Sunday, March 30, 2014 The Story of Man Born Blind
There is nothing quite so awkward, on a social level, as to arrive at the house of friend for a meal and to walk into the midst a family argument. It makes me feel tense, just to think about it.
I don’t know about you, but I’d rather go to the dentist a have a root canal any day.
And yet, that’s exactly what is happening in this as we enter into today’s Gospel. We are stepping into a bitter dispute that tore apart the tiny Christian community that existed in Palestine at the end of the first century.
One of the most striking things about today’s gospel is how short the actual telling of the miracle story is:
“When he had said this he spat on the
ground and made mud with the saliva and
spread mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him
go, wash in the pool of Siloam. Then the man went and washed and came back able to see.”
Clearly, the main point of today’s reading is not the telling of a healing story that was, very likely, already quite familiar to the hearers of John’s gospel. To really understand the point of John’s telling of this story, we need to look at where the evangelist placed it. If we back up a few verses we find this.
“Jesus then went on to say to those Jews who believed in him…”
And what follows is one of the bitterest exchanges between Jesus and a crowd of listeners recorded in any gospel. It includes statements on the part of the crowd like:
“We are descendants of Abraham…Never have we been slaves to anyone…we are no illegitimate breed…are we not right in saying you are a Samaritan and possessed besides.”
And from Jesus:
“The father you spring from is the devil…the reason you do not hear is that you are not of God.”
And in response to the crowd’s, “ Who do you make yourself out to be?,” Jesus replies “I solemnly declare it: before Abraham came to be, I AM”
And the evangelist records, “At that they picked up tocks to throw at Jesus, but he hid himself and slipped out of the temple precincts.”
Today’s gospel follows right on the heels of this incident.
And, lest we prove to be as obtuse as the religious authorities who appear later in this story, before the miracle is even recounted, Jesus’ discussion with his disciples about the cause of the man’s blindness tells us what the point is.
“I am the light of the world.”
And here is where we enter into real pain of the Johnine community. If Jesus is the light of the world, why are we being treated so terribly by our fellow believers? In the frustration that we feel with religious leaders as this story goes on and on, we stand as witnesses to the fragmentation of the early Christian community of Palestine.
As the community has become more diverse, as the number of Samaritans and other non- orthodox Jews in the community has increased, as some in the community have increasingly come to interpret Jesus in ways that are outside of the box of traditional Jewish messiah and especially as Jesus comes to be understood and proclaimed as divine, the bonds of prayer and common life, of charity and the sharing worldly goods-the bonds that characterized the early church-are broken apart. The community is torn in two.
One branch of this community will grow and spread. Though there will be other splits and bitter disputes, this branch will give rise to the Christian churches that we know today. The other branch, which clings more tightly to the traditional interpretation of the messiah as prophet, divine in inspiration perhaps, but human in nature will gradually fade away, though neither as quickly or as completely as most of us have been educated to believe.
With this background, it should not surprise us that the principle point of today’s Gospel is this:
“If Jesus is the light of the world, why couldn’t they see it.”
And the “they” in this case is not some distant other. Why could my siblings, my cousins, my parents, my friends and neighbors the people who have loved and been loved by me, why do they not see…
And, though I find it sad, I do not find it surprising, that the answer they find is a bitter one: They cannot see, because they will not see.
“I have come into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”
So, what should WE make of all this? The key, I think, to a deep understanding of this passage is to focus not just on the words it contains, but on the deep pain that underlies those words.
I suppose before I continue, I need to confess, that I have never been a person who believed that my salvation depended in any important way on the measured height of my Christology. It has always struck me that for the disciple, understanding who Jesus “really” was and is, is NOT what’s most important. After all, I’ve been married almost thirty years and have been father for almost twenty-five. And yet, I would never pretend that “really” know either my wife or my kids. They surprise me almost every day. What’s most important is that I love and walk with them as faithfully as I can.
In talking about the church and it’s need to not only have the right answer to every question, but also to have the same right answer that it has always had, Richard Gailardetz, theology professor at Boston College suggests that as the church grows and adapts, we need to think of our understandings, our doctrines, “not as erroneous but as inevitably impoverished before the ineffable mystery of God.”
“Inevitably impoverished before the ineffable mystery of God.”
That is the understanding I want to nurture, both within myself, and within my church this lent. As a person, individually, and as church, communally, I want to preserve an openness to whatever miracles of healing and grace cross my path today. It doesn’t mean that I waive my right to examine the evidence. But I do so, knowing full well that whatever knowledge I come to is vastly outweighed by all that remains a mystery.
In that fact, I hope to find both the charity and the humility that are the essential characteristics of discipleship.