OK, so what’s up with that story? Jesus gives sight to a man who has lived his whole life in darkness, and the reaction of everyone around him is “Whoa, was this authorized? Can’t have that!” Not, “Wow, what amazing power! Praise God! We need to get to know this Jesus,” but “Sounds suspicious! We object! Throw the bums out!”
Now it must be noted that in the context of the early Christian community for whom John’s Gospel was written, this story was a reflection of the conflict between church and synagogue, between the followers of Jesus and their own kinspeople who did not recognize Jesus as Messiah. They were all Jews, and the John’s community was experiencing expulsion from the synagogue – where they wanted to stay! – for what the majority perceived to be heresy. That’s the setting for the seeming antipathy for “the Jews” in John, a family quarrel which has tragically been misinterpreted to lead to terrible Christian persecutions of Jews through the centuries, to our collective shame.
But the significance of this story is not stuck in the first century. What is it about the new, surprising, unexpected – no matter how joyous – that causes us to react with caution and even panic? Why outrage and opposition and not delight, empathy, rejoicing; ‘we have to stop this guy Jesus’ instead of ‘I want me some of that’?
The unnamed man had been blind since birth, a beggar. It’s no wonder that people couldn’t believe their own eyes when he showed up able to see, since the characteristic that had singled him out his whole life was gone. How often do we focus primarily on the things about one another that make us different, rather than what we hold in common? How often do we define others by their supposed disabilities and deficiencies, and not by their humanity?
A man born blind now can see – if the way it’s always been isn’t, anymore, then what’s become of the world? I guess it’s not all that surprising that this would be hard to take in. We’re all attached to our assumptions; we need some sense of certainty about how the world works, and don’t take kindly to having those sureties challenged. Add to that the boost in our psychological security of presuming that we, or at least the institutions we rely on, are in charge of managing how the world works, and yes, the disruption is shocking. We trust in the way things are, with extra credit if we can imagine we have influence over it, and trusting the way things are can leave little room for trusting God.
They all thought they knew everything there was to know about him – but the blind man was blind no more, and they couldn’t handle the change. His community, his religion, even his own family all failed the man: refusing to rejoice with him, abandoning him, turning on him with accusations – how can a hopeless sinner like you have any hope of teaching us anything? – finally even casting him out.
This passage drew my attention because it seems so painfully descriptive of much of our society these days. Something we don’t quite understand? Must be sinister and threatening! An idea that challenges my own? Attack and criticize. An apparently popular genre of entertainment called “reality television” seems primarily to feature cutthroat competition and shaming. There’s an anxious attitude abroad in this nation, it seems to me, a resentment being fostered that there’s not enough to go around and someone else might be getting a bigger piece of the pie than they deserve. I am reminded of the analysis of linguist and political observer George Lakoff [Don’t Think of an Elephant!], who observes that there is a philosophy prevalent among many Americans that he terms the “strict father” metaphor. Here’s how he describes it:
The world is a dangerous place, and it always will be, because there is evil out there in the world. The world is also difficult because it is competitive. There will always be winners and losers. There is an absolute right and an absolute wrong… What is required of the child is obedience… When children do something wrong, if they are physically disciplined they will learn not to do it again… and develop internal discipline. Without such punishment, the world will go to hell. There will be no morality…
If people are disciplined and pursue their self-interest in this land of opportunity, they will become prosperous and self-reliant… If everyone pursues her own self-interest, then by the invisible hand, by nature, the self-interest of all will be maximized. That is, it is moral to pursue your self-interest, and there is a name for people who do not do it. The name is do-gooder. A do-gooder is someone who is trying to help someone else rather than herself and is getting in the way of those who are pursuing their self-interest. Do-gooders screw up the system…
A good person – a moral person – is someone who is disciplined enough to be obedient,… and to pursue her self-interest to prosper and become self-reliant… When the children are mature, they either have learned discipline and can prosper, or have failed to learn it. From this point on the strict father is not to meddle in their lives.
This translates politically into no government meddling. Consider what all this means for social programs. It is immoral to give people things they have not earned, because then they will not develop discipline and will become both dependent and immoral… What you have to do is reward the good people – the ones whose prosperity reveals their discipline and hence their capacity for morality – with a tax cut, and make it big enough that there is not enough money left for social programs.
That’s how Lakoff describes the ‘strict father’ worldview. Related assumptions: There’s a moral order, people get what they deserve, and because that’s true we have some control over our lives. If there is a moral reason for other people’s suffering, then we can blame it on them and reject any responsibility to alleviate it. If there is a moral reason for suffering, then we can assume our place in relation to others in the hierarchy of righteousness. If there is a moral reason for suffering, then we can convince ourselves that we are not at the whim of chance. The world seems safer when people get what they deserve.
“Teacher, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” There has to be a moral reason, and it screws up the system to go interfering with the way things are. Now obviously, sometimes suffering is the result of sin. But as a universal explanation, Jesus doesn’t accept the premise of the question, and that’s a danger to the worldview that underlies the premise.
Furthermore, it’s not the place of this upstart Jesus to mess with the natural order; the privilege of defining sin is the prerogative of the establishment. “How were your eyes opened?… Where is the man who did it?… We don’t know where he comes from!… He can’t come from God, he doesn’t observe the Sabbath!… He is a sinner!… And don’t talk back to us, you’re a sinner too!” Translation: We control the system, and the system controls the goods. First reaction to anything challenging our control: criticize, debunk, attack, punish.
It’s playing out politically in the budget and other battles we read about daily. One of the interesting theological manifestations in current discussion centers on the well-known evangelical pastor of a mega-church in Michigan, Rob Bell, who has touched off a controversy with a new book entitled “Love Wins.” Bell’s critics accuse him of heresy for questioning whether God really condemns untold billions to eternal agony in hell, and the thought has some Christians enraged. Unmerited, unauthorized gifts of God, available to people not on our list? Can’t have that! A lawbreaker can’t be legitimately from God! Anyone who doesn’t observe the rules must be denounced, silenced, expelled.
I will admit: what grabbed me about this lesson was the analogy I saw between the antagonists of the blind man and Jesus and those who hold what Lakoff calls the strict father worldview, whether it’s politics or religion and it’s often both. I am reasonably convinced that this worldview is screwing up the nation and the church, and I spend most of my time struggling against it – it’s my day job, even, and the passion that moves me. Jesus’ critics are so cramped, stingy, grouchy, even cruel – it’s a set-up for promoting an alternative that celebrates inclusion of the marginalized, abundance and healing, compassion and grace, transformation and joy.
But. When your interpretation of the Bible conveniently condemns the people you disagree with and pats your own attitudes on the back, there’s just about a 100% chance that you’ve fallen into the same self-righteousness trap that the passage itself illustrates.
And so I need to do some self-examination: Since this lesson is a challenge to control freaks who hate to be wrong, why would I think that I am not included? Do I approach situations looking first for who’s to blame, rather than for how God might be present to bring healing and light? How often is my first reaction criticism, or the denial that God could be working where I don’t recognize, or resistance to challenges to my preconceived notions? Do I need to have everything make sense morally, everyone get what they deserve, rather than trusting God who sees more than I can ever imagine? Am I open to God’s initiative – even from unauthorized quarters? – or am I insistent on clinging to a tradition, a teaching, a custom at variance with Jesus’ will to enlighten and heal even those of whom I disapprove? In my heart of hearts, do I think the world would be better off if I were in charge? Am I overly confident that I understand the mysteries?
“If you were blind, you would not have sin,” Jesus says. “But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” Anybody who thinks they have God and God’s world all figured out, contained in a nice, neat system or theory, is most definitely wrong. Like the suddenly-seeing man, we do well not to claim we know it all – and can only testify in humility to what we do know from our own encounter with the holy in Jesus Christ.
So, here’s my sermon to myself, and if in overhearing you recognize anything that might shine some light in your own life, so much the better:
• Beware of getting stuck in your comfortable framework, or thinking that God can be contained in it.
• Be aware, in every encounter, of the presence of God in Jesus Christ – especially if it seems unlikely.
• Beware of imagining that you have the authority to judge the reality of another’s blessing, for those who position themselves as judges of others bring themselves under judgment.
• Be aware that the most important question we can ask in any situation is not ‘how does this advance my agenda?’, but ‘what do I see in the light of Christ, and how can I testify to the light?’
• Beware of constantly finding fault, of living as a critic listening more for weaknesses to attack than for truth that might change you.
• Be aware of and concentrate on the most charitable possible interpretation of the choices with which you disagree, and practice looking first for the good in those who oppose you.
This is a story of progressively deepening faith on the part of the no-longer-blind-man, as he stubbornly trusts his own encounters with Jesus despite constant pressures from everyone around him to conform to their expectations. The one who brought light to his world went, in this new disciple’s understanding, from simply a ‘man called Jesus,’ to ‘a prophet,’ to one who comes ‘from God,’ to the Son of Man to be worshipped. The invitation to stay engaged with Jesus, to deepen our own faith, is ever before us as well. Some are blinded by the light – others reflect it back into the world. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that we each have our blindnesses, and our potential to shine. Jesus Christ, light of the world, is seeking us out. Listen, look, believe, worship.