Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A
John 9:1-13(14-27)28-38 - link to NRSV text
It's sensible enough: start with the idea that God is just, compassionate, and in control. Then take a look around you. There's a lot of suffering there. Think about why people suffer. There's got to be a reason for all that darkness, right?
In Jesus' culture, people thought of light as a STUFF, a substance that radiated out from itself, a kind of fire that, when present in the human body, could flow out of a person's eyes and allow them to see (props to the Social Science Commentary on John for that). Someone who couldn't see just didn't have the stuff in them; their body had darkness in it instead of light. Makes a certain kind of sense.
And how did they get that way? Surely God didn't make them like that. Had to be sin.
What if the person in question was born that way, born full of darkness? What do we do with that? Do we blame the parents? Do we blame the blind person (some people in Jesus' culture, and probably in our own, thought that in some way it was possible for a fetus to sin in the womb)?
Jesus answers that very important question of what we should do when we see human suffering that challenges the conventional ways we talk about God's goodness and the goodness of the world that God made. I think in some ways that Jesus' answer could be summarized as this:
Get back to work.
Really, I'm as intellectually curious as the next person, but that's what I hear coming across as I read this passage. It speaks to me as a person who's frequently tempted to devote energy to talking about Jesus' compassion that might be better spent extending it.
That temptation seems pretty close to the one faced by the particular Pharisees in this passage: they've spent so much energy figuring out how God's justice and God's compassion operate in the world, and through whom they operate, that they've got very little left to receive the reality when it's in front of them.
I definitely do NOT mean to condemn all Pharisees by this. When Christians use "Pharisee" as a synonym for "hypocrite" or "villain," it invariably comes across as antisemitic -- and besides, it's grossly unfair. The Pharisees were not moral bean-counters who didn't care about justice. Indeed, the prophetic books that most thoroughly informed Jesus', Paul's, and early Christians' vision of what God's justice looks like -- books like Isaiah, and Jeremiah, and Micah, and Amos -- are in our bibles largely because Pharisees saw them as inspired works that deserved to be in the canon. The Pharisees were the primary movers for placing in the canon the passages that, according to Luke 4, were central in Jesus' own sense of mission.
Luke gets that across by having Jesus quote some of the passages in question, such as Isaiah 42:1-7:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
Thus says God, the LORD,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
This was not a passage about some singular figure who was going to come to save Israel. Isaiah's "servant of the Lord" was ALL of Israel. And in this Sunday's gospel, Jesus does far more than read or explain these words: he puts them into action. All of Israel, not just an anointed one or few, was to serve as a light to the nations, opening the eyes of those who are blind.
And so it may be that the most damning point this Sunday's gospel has against Jesus' accusers is one that we easily miss: they did not know the blind man who was healed.
He sat and begged there daily, and every day they walked by him, but when the time came, they couldn't be sure of who he was -- others had to fetch his parents before they could be sure of the identification (again, props to the Social Science Commentary on John). Or maybe they'd identified him solely by the darkness they thought was inside him, as a social problem indicative of how far society had sunk. For whatever reason, they'd never looked him in the eye or really noticed his face.
I think that globalization and the previously unimaginable -- and potentially, in some ways, very helpful -- capabilities it brings come with an equally impressive set of responsibilities: that, having been grafted into God's people, we are called to find some way to, in some sense, look people of all nations in the eye before we take their money or as we give ours, to find a face and a name where others see only columns and figures representing social problems or potential profits, symbols to use for political or financial gain, or to prop up a worldview.
Questions about how things got this way and theological questions about what God's revelation to us looks like in our community and our world have their place, but never at the expense of our call as God's servants and Jesus' followers: to bring peaceable justice -- justice that doesn't so much as bend a reed or blow out a candle, let alone issue force in explosions, but which nonetheless brings liberty not just to those most able to seize opportunity, but to the blind and the captive -- to every nation, every block, every city, every neighbor.
We cannot be light to the world until we can see that light in the eyes of beggars in our town and in our global village, welcoming that light as Christ's presence among us and receiving each bearer as a neighbor, a brother or sister with a face and a name. Jesus shows us the way, and his presence with us gives us courage to live more deeply into it.
Thanks be to God!
VERY intrigueing. I always look forward to reading your posts. I guess you are pretty busy but I wish you'd post more often *smile.* Though, when I think about it, I suppose the reason I enjoy your posts more than those of many other religiously-oriented blogs I read is because they are so full of real substance. Kuddos for a job well done, Dylan!
Posted by: Mystery | Mar 2, 2005 12:01:32 PM
I have a great admiration for folks like Barbara Cawthorne Crafton of the Geranium Farm (http://www.geraniumfarm.org), who sends out emails daily. I could see myself doing that, but not while also working in a challenging job in parish ministry with a congregation 60 miles from my house! I am looking into ways that I might be able to turn my full attention to providing resources (like a further expansion of this site, but other things too) to help people in thier local ministry contexts. We'll see what happens!
Posted by: Sarah Dylan Breuer | Mar 2, 2005 4:12:32 PM
Interesting point about them not recognizing the man who'd sat begging at the gate for years. How often do we really notice people we pass by every day -- the newspaper seller on the corner, the homeless woman on the park bench, even the clerk in the stores we frequent? If we can't see them at all we can never see them as people, and until we recognize their humanity by seeing them, we will always be content with things as they are "because they've always been that way."
Sorry --- I'm off on a tangent. I really enjoy the social-cultural studies of Neyrey, Malina, Pilch et. al.
Thanks for making me think, Dylan.
Posted by: Mumcat | Mar 3, 2005 12:26:15 PM
Interesting. I intentionally didn't read this until I had finished my own sermon on this topic. Or at least chosen my perspective. I feel like there are 700 ways to go with this text. I love this one.
Posted by: PPB | Mar 3, 2005 8:12:54 PM
This is one of my favorite stories.The blind man is a bible hero of mine.Jesus touched/healed him ,he lost his community,Jesus came back and found him.....What a story ...Awesome.
Did you know compasinate is also a verb(AW Tozer)...Jesus wanted to compasinate the disciples just as he wants to compassinate us too.
Oh fillus with your compassion Oh Lord
Posted by: Rob Murphy | Mar 4, 2005 3:45:02 PM
I always appreciate your reflections, and I always wait until I'm almost finished with my sermon to check in on what you have to say. You manage to blend the academic with the pew-life.
Posted by: PK | Mar 5, 2005 12:23:11 PM
I'd totally missed the observation that the religious bigshots in this story couldn't even recognize this man who'd been in their midst for years. (Talk about sight-impaired!)
I also like the "back to work" response to questions of theodicy. It's really the only response that keeps us from indulging in what Luther called our curvatus in se...our tendency toward inward-turnedness. I catch myself in this all the time -- navel-gazing instead of getting on with it.
Posted by: LutheranChik | Mar 5, 2005 6:09:34 PM
This was one of the few weeks in which I actually looked at your entry for the week AFTER I'd preached the sermon. We were thinking along the same lines. I think that the reason we like to verbally beat up the Pharisees so much is that we're often so much like them--we spend so much time trying to figure God out and tryng to determine the rules that we miss God's work in and through us because we don't expect it. I focused in my sermon on the fact that we need to cultivate "divine sight"--the ability to see the world as God sees it. It seemed to resonate!
Posted by: Tom Sramek, Jr. | Mar 6, 2005 5:40:17 PM
Very informational We all need to start looking
Posted by: Joseph | Feb 25, 2008 12:25:58 PM
When taking into consideration that the people had not noticed the blind man I was reminded of Jesus' conversation at the well last week when the Samaritan woman did not notice the living water in the beginning and two weeks ago when Jesus entertained a night time visitor who was blind when Jesus spoke of one needing to be born again.
Posted by: Bill | Feb 26, 2008 7:15:34 AM
Funny, I thought we couldn't be light to the world until Jesus opens our eyes. THEN we can see Jesus in our neighbour's eyes. If it's the way you suggest - "We cannot be light to the world until we can see that light in the eyes of beggars in our town .." that makes it a semi-Pelagian dog's breakfast of an enlightenment.... in other words, no enlightenment at all.
Posted by: Tito Havana | Mar 31, 2011 11:26:18 AM