Liz: Today’s Scripture reading comes from the Gospel of John, chapter 9, verses 1-41. I’ve got some help from Ron, Robert, Kay, and Pastor Dexter today to help this long reading come to life! Let us open to all the Spirit has to say to us today.
As he [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth.
2His disciples asked him,
Dexter: ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’
Ron: ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. 4We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. 5As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’
Liz: 6When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, 7saying to him,
Ron: ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’
Liz: (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. 8The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask,
Dexter: ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’
Liz: 9Some were saying,
Dexter: ‘It is he.’
Liz: Others were saying,
Dexter: ‘No, but it is someone like him.’
Robert: ‘I am the man.’
Liz: 10But they kept asking him,
Dexter: ‘Then how were your eyes opened?’
Robert:‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, “Go to Siloam and wash.” Then I went and washed and received my sight.’
Dexter: ‘Where is he?’
Robert: ‘I do not know.’
Liz: 13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them,
Robert: ‘He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.’
Liz: 16Some of the Pharisees said,
Dexter: ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.’
Liz: But others said,
Dexter: ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’
Liz: And they were divided. 17So they said again to the blind man,
Dexter: ‘What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.’
Robert: ‘He is a prophet.’
Liz: 18 The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight 19and asked them,
Dexter: ‘Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?’
Kay: ‘We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; 21but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.’
Liz: 22His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. 23Therefore his parents said,
Kay” ‘He is of age; ask him.’
Liz: 24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him,
Dexter: ‘Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.’
Robert: ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’
Dexter: ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?’
Robert: ‘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?’
Liz: 28Then they reviled him, saying,
Dexter: ‘You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.’
Robert: ‘Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. 32Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.’
Dexter: ‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?’
Liz: And they drove him out.
35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said,
Ron: ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’
Robert: ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’
Ron: ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’
Robert: ‘Lord, I believe.’
Liz: And he worshiped him. 39Jesus said,
Ron: ‘I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’
Liz: 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him,
Dexter: ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’
Ron: ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.
This is the Word of God. Thanks be to God.
So, I learned a bunch of things about this text I had never heard before as I read one of my newer resources – The Jewish Annotated New Testament. In this volume, Jewish scholars give context for the New Testament in solid study about the realities of 1st century Judaism. This way, we don’t build our understandings of texts like the Gospel of John on a bunch of anti-Jewish misinformation that has dominated Christian theology for centuries. Here are some things I learned about problems with how John narrates this story of Jesus giving the man born blind sight.
- There is no historical evidence outside the Gospel of John that would suggest that the Pharisees would ever hold court like this on the Sabbath.
- There is also no evidence that synagogues would “cast someone out” because of their belief in Jesus’ claims to be the Messiah. For example, in the 130s CE, a man named Simeon Bar Kosiba was thought to be the Messiah by Rabbi Akiva, and no one kicked Rabbi Akiva out of the Jewish community for this belief.
- John kind of goes back and forth in how he names those interrogating the man born blind who could now see. He seems to use “the Pharisees” and “the Jews” interchangeably. By doing this, he lumps diverse Jewish communities together, erasing their complexity and nuance. And – he repeats the phrase “the Jews” over 70 times in this Gospel, almost always putting them in opposition to Jesus. This leads us – the reader – to think that Jesus and the Jews were mortal enemies. But Jesus was a Jew! He was part of this theologically diverse, complex tradition, one that had space for the Pharisees and Sadducees, who didn’t agree about the resurrection of the body, one that had space for the writers of the Dead Sea Scrolls, who believed some very different things from their Jewish peers. All of them were, together, part of the diverse landscape of 1st century Jewish life, but John does not seem interested in telling that story.
In these ways – and more – John seems hell bent on misrepresenting 1st century Judaism in the way he narrates. And, while he would have had no way of knowing this, that kind of anti-Jewish bias has fueled antisemitism for centuries after his writing. It was common parlance in my faith tradition growing up to hear that the Jews were responsible for killing Jesus. That’s just one example of how our Jewish siblings have been scapegoated by Christians in power throughout history, leading to horrific acts of violence against them, from the genocide of the Holocuast to white nationalist gunmen who shoot up synagogues to the antisemitic flyers that a far-right group left in driveways in the Old Westside just last month.
Why does John insist on telling this story in this way? As is the case whenever we see someone causing harm, context helps us understand. We don’t know much about the community John was writing to, but one piece of information is notable to me. Scholars believe that John’s community was probably very diverse, inclusive of Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles. So, John was probably trying to find some way to unite them across their lines of difference, to help them belong to each other as a community of Christians. And I have to wonder if that is why he bends over backwards to give them a common enemy in “the Jews.” Throughout his Gospel, and even in the text this morning, John wants us to see non-Christ-confessing Jews as “the bad ones,” using language like “darkness, flesh, death and the devil” in reference to Jewish folx who won’t follow Jesus, while using words like “light, spirit, life, and God” to talk about Jesus and his followers. (“Children of the Devil (Jn 8.44),” The Jewish Annotated New Testament: Second Edition – Fully Revised and Expanded, pg. 194.) John is taking a shortcut to solidarity – rallying his people around who they are against as a way to give them a common identity.
Oh, the harm we do to each other and ourselves when we try to find belonging in a common group of people to hate. People hoarding power and resources know this. It’s why they pit us against one another, making us fight each other over the scraps under the table while they feast on the kind of wealth that – if shared – could feed the world. They know that if they can keep us fighting amongst ourselves, we won’t have energy or clarity to fight the real source of the problem – their greed!
I believe John is seeking – our word for Lent – as he tells this story. John is seeking belonging. And goodness, do I understand that. I am seeking belonging. I imagine you are seeking belonging. It’s a part of being human. We were made to belong to each other. Maybe that’s why the real “healing” in this text doesn’t seem to be about the man born blind. Not only does Jesus resist the premise of the disciples’ question about sin causing someone’s disability, a message able-bodied folx everywhere should hear loud and clear as a call to honor the agency and leadership of disabled folx in creating a truly just and accessible world. But we should also notice that the man born blind being given sight happens at the very beginning of this story, and then the rest of this long narrative is actually about the community wrestling to engage with this man! And after the questionable way John tells that story, I do think we get a little window into a more tender part of him – where his longing lives – in the interaction between Jesus and the man at the end. After John writes about a community divided, wrestling with this man’s experience of receiving sight, talking about him instead of to him, unless they are interrogating him, John tells us that Jesus went to find the man. Instead of talking about him, Jesus speaks directly to him, asking him what he believes, with genuine interest and care. After not even asking the man’s permission to rub spit-made mud on his eyes and then disappearing while the community tore this man apart, maybe Jesus is trying to do better here in this moment, returning to actually listen to what this man has to say and to honor what he says about his own journey. That’s what I think John was seeking this whole time – a community that works through their struggles together to do better, to tune into one another, to listen deeply, to honor another’s experience, to belong to each other. Maybe, after all the pain of fighting with each other and denying the experience of a disabled person that happens in this passage, the real miracle is that a moment of deep solidarity and belonging breaks through.
What would happen if we slowed down with our neighbors and with people in our community to tune into the ways we are all seeking belonging? I wonder if we might get under the surface of the buzzwords and hot-button issues that make us sort people into “the good ones” and “the bad ones”. Maybe we’d get down into the real nitty gritty of our deepest values, the place where longing lives. I suspect we would find more in common there than we would have expected.
I mentioned in the last church newsletter that I just finished The Sum of Us, a book by Heather McGhee. Heather traveled the country documenting the ways wealthy elites worked to make white, Black and brown people into enemies, spreading the lie that “one group’s success would come at the expense of another.” She laments that, “as a result [of buying into this unity around common hate of the other], white people stopped supporting the government programs that enabled their prosperity as soon as access was expanded to Black people.” But what I found so hopeful about her book is that she tells the stories of diverse folx all around this country finding their way back to each other. Like Bridget Hughes, a white fast-food worker in Kansas City, Missouri, who had been told that immigrants were stealing Americans’ jobs, until she attended her first “Fight for $15” [minimum wage] meeting and saw her own story reflected in a Latina mother who was also struggling to raise a family on fast-food wages. (Alana Semuels, ““We’ve Found the Enemy, and It’s Not Each Other.” Heather McGhee’s Quest to End America’s Zero-sum Thinking on Race”, Time, July 23, 2021.)Or the Somali taxi drivers in Maine who organized to drive elderly, homebound Maine residents to the polls to pass a ballot initiative in 2017 to expand Medicaid, despite the lies of their governor at the time to divide them along racial lines. (Evan Pop, Examples from Maine underscore importance of building multiracial coalitions, author says,” Beacon, February 25, 2021.) Because they knew that they and their loved ones would all thrive if they had access to better medical care, regardless of the country they’d been born in. I love how the author of this book, Heather, puts it: “Connecting with someone, or seeing yourself in someone, is the antidote to a phenomenon that is, in some ways, destroying America… We need to shift people to say, ‘We’ve found the enemy, and it’s not each other.’” (Semuels)
Let’s join John in the seeking, and let’s not stop until we find our way back to each other, back to the people we’ve been told are the enemy, back to the place of healing where we go below the surface of our lives to tap into our common longing. Maybe we’ll find that real miracle in those moments where deep solidarity bubbles up and belonging breaks through. Amen.