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Sunday, March 26, 2017

Put this Mud in Your Eyes... Rinse... Repeat


I had this sort of humorous, kind of ironic moment, last week, when I wrote the wrong commentary!  However, it was the right commentary for today, so there's that...  John 9...

***

We all struggle with the problem of evil—particularly in light of pain and suffering, perhaps most visibly when the pain and suffering are unmerited.  We want answers.  When we read about “a man blind from birth,”[i] we want to know why.  But we’re not looking for medical explanations.  The question is not how did this happen but, instead, why does the world have to be this way.

Historically, the religious community had it all figured out.  Pain and suffering were the result of sin.  Even today, many religious communities offer the same answer.  Pain and suffering are consequences of the fall.  Humanity somehow deserves this anguish.  Suck it up and realize that this is the way the world works.  Admittedly, sometimes this makes sense.

But in this case?  When we’re presented with a man who was blind before he took his first breath?  What could he have possibly done to deserve such a lot?  Did he sin?  Was it his parents?  The disciples are working from a cut-and-dried, cause-and-effect philosophy.  It certainly affects their theodicy, which in turn affects their theology.  Lucky for them, God incarnate is standing in their midst.  Perhaps Jesus can clear this up, since he’s right there.   

Jesus immediately offers some incredibly upside-down teaching.  The Pharisees, and even the disciples, assume that the blind man is steeped in sin from birth, or at the very least his parents have caused this great calamity, because this is all they’ve ever known.  But Jesus sees this altogether differently.  In fact, as this passage comes to a close, Jesus declares, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.”[ii] Well, that surely throws a wrench in things…

Jesus takes a severe deficit and turns it into an asset.  Being born blind is not the problem.  Jesus can work with that: Jesus can even squeeze something good out of it (and he does).  As the disciples seek the rationale behind this tragedy, Jesus redirects their attention to the ways in which, “the works of God might be displayed…”[iii]  

I got a little caught up in verses 3-5… and I didn’t originally write about this in the commentary, but I think it’s something worth talking about.

We have these words, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him. As long as it is day, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”[iv]

And then Jesus goes on with the miraculous healing.

I read in another commentary that in verse three, there may be an ellipsis, and I use ellipses ad nauseam in my writing, so this struck a chord.  If that’s the case, instead of, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him,” we might have, “but this happened (dot… dot… dot… ellipsis… appropriate pause, wait for it…) Jesus takes a deep breath and continues, “so… that the works of God might be displayed in him…” and then the rest.

It’s not necessarily a cause and effect statement.  Instead, this may be Jesus giving voice to the fact that genuine evil, suffering, and pain are present in the world, but this is not orchestrated by God.  Instead, these things exist outside of what God actually wants, but God is still somehow able to bring some good out of them.

The man is blind.  OK.  God can heal that.  Here’s some dirt and some spit (perhaps reminiscent of God’s creative work in the beginning).  Go wash yourself (oh, that I had time to consider how this might relate to baptism and initiation into the people of God).  Sight…  Restoration… Redemption…  It’s all there.  But, of course, this is not the end of the story.  The trouble has just begun… 

In truth, on the heels of this beautiful account of renewal, the rest of John 9 is at least a little bit exasperating!

The fact that the Pharisees don’t believe the previously blind man’s story is par for the course, albeit frustrating.  This is the way of the Pharisees, who are often portrayed as attempting to catch people in their words, to manipulate the narrative.  It should come as no great surprise to us when the Pharisees question the man about Jesus and determine this miraculous act must not be ascribed to God.  We should expect the Pharisees to attempt to discredit the man and his story, his very identity.    

But neighbors who have presumably known this blind beggar for his entire life are suddenly unsure whether or not it is him, at all!  It’s somehow easier to believe he might be a completely different person than to accept a miraculous account.  And the previously blind man’s own parents?  We are told that they are afraid.[v]  Undoubtedly, they have already lost much, because the Jewish community has likely blamed their son’s affliction on the sins of the parents.  They can’t risk being kicked out of the Synagogue, altogether.  The people (the blind man’s people!) go silent.    

The man who has been healed, however, takes the chance.  His experience with Jesus speaks to the truth of who Jesus is, which is, ironically, exactly what the Pharisees ask for when they assert that he must, “Give glory to God by telling the truth,” (δὸς δόξαν τῷ Θεῷ).[vi]  In the Greek language used here, the Pharisees are not looking for praise or adoration of God but for a factual account, a truthful testimony.  Later, Jesus will allude to the issue of spiritual blindness, but as I re-read this passage I stopped to wonder whether the problem might be more directly linked to ears than eyes.  The Pharisees refuse to listen to the report for which they asked.  Although it is difficult to argue with first hand encounters, it is not impossible.  They can claim that the man lied.  They can claim that the work of Jesus is outside the scope of what may be acceptably accomplished on the Sabbath.  But they cannot take the man’s newfound sight.  His sight is worth alienation from those who blamed him for his own suffering.  In the end, he is rejected, but having lived his whole life as a blind beggar, this is nothing new.  He can see!  The Pharisaical religious community has nothing to offer him that trumps this new reality.

The man’s final words to the Pharisees speak volumes regarding who now has the upper hand:     
            
            Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he 
            opened my eyes.  We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to 
            the godly person who does his will.  Nobody has ever heard of opening the 
            eyes of a man born blind.  If this man were not from God, he could do 
            nothing.[vii]

The Pharisees have lost their power in this man’s life.  Even though they subsequently insult him, judge him, and kick him out; it hardly matters.  When Jesus hears about the man’s rejection, he finds him.  Jesus cares about his story.  Jesus has already made a remarkable difference in the man’s life.  The Pharisees didn’t listen to him, but God did.  Their claims are void.    

So, back to the problem of evil…

We don’t partner with God to alleviate the pain and suffering in the world when we neglect to listen to the other; to attentively discern who is speaking, what he or she has experienced, what great needs exist, and what we might learn from their narratives.  In this passage, Jesus offers us the ultimate example of how to work redemptively in the world.  Perhaps the next time we are tempted to ask, “Why does the world have to be this way,” we should consider an alternative. 

Perhaps we are the answer… not the cause, but the solution—God’s agents of change, working together to realize the inbreaking Kingdom. 

L.


[i] John 9:1 (NIV)
[ii] John 9:41 (emphasis mine)
[iii] John 9:3
[iv] John 9:3-5
[v] See John 9:22
[vi] John 9:24
[vii] John 9:31-33

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