Skip to content

With Blessings Like These, Who Needs Curses?

March 27, 2017

“With Blessings Like These, Who Needs Curses?” John 9:1-41 © 3.26.17 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

There’s a time for talk and a time for action. The disciples favored the former. They had decided to do some armchair theologizing. The common kind we all engage in. We wonder about somebody else’s sins while ignoring our own. They got what they deserved, but we feel unfairly singled out. Or there’s the blame game, wondering whether God or people or both are responsible for some horrible event or unrelieved suffering. And all of this is typically done within the usual comfortable, convenient, conventional categories of unimaginative, settled religion.

Jesus, on the other hand, went for doing something instead of just standing around speculating. And, while he was at it, he wanted to remind the disciples and us that there may be more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in our philosophy, that there may be something going on that we have to step outside our shadowed boxes to see.

The action our Lord takes is a little strange. Why would Jesus make a mud pie and slap it on the man’s eyes? Why command him to go wash? Why not just say the word, and let the man be healed? The typical answer in commentaries is that miracle workers usually used some prop or other, and Jesus was simply following custom. But I think there’s much more to it than that, an answer that takes us all the way back to creation.

I’ll get to those thoughts in a few minutes. Right now, though, let’s move through this story, which is a drama in several scenes.

The blind man goes and washes as Jesus commanded and has his sight restored. A blessing, certainly, to see a sunset, a face, a scroll of the Torah. We can’t help but wonder, though, if the man begins to feel as if the blessing, for which he never asked, begins to turn into a curse.

In the first scene, the healed man goes back to the old neighborhood. Notice that the neighbors don’t rejoice with him, congratulate him, give thanks for him. They only argue. I suspect they’re uncomfortable with him now. They had him pegged, put in a slot reserved for “blind beggars,” with the usual procedures and rules about how you treat such people. But now what? He would certainly want a job. He was sure to seek a wife. He could learn to read the Torah. What if he discovered there the call for justice for the poor and left out? What if he became a leader in the community, with new ideas? Nobody wanted this new man. Give back the old one, the one we knew how to relate to, who knew his place by the side of the road. This is too much to deal with.

The man insists that he had been born blind, and interprets the questions of his neighbors to be about technique. He describes making clay and washing. As to Jesus’ whereabouts, he’s clueless. Jesus has left; he’s absent, in fact, for much of the story. We wonder if this is about more than just one man’s experience.

Obviously this is a case for the learned authorities. So as the next scene begins, the man is brought before the Pharisees. They’re divided at first. Some say a holy man would not ignore the Sabbath laws. That’s exactly what Jesus had done, in their opinion. Kneading, as one does with dough, was one of the thirty-nine things forbidden on the Sabbath day. Making clay out of mud and spit qualified as kneading. Also, healing and helping in an emergency was OK on the holy day, but surely this man could have waited one more day to get his eyes back. He’d been blind all his life; what possible difference could twenty-four hours make?

What mattered to these boxed-in, frightened men was not giving back a man his sight, as soon as possible. What was important was following the rules, respecting authority, getting official permission. Freedom, wholeness, and compassion for one of God’s beloved were not so important as who says so and what section of the regulations applied. Holiness equaled marking items on a checklist. Sin was bad behavior, violating protocol.

So desperate are the Pharisees to resolve the issue that they turn to the unlettered beggar for an answer. Notice that he now moves from “the man they call Jesus” to “he’s a prophet.” With his restored sight comes a dawning realization of who Jesus is. The man has not merely gotten back his vision, but his voice.

Next scene. The authorities find the man’s folks and haul them in for questioning. But they’re too scared of consequences to stand up for their son. They put the matter back on him. “He’s a grown-up,” they say. “Ask him.”

So basically abandoned by parents and not welcomed by neighbors, the man born blind is on his own before the Jewish authorities. They continue to quiz him. He stands on his experience against all the book learning of these men. He doesn’t know about the state of Jesus’ heart or character. But he can testify to one amazing thing: “I once was blind; now I see.”

The man’s insight continues to grow even as the Pharisees tie on another blindfold and grope for answers. They can’t fit the situation into their settled categories, so they badger the guy with the same questions.

By now the man has gained a great deal of courage and confidence. And here is where I see the significance of the mud put on his eyes by Jesus. It’s as if our Lord were saying that the man and all of us creatures of water and dust have the resources within ourselves to grow and gain insight. We can make up our own minds and follow the lead of our hearts. That is God’s gift to us, the essence of our humanity. God’s glory can be and is revealed in us; there are miracles in mud pies, epiphanies in clay pots. And in the washing of baptism, as in the man’s cleansing in the pool, we have our humanity given back to us.

So, filled with boldness by the Spirit now, the man testifies. He demolishes the arguments of the authorities with logic they can’t refute. He’s now added reason to experience.

That did it! Faced with an argument they can’t win, the Pharisees get mad. They question the circumstances of his birth and throw him out. We’re meant to understand that he is not merely removed from their sight, but is excommunicated, as we would say. He’s excluded by them from the worship of God. Ironic, since his testimony has been honoring to God and the One God sent. More proof that the Pharisees don’t get what God is doing.

The members of John’s community at the end of the first century AD would have identified strongly with the scene. They too had been excluded from the synagogue by that time, as Christians and Jews had locally gone their separate ways.

And that was a problem, especially since, like the blind man, the Christians would not be silent, having found their voice. As long as they were considered to be just another kind of Jew, they were free from Roman scrutiny. But now that it was clear that they were something different—a new religion—they would be subject to sanctions if they didn’t worship the emperor. Local persecution was a real possibility.

If they did suffer, what were they to make of it? How were they to understand it? The typical idea would have been that because they were suffering, they must be sinners. “Who sinned? This man or his parents, that he was born blind?” But this story proposes just the opposite. The man ended up alone, forsaken by all, excluded. Jesus is not even on the scene. The guy had been subjected to a grueling interrogation; he had been insulted and cast out. Yet, like the One who would become his Master, he was never more in accord with God’s will.

John would remind us that, yes, followers of Jesus have times of joy, assurance, and comfort. Sometimes churches are filled because the gospel is being preached, and people are hungry for the Truth. But he would insist that when we look at the larger picture, “everything’s goin’ my way” is not always a lyric Christians can sing.

Instead, the experience of the man born blind is more typical of the life of the believer. He didn’t ask to be healed, but was chosen by the Son of God as one through whom God’s work would be made known. Now he’s thrust onto center stage without having had so much as one acting class. His neighbors don’t know what to do with him. His parents won’t stand by him. The religious leaders get mad at him and call him names and throw him out of the house of worship. Finally, he’s on his own. His faith grows stronger, clearer, and more developed. But he’s alone, rejected by friends, family, and the religious establishment. Illumination, recovery of sight—and for the ancient Church, that was the effect of baptism—illumination often brings with it suffering.

That’s how it is to be a Christian living between Christmas and the Consummation. Especially if your experience and your very presence threaten those who claim to have everything figured out, who are in power, who want everything to go according to rules they made up, who believe they have a corner on interpreting the Bible. That’s how it is when your neighbors think you’re some sort of nut for sharing how Jesus has become the center of your life. That’s how it is when in the name of Christ and the gospel you challenge long-held traditions and doctrines. That’s how it is when in the name of Christ you speak out against injustice. That’s how it is when in the name of Christ you challenge the powers that be. You’re likely to be shut out, shut up, shut down. And you will be lonely and discouraged and disheartened.

Fortunately, the drama that is John 9 does not end on such a despairing note. There’s a wonderful and encouraging epilogue. Jesus comes back and seeks out the man he healed. Our Lord strengthens and vindicates the new disciple, bringing him to a new level of comprehension. Indeed, it’s only at this point in the story that the man born blind says “I believe.” His journey is complete.

So it is with the beleaguered believer and the Church struggling against great odds to proclaim an authentic gospel. People cling to power and prestige; such things are today’s favorite idols. They reject Truth as plain as the nose on your face because it would mean change. Therefore, we struggle now. Sometimes, often, we feel alone, and ask where God is, what God is doing. But there will come a day when Jesus will appear again to reveal himself fully and say a word of commendation to faithful servants. If there is peril in illumination, baptism, and witness, so is there great promise. Jesus will care for his own, leading them to a new place of faith and faithfulness.

It would be nice to end there. But there’s a footnote to the script that has to be read and heard. It’s a warning to the Church and the individual believer in every age as much as it was to recalcitrant Pharisees and skeptical neighbors in Jesus’ day. John knows that even the most iconoclastic and revolutionary movement can become the calcified, unmovable Establishment. What once was a dynamic movement of the Spirit can be threatened and frightened by new ways of thinking. It can want to silence prophets with a vision. It can seek secure certainty rather than relishing and inviting the ambiguity of faith (see John 3:8). It can work mightily and steadily and efficiently to quantify and box up/in what can’t be contained, what can only be apprehended by complete surrender of ourselves to the Divine.

So I say again: there is a solemn warning here for believers from fundamentalist to progressive and everywhere in between; a serious word for anyone and everyone in the Church who believes there is nothing more to see, nothing new to learn, nothing we can’t fit into our theological categories; who says, “we see, I see.” It’s this: the claim to know for certain blocks an encounter with the Truth, because the Truth who is Jesus Christ can never be fully known this side of heaven. The claim to clear sight with not a bit of distortion is a sure sign that we can see nothing at all, and our sin remains. As the old rock song had it: “If I claim to be a wise man, it surely means that I don’t know” (Kerry Livgren, “Carry On, My Wayward Son”).

May God keep us free from such arrogance! Let us remember the words of the late Marcus Borg, a renowned scholar: “The Christian life is a journey…that leads from blindness to sight, from being in the dark to being in the light…. a journey that leads from convention to compassion, from living our lives in accord with conventional values to living our lives in accord with the central biblical values of compassion and justice” (Days of Awe and Wonder, quoted in “News and Pews” from HarperOne). And may God help us be but humble witnesses to the Light, sharing what we have seen and heard, until that day when we bend the knee before our Lord and find clear sight at last.

Advertisements

From → Uncategorized

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: