And now I see...
And Now I See...
John 9: 1-41, performed as dramatic monologue
There are lots of things that we could explore in this passage, but I want to pick up especially on what's going on for the Pharisees. Because probably, even though Pharisees have a bad reputation, I would say that most of us who have been around the church long enough are more like Pharisees than we like to think. That is, we have settled into certain ideas about who Jesus was and is, and about what the Christian life is and isn't. And it takes quite a bit to shift us into a different viewpoint.
What I see going on in this story is the Pharisees being confronted with a challenge to their religious paradigm, a challenge to the stuff that they'd already decided was important to their religion. And it's a challenge that they're unable to accept even when all the evidence stacks up in favour of the new thing that is happening.
Jesus heals a blind man. An amazing miracle. He's taken a man who was forced to sit on the side of the road and beg, and given him a whole new life. The man is so transformed that his neighbours don't even recognise him. This man has been set free - surely a cause for celebration, wonder, delight. What kind of empathy removal process has occurred for the Pharisees that all that they can do in response to this glorious event, is try to find ways to say it hasn't happened, or that the person who did it couldn't possibly have done it?
The story tells us that the religious teachers had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Having already decided that Jesus is a sinner, they have to come up with ways to ignore or dispute the miracle he's done. 'This man is not from God because he does not observe the Sabbath,' they say. They ask the man what happened. They don't like the answer. They ask his parents to verify it. They don't like the answer.
So then they go to the man again saying, 'Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner'. Basically, they're saying: 'We want you to tell a different story about what happened to you...we need you to say how you have been healed in a way that fits with what we already think. And if you don't tell us what we want to hear, we will find a way to discredit and reject you.'
Does this feel like a familiar kind of interchange? Maybe you've heard this sort of thing if you've seen or been on the receiving end of workplace bullying, or church abuse. This dynamic also reminds me of how political debates tend to play out, especially over things like environmental issues, or where large commercial interests are being threatened by evidence that exposes their misconduct.
So anyway, with dogged persistence, and maybe a little bit of cheek, the man says 'I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?' That really gets up the Pharisees' noses...they revile the man and drive him out of the synagogue saying 'we are disciples of Moses'...that is, we know who and what we trust and we will not consider the possibility that someone from outside our framework could have anything to show us. In the end, they abuse the man with the statement 'you were born entirely in sins' - an accusation that Jesus has explicitly rejected in conversation with his disciples. That is, that the reason that the man was born blind in the first place is because of someone's sin. The Pharisees had a belief system that claimed that all misfortune is punishment from God. Within this closed belief system, they have no room for a miracle that demonstrates God's grace and favour toward someone they thought was condemned. Even less can they cope with someone they considered worthless being direct and honest in the face of their desperate manoeuvring.
For the Pharisees, because Jesus doesn't fit their expectations in certain ways - such as his acts of compassion on the Sabbath, his violation of the purity code - he cannot possibly be from God. Especially when what he teaches undermines their authority over the people.
This is where 'blindness' becomes a metaphor in this story. The man who was healed was physically unable to see, but as soon as he experienced what Jesus had to offer, he worshipped him. His eyes were blind but his heart could see. The Pharisees on the other hand, while they could see perfectly well out their eyes, had such a specific grid through which to view the world that they could barely recognise anything at all, especially if it hovered on the edges of what they were predisposed to accept. Their hearts were made blind by their closed position on religion.
This story connects to another story in the book of Acts in the Bible, to do with the spread of the new Christian faith to the Gentiles...that is, people outside the Jewish religion. Peter is called to the house of Cornelius, a God-fearing Roman. And as Peter speaks to Cornelius' friends and relatives about Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes on them in the same way as the Jewish disciples had experienced. After this, Peter baptises them with water, saying 'Can anyone withhold the water for baptising these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?' Peter's Jewish colleagues criticize him for consorting with Gentiles because this wasn't allowed under Jewish law...and these early Jewish Christians were still trying to figure out what aspects of their religion they were meant to keep hold of while following the Christ. Peter would probably never have gone to Cornelius' house except for the fact that his heart was prepared by God's Spirit by way of a vision. But this event was crucial to the realisation that God's salvation is meant for all people, not just the Jews.
This story is kind of an inverse parallel to the story in John. Here we have a Jewish follower of Jesus confronted with an event well outside his paradigm...Non-Jewish people receiving the Holy Spirit. However, unlike the Pharisees in the story of the blind man, Peter is ready to have his preconceived ideas expanded and challenged, to embrace the possibility that God's plan is bigger and stranger than he could ever have believed. It is only through the Spirit's work in Peter's own life that he is softened and opened to accept this newness. He has eyes to see God where a closed Jewish outlook would have seen only outsiders. Both of these stories contain within them the claim - either accepted or rejected - that God works outside and beyond the framework of our religiously closed circuits.
God's Spirit is in the world bringing grace and healing, and this is happening outside the church, outside the Christian religion, outside any religion, as well as within religious communities, and within the church.
The question for us now is, are we more like Peter, or the Pharisees? Do we believe that God is active outside the Christian faith as we understand it? Is God at work in and through the lives of people we disapprove of? When confronted with an event that asks us to change our religious convictions, do we open to the new, or do we marshal all our theology in defence of what we already believe?
Cynthia Bourgeault in her book on Jesus talks about Jesus as a 'recognition event'. Our experience of Jesus is highly coloured by the confession of Jesus' followers in the Bible. We get to see Jesus through the lens of those who recognised him. The story of Jesus in the Bible is written by those who proclaim him as the Messiah. But for those at the time, the Pharisees and others, they were just confronted with a guy wandering around doing stuff, and saying stuff that hugely challenged their existing ideas, and that offended their religious sensibilities. Everyone who meets Jesus in the Gospels has a decision to make - do they recognise Jesus as the presence of the Divine...the Holy One come among them as a human person? Or do they reject him as a fraud? One of the things that Bourgeault says is that Christians tend to assume that if we met Jesus today we would recognise him. Would we? Do we know what life looks like when we see it? Are our hearts so shaped by God that we are attuned to what God's presence looks like when it appears in the world around us?
Let's return to this story of the blind man...We tend to be highly critical of the Pharisees, and indeed, that's the way that the Gospel writers want us to react. But I don't think that the Pharisees are any different from good solid churchgoing Christian folk, who have been shaped over years of belief, to feel as though we know and understand what God is about in the world, and what things are and are not 'of God.' We probably all have a story of ways that this perspective has affected us...and also of ways that we have thought and argued like the Pharisees.
Usually, it's when we feel slightly marginal to some aspect of Christian orthodoxy that we notice the defensiveness of it. In my own case I've felt it most strongly being in churches and student Christian environments where women could not speak or hold positions of leadership, despite their obvious gifting and sense of call. I feel it now when I encounter Christians who are so hung up on morality issues that they can't extend hospitality or compassion towards those whose lifestyles they disagree with, or who compound people's struggle by exercising 'church discipline' against people who are enmeshed in painful, harmful situations. Usually, it's people who have power within religious structures that want to protect and enact that power by determining what the rules, or the acceptable ideas are, and we have many strategies up our sleeves to undermine anything that doesn't fit in with our version of how things ought to be. Even when it's God who's at work in the thing we're fighting against.
I act as a Pharisee whenever I deny or simply fail to see, the loving, healing work of God in circumstances where I don't expect. Or when I feel like I've become so familiar with a person and their default behaviours that I no longer hear what they say, or create room for the possibility that they might change. I act as a Pharisee when I rest in my convictions, and find it faster and easier to criticise or dismiss a new thing, than to see how my own paradigm needs to enlarge.
Let's take a moment to consider four questions:
When have I experienced a Christian person's refusal to see God's presence in me or in something that matters to me?
When have I failed to recognise God's life in a person or situation because it didn't fit with what I believed?
How do I learn to see and recognise Christ in the world, even in unexpected people and places?
To what extent am I capable of being surprised and changed by a new experience, or new information?
If time, discuss/share answers to any of these questions.