look at the poor and see unfortunate victims of circumstance, or as lazy people who refuse to work. We can see them as dignified human beings making the most of a tough situation, or as foreigners with no right to be here.

We can look at climate change and its science and see a natural cycle which has just coincidently happened to hit us now, or we can accept that human actions are putting our planet under pressure.

We can look at issues of consumption, oil use, immigration, education and health care, and see every issue from different perspectives. Ultimately, what we see and what it means to us must flow from the example of Jesus. What did Jesus say and do about poverty? How did he view the natural world, political power, the use of violence, the treatment of sickness, and equality and human dignity?

I am grateful to John van de Laar, on the Sacredise website (http://sacredise.com/lectionary/2011/03/lent-4a/), for raising these questions. He gives expression to this issue far better than I can. He states that “If we are to follow Christ into a world of justice, we will have to wrestle with these questions and not see them as outside of the realm of faith. “

I will conclude by giving the last word to John van de Laar. He says:

In our daily lives we all make choices (consciously or subconsciously) about what we will see and what we won’t. It’s tempting to choose not to see the suffering and injustice in our world – to switch off the news, and to ignore reports of grief, war and trauma. It’s tempting to avoid seeing certain people and to allow them to just blend in with the landscape, removing their need and struggle from our vision. It’s tempting to avoid seeing God’s truth and grace in those we disagree with, and who we would rather see as “all bad”. It’s tempting to avoid seeing the brokenness in those we support and agree with and to see them as “all good”. It’s tempting to avoid seeing the resources, the opportunities and the capacity we have for making a difference, and to rather believe we can do nothing. But, if we have really seen Jesus, and if we have truly seen God’s reign proclaimed and manifest in Christ, then we have to confront how we see things, and allow God’s grace and mercy, God’s truth and justice to change our seeing and shed light on our world, our relationships and our neighbourhoods. And, once again, our seeing must be informed by God’s different perspective where the greatest are the least, and where everyone – even a young shepherd boy, or a carpenter from the countryside – can make significant differences in the world.

Amen to that.

Seeing the Signs
by John van de Laar
© 2010 Sacredise

It would be much easier, Jesus,
to ignore the hard truths around us:
the widening gap
between rich and poor,
the consistency with which the powerful
get their way,
the bending of rules and self-enrichment
of the connected and influential,
the lack of adequate care, protection and resources
for the most vulnerable among us;
we would rather not see these signs.

It would be much easier if we could just pretend everything was alright,
if we could prophesy goodness and light,
and ignore the darkness and evil;
if we didn’t have to offend the status quo,
or challenge the comfortable;
if we could convince ourselves that the cross,
was just a one time thing –
your calling, not ours.

But, we can’t do this, Jesus, because we know too much;
your Gospel has captured us and opened our eyes,
and we have become slaves to love,
the love that must speak for the voiceless,
the love that must challenge injustice,
the love that draws lines of division
between truth and denial,
between compassion and expediency.

Give us the courage to acknowledge what we see,
to name the signs of the times,
to disrupt the ‘way things are’
in the name of what should be,
to divide in order to heal and restore,
and to be crucified for the sake of love.


http://www.sacredise.com/pages/RCL/Year%20C/Prayers/seeingsigns.html (accesses 30/3/2011 at 4.50 pm)

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