Saturday, April 2, 2011

Blind, Deaf--and Dumb

“Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” To this they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out. (John 9.32-34)

Madcap Chaos

The 1937 screwball classic Nothing Sacred kicks into high gear when a hoodwinked Manhattan reporter tries to save his career by chasing down a young Vermont woman allegedly dying from radiation poisoning. He has the finest intentions. He hopes to lionize her as a heroine, using her story as a cautionary tale of technology gone awry. When he reaches her village—a company town owned by a watch manufacturer—his reception is less than ideal. The local store manager tells him “they don’t want any scandal-mongering New Yorkers snooping around.” Adults turn up their noses, kids pelt him with slush from an ice wagon, and a tyke bolts through a picket gate to bite his leg. By the time he locates her, he realizes he can’t help her if he hangs around the village. So he whisks her to New York, where she melts the city’s cold heart and madcap chaos ensues. It turns out she’s as phony as the shyster who nearly ruined the writer by posing as a sultan. But dwelling on that aspect steers us from why I mention the film in relation to this Sunday’s Gospel: the healing of a man born blind in John 9.

Without diminishing its profundities, this extraordinary episode unfolds in a bizarrely comic manner that very much reminds me of Nothing Sacred. The chapter takes off quickly, initially presenting the blind man as an incidental character Jesus uses to make a bigger point. He’s with the disciples in Jerusalem when they notice the man and, since his blindness is congenital, they ask whose sin caused the condition, his or his parents’. “Neither,” Jesus says, explaining the man was born blind “so that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (v3) He goes on to say, “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.” (v4-5) Thus, the sole purpose for the man’s disability leads to this moment, when Jesus combines miracle and metaphor to verify His divinity. In a gesture indubitably meant to evoke humanity’s creation, Jesus spits on the ground to make mud, packs it on the man’s eyes (ergo, recreating them), and sends him to wash in the Pool of Siloam. The man returns with perfect sight—which would be great, except Jesus and the disciples are long gone, leaving him to deal with the madcap chaos that ensues.


John makes one thing clear right away: Jerusalem is a company town full of people who don’t like anyone upsetting the status quo. They’re not interested in rejoicing in the man’s miracle. They need to get to the bottom of things before the bosses show up. First, they confirm it’s the same guy who was born blind, since the whole thing may be a hoax. Next, they want the name of who’s behind it. But the man can’t identify who healed him. So they bring in the Pharisees, who get hung up on a huge detail the others miss. It’s the Sabbath. Whoever did this broke the rules! The whole thing’s crazy, as the anonymous Healer is a sinner and everybody knows sinners can’t work miracles. The Pharisees rustle up the man’s parents, asking if he’s really their son, if he truly was born blind, and if so, how is it he can see all of a sudden. “That’s our boy, alright,” they answer. “And he’s been blind since birth. But we have no idea how he’s cured or who did it. He’s an adult. Ask him.”

The comedy darkens. They recall the man for another grilling. After he sticks with his story, they resort to insults, basically asking, “Do you take us for idiots?” They accuse him of being Jesus’s disciple—a co-conspirator blindly following a sinner, nobody in their eyes. They pull rank, boasting, “We’re Moses’s disciples! God spoke to him. This Fellow? We don’t even know where He’s from.” But the once blind nobody sees through their religious darkness and blows them away with their own argument, which is crazy. “Nobody’s ever heard of opening the eyes of man born blind,” he says. “If this man weren’t from God, he could do nothing.” That does it. They won’t hear another word. They revert to the unenlightened myth that set off the uproar when the disciples asked whose sin is to blame for birth anomalies. The Pharisees bellow, “You were steeped in sin at birth. How dare you lecture us!” and they toss him out. If this were a screenplay instead of a Gospel, we might read:

Slowly fade to black, so the audience sorts out the irony. The man was blind since birth; the Pharisees are blind, deaf—and dumb—for life.

If this were a movie, it could end here. The irony is writ so large across the screen anything more would be anticlimactic. But since John is writing a sacred text about people who are gifted to misread sacred texts, he has more to do. News of the controversy has spread across Jerusalem (true to form for any company town) and Jesus comes looking for the man. He asks if the man believes in the Son of Man, i.e., the Messiah. The man replies he would if he knew who the Messiah was. Jesus says, “He is the one speaking to you,” and the man worships Jesus, saying, “Lord, I believe.” Here’s what Jesus tells him to believe: “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” (v39) Outraged Pharisees keeping tabs on the man, perhaps to uncover his Healer’s identity, ask, “What? Are we blind too?” Jesus ends with the perfect button—screenwriter parlance for a closing line that puts the entire story into perspective: “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.” (v41)

Scathing Satire

Most of us feel confident we know this story fairly well until we reread the full chapter and learn we only remember the first six verses, in which Jesus uses mud to cure the man’s congenital blindness. We may not even recall his condition is congenital or why that’s the linchpin for the entire story. As the narrative progresses—and we observe how screwy it gets, along with how cleverly John builds to a concluding statement that socks us in the gut—we start to sense why so many prefer to focus on the healing and leave it there.

The miracle is merely a set-up for a scathing satire on insular faith communities and leaders who’d rather not see, hear, and learn the truth that Christ’s light incontrovertibly exposes. They’d rather cling to myths about sin and Sabbaths—obsolete doctrines and rituals—than embrace the uncertainty and faith the cured man witnesses by saying, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” (v25) When we say that, we confess we aren’t wise enough to predict what Christ will do, whom He will save, and how He will work.

Opening our eyes, ears, and minds to Christ’s light opens our lives to His justice, which insists no one is shaped or hobbled by sin, that everyone is created from birth to display the works of God. Jesus, the Light of the World, demonstrates God’s power of recreation. Alleged anomalies—sexual orientation, inherent sensibilities, purported inferiorities, and so on—that we’ve lived with our whole lives are merely seeds of life-changing renewal. “Sin” has nothing to do with our making. It’s the chosen occupation of those who choose to be deaf, blind—and dumb—for life. In the end, madcap chaos and lunacy we endure due to small-minded, religiously benighted communities and leaders are secondary. Jesus finds us, reveals His true identity, and we worship Him, saying, “Lord, I believe.”

Sin is the chosen occupation of those who won’t see, hear, and learn the truth that Christ’s light incontrovertibly exposes.

Postscript: Company Town

Here's the sequence from Nothing Sacred that set me down the path of viewing John 9 as a satire. It's hard not to imagine that many of the provincial, fearful attitudes lampooned in this movie aren't similar to those Jesus confronted in Jerusalem--a company town if ever one existed.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Esteeming Grace

For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. (1 Corinthians 15.9-10)

Significant Costs

Our church’s Lenten Bible study rounded a major corner this week, as the 40-Day Journey with Dietrich Bonhoeffer turned our thoughts from the disciplines of discipleship set forth in The Beatitudes to properly evaluating God’s grace. Although Bonhoeffer’s terminology has become common among theologians and seminarians, it was new—and somewhat unsettling—to us. He writes, “Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace.” (p52) Cheap grace? Costly grace? Affixing financial modifiers to grace seems inappropriate, since it’s a priceless gift. That’s the paradox of grace: while it’s too great to be earned by good deeds or moral virtue, it’s offered to all. And, ironically, its being beyond our means is what causes us to undervalue it. We cheapen grace by treating it like carte blanche to persist in harmful habits because we know God’s grace will always be abundantly available. Yet grace is anything but a license to ill. Its primary purpose is enabling correction.

Grace clears our slates so we can replace unhealthy attitudes and behaviors with those that please and reflect our Maker. Thus, it’s given freely, without favor; yet in accepting God’s gift of grace, we assume significant costs: self-honesty by confession of sin; repentance that renounces wrongdoing; constant discipline and awareness to follow Christ faithfully; and active obedience that transcends lip-service to Christ’s principles and commands. In the final analysis, grace may be free, but it sure ain’t cheap. Its demands are costly and entail many sacrifices.

Nothing and Everything; Everything and Nothing

God’s gift of grace is the crux of Jesus’s message, and it’s impossible for us to comprehend how absurd the concept strikes those who first hear of it. Like all ancient worshipers, they pay for wrongs via specific animal sacrifices mandated for two classes of guilt: moral trespasses and physical impurity. Trespass offerings require a sacrificial ram—symbolizing one’s social and financial stability—to make restitution for losses inflicted on others. Sin offerings secure forgiveness and purification on a sliding scale; prices range from a young bull for high priests to one-tenth a bushel of fine flour for very poor people. Both trespasses and sins are assumed to be unintentional errors. Intentional crimes are adjudicated per a labyrinthine penal code that exacts extremely brutal punishments. Thus, when Jesus talks about God’s unconditional love and grace—a God Who gives rather than demands—He unravels the fabric of Jewish worship and society. That’s why we often hear disciples and listeners question how this works. Freely given forgiveness and mercy sound improbable to them. There must be a price. And there is, which is why Jesus repeatedly emphasizes how costly grace is. Because nothing about us can possibly earn God’s love and forgiveness, grace costs us everything. Or, as Jesus puts it in one of many similar statements, “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 10.39)

When Jesus introduces the concept of grace—which He teaches relentlessly and ultimately ensures by sacrificing His life—it’s so revolutionary it has no name. Although Luke 2.40 says from childhood Jesus “was filled wisdom, and the grace of God was on him,” and John 1.14 declares Him “full of grace,” none of the Gospels cites any instance when the actual term passes His lips. It’s only after Early Church leaders consolidate Jesus’s words, life, death, and resurrection into a unified doctrine that “grace” enters Christian usage. No surprise, Paul rallies as its greatest champion. (Of the 124 times the Bible mentions grace, 80 are credited to him.) Virtually every statement he utters in the Book of Acts and every sentence he pens circle back to God’s grace and our responsibilities as its recipients. His confidence and enthusiasm know no bounds because he, above all Apostles, knows from experience that God’s grace is boundless. As he confesses in 1 Corinthians 15.9-10, “For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.” From the moment Christ halts him on the Damascus road to his dying breath, God’s grace flabbergasts Paul. He owes everything to grace and nothing it costs is too much to pay.

The Riches of God’s Grace

Esteeming grace becomes Paul’s lifelong theme, while inspiring all believers to do likewise becomes his life’s mission. One marvels at the passion in passages like Ephesians 2.4-8: “Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive in Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.” Love, mercy, life, acceptance, honor, kindness—the riches of God’s grace are not to be cheapened by underestimating them. Nearly as often as he extols grace’s inexhaustible wealth, Paul insists there’s no excuse for abusing it; knowing God’s love and forgiveness know no bounds isn’t our ticket to do as we please. After five chapters of reveling in God’s grace, he begins Romans 6 by posing and answering a hypothetical question: “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?” In other word's God's grace doesn't free us to sin. It frees us from sin.

Lent is traditionally regarded as a season of penitence, when the desert’s harsh solitude sets our failures and frailties in sharp relief and we confess them to God. This is an invaluable pursuit that every believer should practice every day of the year, not merely 40 of 365. The self-honesty predicating sincere penitence unlocks grace’s treasures. “If we confess our sins,” 1 John 1.9 tells us, God “is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” At the same time, it accounts for costs we incur as recipients of grace: conscious repentance that renounces sorry attitudes and behaviors, fervent obedience to Christ’s commands to love God and our neighbors, and the disciplines of true discipleship. Esteeming grace always, never underestimating its riches, keeps us mindful it sure ain’t cheap. Yet how could we possibly believe it’s not worth the price? We owe everything to grace and nothing it costs is too much to pay.

God’s grace is a paradox. While it’s freely offered to all, those who accept it incur significant costs.

Monday, March 28, 2011

When No One's Around

Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well. It was about noon. When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Will you give me a drink?” (John 4.6-7)

With gratitude to Rev. Larissa Kwong Abazia, whose sermon, “Living Water,” inspired this reflection.

The Perfect Time

John’s account of Jesus’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well is packed with revealing details. As a Jewish man conversing openly with a Samaritan woman, Jesus flouts every conceivable taboo and debunks the myth that Jews have exclusive rights to God’s love and acceptance. That would be plenty on its own. But Jesus also demonstrates the difference between knowing a person’s history and judging his/her character by it. He tells the woman He’s aware she’s been married five times and now lives with a sixth man. Yet He neither questions nor condemns her. When she tactfully changes the subject to their differing beliefs, He blows the lid off sectarianism by radically redefining worship. He says, “A time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.” (John 4.23-24) The woman says she too believes the Messiah will revolutionize worship, whereupon Jesus reveals His identity, something He’s never disclosed to anyone—and will be reticent to admit thereafter. “I, the one speaking to you—I am he,” He says. (v26)

There are enough breakthroughs in this synopsis to leave us breathless. Before looking at the core of their conversation, Jesus’s promise of living water, we should note a few added details. Because—unlike the other Gospel writers, who paint their scenes with a few strokes and zero in on the big points—John lingers over specifics to endow his narrative with meaning we’d otherwise miss. Here, he tips us off to several crucial facts. Jesus and the disciples are taking a shortcut through Samaria, a calculated risk, since hostility between Jews and Samaritans raises prospects they’ll be viewed suspiciously. Jesus is road-weary and hungry. With the disciples off buying food, He sits at Jacob’s well—a bold gesture, as Jews bitterly contest Samaritans’ claim to be Jacob’s descendants also. Finally, it’s about noon, the hottest time of day. The morning chores are done and what’s left waits for the cool of the afternoon, when the well will get busy with women drawing water to cook and wash up before bed. For now, Jesus is alone—until a woman comes to the well. Suddenly, incidental mention of the hour acquires major importance. Only someone avoiding her neighbors draws water in the heat of the day. This profoundly touches Jesus. Meeting this lady when no one’s around provides the perfect time for Him to fix her situation.

Truth and Mercy

Jesus doesn’t bother with assessing the woman’s mood or sensibilities. As they are, their circumstances crackle with volatility. He stuns her by requesting the unthinkable: “Will you give me a drink?” Her jaw drops. “How can you, a Jew, ask that of me, a Samaritan?” she replies. (The basic protocol breached by a man addressing a woman in public is a given.) Jesus tells her if she knew Who He was, she’d give Him water and, in exchange, He’d give her living water. Before asking what He means, she reminds Him of a pragmatic issue that prevents her from honoring His request. He has nothing to draw with. Jews and Samaritans don’t drink from the same vessel, and the well is too deep for her to scoop up some water and pour into His hands. Then she asks where “living water” comes from. Jesus answers, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst.” (v13-14) John doesn’t confirm the woman understands what Jesus is saying. It’s unlikely she does. But, if nothing else, never thirsting again will relieve her need to draw water in the noonday sun. “Give me this water!” she says.

Jesus knows exactly what He’s offering. He’s going to heal the woman’s self-confidence and restore her reputation so she’ll be welcome at the well when those who presently scorn her are there. He adeptly shifts the discussion from what the woman wants to who she is. He tells her to get her husband and come back to the well. Since Jesus is a foreigner, she very easily could fabricate a reason why her husband is unavailable. Yet she truthfully confesses, “I don’t have a husband,” validating what anyone who saw a woman drawing water at noon would presume. Yet there’s a problem: if she attributes anything Jesus says to guesswork, all of His words can be explained away. So He lays out her life story—without blinking an eye. The combination of truth and mercy amazes her. “I can see you are a prophet,” she says. (v19) Jesus knows who she is, and she thinks she knows Who He is. As a prophet, His interests focus on spiritual matters, not village scuttlebutt. She engages Him in theological talk, which inspires Him to reveal He is more than a prophet. He’s God’s Son, sent to bring truth and mercy to a world obsessed with pretense and judgment.

High Noon At the Well

What we see at the well are two outsiders. One, for reasons never explained, has never enjoyed marital stability. Most readers assume she’s a serial divorcée and hence, by ancient moral standards, an adulterer. Yet we can’t rule out the possibility she’s been widowed five times; no longer a viable bride, she may have taken a lover to provide her protection and companionship in middle age. Her rejection at the well may be fairly recent, due to her current arrangement. Whatever brings her to the well at noon, there she meets a ragtag Rabbi Whose true identity compels Him to buck religious traditions and ignore social taboos. Jesus sits by the well at noon, tired, hungry, and thirsty, because He has nowhere else to go. He’s as much a pariah as she. And in those quiet, uncomfortably hot moments when no one’s around, not only does He reveal that He knows everything about this alienated lady (yet doesn’t’ judge her). He reveals everything she should know about Him. Her encounter with Truth and Mercy Incarnate restores her confidence and self-respect. She goes into the village and invites the neighbors who’ve rejected her to the well. “Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. Could this be the Messiah?” she says.

So it is for all of us who, for one reason or another, trudge to the well in the heat of the day—looking to quench our thirst for life and sustain our faith. Prime time isn’t our time. We’ve come to the well then, only to be told we’re not welcome. But high noon at the well is the perfect time. That’s when we meet another Outsider. He knows everything about us. He neither questions nor condemns us. He talks to us as one Outsider to another. The truth and mercy in His words revive us and restore our confidence and self-respect. But most of all, He entrusts us with full knowledge of Who He truly is. The encounter with Jesus so changes us we invite the very neighbors who pushed us aside to the well and say, “Come, see a Man Who told me everything I ever did!” Some will come. Many will not. Nonetheless, what happens at high noon at the well changes how we view the well. It’s no longer their well, or the patriarch’s well, a Catholic well or a Protestant one. It’s our well, where we first tasted living water that forever changed our lives. We will never thirst again.

The well at noonday, when no one’s around, is where and when we find out Jesus knows all about us and Who Christ really is.

Postscript: “The Woman at the Well”

In her sermon, Larissa referred to this video—a monologue by the woman at the well—that shakes us with the realities of what transpires when we encounter Christ. “To be known is to be loved,” she says, “and to be loved is to be known.”