the gospel of john 9:1-7, 17-41
for "preaching the plenary" at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, Oct. 8, 2018.
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The first thing Jesus does in this encounter is to denounce the connection between sin and disability. As soon as the disciples meet the man who was blind from birth, they ask Jesus whose sin caused this disability – the man or his parents? They presume cause-and-effect sin – that being blind had to be some punishment for past wrongdoing.
And Jesus answers that no one sinned. This man is not blind because of sin.
The man’s body also isn’t a passive illustration of God performing miracles, but instead is a model of how to react when we experience the healing and liberating power of God. The blind man is sent to wash in the pool of Siloam, and returns with vision. His body affirms God’s power in Jesus, with eyes newly opened.
The Pharisees don’t know what to do with this miracle, and don’t believe the man. He couldn’t be telling the truth about this event, because it’s a truth that would upend power-as-they-know-it. So they seek outside evidence of what happened, by asking the man’s parents.
His parents honored and feared the religious authority of the Pharisees. They keep a middle ground between dedication to the temple and dedication to their son. In doing this, affirming his transformation, but not backing up the explanation, they distance themselves from their son. They are not willing to shift their worldview for the risky new reality their son brings.
I find myself sad at his parent’s reaction, and also tender, and I imagine this is similar to how the man is feeling. Exasperated at them, joyous in the experience of Christ, wishing they were willing to change and grow with him, into a new kind of life. It reminds me of my mom, deeply loving and deeply loved, who still regularly misgenders me, because fully embracing my embodied gender would mean a loss of control of how she thinks the world works. And I understand that fear of loss, and still name my truths with her, hoping.
God has made us bodies of transformation. But for that change to take root, we need to renounce our illusions of control and power, and trust in lived experience.
Dissatisfied with the parent’s unhelpful answer, the Pharisees talk to the man yet again, trying to get him to call Jesus a sinner, to affirm their own views. It’s important to name that this is a tactic on the part of the Pharisees. They are trying to get the unnamed man to denounce Jesus with his new social capital. This is regularly played out in marginalized communities. When one group gains some power, the instinct is to turn around and inflict the same oppression that was just escaped, in order to protect their new status. However, the man has been so transformed through his encounter with the Divine that he refuses to enact worn-out power tactics.
His response to their claim Jesus is a sinner has a very straightforward logic to it. ‘I had been blind, now I’m not, this has literally never happened before, so how can this man be anyone but the Messiah?’ They ask again, hoping for a different answer, and, at this point, I’m picturing the man as a little annoyed, and a little snarky with his reply – “Here is an astonishing thing! You don’t know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes!”
The Pharisees refuse to be changed. They didn’t listen to this impoverished, disabled man before he could see, so why would they listen to him now, when doing so would uproot their power? Despite an actual, out-of-this-world miracle being performed in front of them, the Pharisees and the man’s parents cling to their own worldviews, and drive the man out of community.
Because what if they honored his experience? What if they allowed themselves to be changed? It would be a terrifying destabilization and loss of control. It is easier to drive him out, and hope people will forget about the miracle. Earthly power does everything it can in order to self-perpetuate, driving away those whose bodies tell a different story of how the world is, and how it could be. His parents and the Pharisees are acting out of fear, an emotion I am working to name more in my own life. Because I know how fear causes me to hold onto control as hard as I can, in ways that are often unhealthy, and distance me from God’s imagining of the world.
Jesus seeks the man out, and almost directly acknowledges that his healing is a metaphor. I can imagine Jesus tone saying, “those who think they can see”, in response to the Pharisees. Who think they know how the world works. How power works. When in reality, Jesus has been sent so that those without power and without privilege in the current systems, those on the margins, discarded, will be opened to a new way in Christ. The man’s body bears witness to both oppression and transformation, and that potential for change is a risk. His body and witness is evidence of God working through Jesus the Christ, working to birth a world where we can choose to release control for life, power structures for liberation, and hierarchies for accessibility.
Thanks be to God.