Posts Tagged ‘blindness’

Gates – openings or barriers?

May 6, 2017

Easter 4 – 2017

John 10:1-10

Marian Free

In the name of God who desires only what is best for us. Amen.

The first ten verses in chapter 10 of John’s gospel are rather puzzling. Is Jesus the gate, the door or the shepherd? Is Jesus both the gate and the shepherd? How does Jesus’ being the gate relate to having life in abundance? Who are the thieves and robbers? Part of the difficulty in understanding this passage is that the lectionary gives us only a small portion of the picture. Properly speaking, today’s gospel belongs in a section of John that begins at 9:39 and that concludes at 10:21. This becomes clear when we see that the passage begins and ends with a commentary on blindness and a reference to the division among the Jews as to the identity of Jesus. The Pharisees and their supporters claim that Jesus is an imposter, but those who can see clearly, recognise Jesus as the one sent by God.

In the previous chapter, Jesus healed a blind man on the Sabbath. This caused the Pharisees to be incensed not only because Jesus had broken the Sabbath law but because they were in danger of losing their place in society and the influence that they exerted over the people. In order shore up their position they tried to discredit both the blind man and Jesus. Jesus cannot have come from God because they know nothing about him! From their point of view Jesus (and the man who was healed) are making claims that cannot possibly be substantiated. Even so, there is something about Jesus that represents a threat to their authority and to their role. This is why it is so important that they convince the blind man that Jesus is an imposter.

Despite their best efforts the man born blind refuses to be swayed by their bullying and their insults. It is clear to him that Jesus must be from God – otherwise he could do nothing. He declares that Jesus is God and worships him.

It is in this context of conflict and division that Jesus uses the imagery of shepherding to describe the difference between himself and the Pharisees. Indirectly, Jesus is accusing the Pharisees of deceiving the people and of trying to manipulate them into believing what they, the Pharisees, want them to believe. The Pharisees are not true shepherds but are thieves and robbers who seek, not to benefit, but harm them. They are standing in the way of the fullness of life that belongs people of God. They are stifling and confining them, instead of nurturing and freeing them.

Jesus’ audience would have been familiar with the image of a shepherd. In the Old Testament the bad shepherds are those thoughtless, uncaring leaders who abandon their flock to the wolves. In contrast to them, God is the Good Shepherd, and God will establish over the people of Israel “one shepherd, my servant David, who shall feed them and be their shepherd”(Ezek 34:23-24). By claiming for himself the title of Good Shepherd, Jesus is identifying himself as the “one shepherd” sent by God.

When the Pharisees fail to recognise Jesus as the one sent by God and try to persuade others to their point of view the people they reveal their blindness and their self-centredness. They are devious and untrustworthy, but the sheep are not so easily deceived. As the man born blind has demonstrated, the people, despite the intimidation of the Pharisees, recognise Jesus and willingly follow him. It is this – the fact that the people respond to Jesus – that demonstrates that he, not the Pharisees is the shepherd of the sheep.

Just as they did not understand that they were blind, so now the Pharisees do not understand that Jesus is accusing them of being thieves and robbers. Jesus tries another image. He is, he says, the gate. it is through him that the sheep enter the security of salvation, and through him that they go out again to find pasture. Unlike the Pharisees who try to restrict and control the people by putting barriers in their way, Jesus opens the gate to free them to come and go as they please – to make up their own minds as to whom to follow.

Jesus continues this discourse by describing himself as the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. At the conclusion of this section we return to where we began with the division between the people over the identity of Jesus. There are still those who believe that he has a demon and is out of his mind, but there are others who say: “These are not the words of one who has a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”

When we have the whole picture, Jesus as both gate and shepherd makes sense. In the context of Jesus’ dispute with the Pharisees, Jesus uses the familiar imagery of the shepherd and the sheepfold to make two points. He exposes the dishonesty and deviousness of the Pharisees – false shepherds who don’t use the gate, but who try to get to the sheep by stealth and who constrain others to their narrow views. Jesus is the true shepherd and he is the gate. As the gate, Jesus does not confine or restrict, but provides access both in and out – not only admitting the sheep into the security of the sheepfold but also freeing them to go out to seek nourishing and sustaining pasture.

The Good Shepherd can easily be distinguished from the false shepherd, because the Good Shepherd does not seek to benefit himself or to dominate or control in the name of God. The Good Shepherd knows us by name and has our best interests at heart. Jesus the Good Shepherd who is also the gate, does not seek to manipulate or to constrain but frees us to live life the full, to have life and to have it abundantly.

 

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There are none so blind as those who will not see

March 25, 2017

Lent 4 – 2017

John 9:1-41

Marian Free

In the name of God who opens our eyes so we might know God. Amen.

By and large people believe what they want to believe – often despite evidence to the contrary. At least 10 years ago, Andrew Denton produced a documentary called: “God is on our side”. It was a report of a conference that is held annually in the Southern States of the USA. I found it all rather disconcerting. A major part of the gathering was the marketing of Christian artifacts books, pictures and movies a central theme of which was the “rapture” the belief that when Christ returns the dead who are to be raised, will join the living in a rapturous ascent to heaven, while everyone else is thrown into hell. Most frightening however, was the preacher who was addressing an auditorium filled with at something like 5-10,000 people and who proclaimed Cold War style that Russia intended to invade Israel. Those who attended were lapping up this out-dated and fear-inspiring version of the state of the world as if it were real. Books that supported the preacher’s argument were available for sale, reinforcing the “truth” of the matter. For those who accepted his authority, his reality became their reality.

Social media promised to make the facts more readily available to more people. It is increasingly evident that social media can be employed equally effectively to promote “fake” news. Many people who have no other source of information will believe what they are told, or what they read – especially if it is on the news, in the newspapers or spoken by someone in a position of authority.

As the old proverb goes: “There are none so blind as those that will not see.”

There are several layers of blindness in today’s gospel – the physical blindness of the man who is healed and the metaphorical blindness of almost every one else in the story. The disciples are blinded by tradition or folklore – physical deformity is evidence of sin. The man’s neighbours are blinded by the information that they currently have – the man whom they knew was blind – the man in front of them is not – he cannot be the same person. The Pharisees are blinded by their fear of change, and their desire for power. If people are allowed to believe that Jesus comes from God, their influence will be severely diminished. Finally, the parent’s of the once-blind man are blinded by the anxiety that if they claim to understand their son’s healing, they will be thrown out of the synagogue. Even the man born blind takes some time to fully comprehend the implications of receiving his sight.

The story of the man born blind takes a long circuitous route. He does not come to Jesus seeking to be healed. In fact it is only because the disciples ask Jesus about him that Jesus restores his sight. There is no suggestion that the man had faith, nor that his cure led to faith or caused others to believe. Not is there any suggestion that the man is surprised. He appears to take his newfound sight for granted. Those who knew him are surprised, so surprised in fact that they refuse to believe that it is the same man whom they knew as a beggar. The Pharisees on the other hand are threatened by Jesus’ power. They try to persuade the man that Jesus cannot possibly be from God implying that his power comes from elsewhere. Their antagonism has the opposite effect from that which they intended. Their assault on the once blind man and their disapproval of Jesus pushes the blind man to think about what has happened and to come to his own conclusion about Jesus – surely he is a prophet. In the face of such negativity, the man begins to understand the implications of his healing. It was not a random event but had a purpose and a meaning. Not only has the man received his physical sight, he is gaining insight and coming to faith.

When the Pharisees fail to intimidate the man, they take on his parents. Unlike the neighbours they recognise and own the man as their son, but they refuse to enter into any debate as to the person who healed him. To suggest that Jesus is from God would lead to their being thrown out of the synagogue. Finally the Pharisees attack the blind man one more time and when he refuses to give up what he has learned they throw him out of the synagogue. It is only then that Jesus seeks him out and reveals himself to him.

Over the course of the story, the man’s sight and his insight have been gradually sharpened. Despite opposition, he has held on to his sense of self, discerned the self-interest that led to the false teaching and the blindness of the Pharisees and has gradually discovered that Jesus the healer, is Jesus the prophet, is Jesus the Son of Man. He has learned the truth about Jesus because he was not bound by tradition, limited by what he thought he knew, not determined to maintain his place in the world and not imprisoned by the fear of what others might do to him. His openness to the truth gave him courage to hold his ground in the face of opposition and his willingness to learn brought him to faith. He has gained his sight in more ways than one.

As today’s gospel illustrates, God is patient. God will reveal the truth at a pace at which we are able to grasp it. God will give us courage to stand against those who would mislead and confuse us and will in time bring us to fullness of faith.

Lent is love. God’s story includes the timid, the questioning and those who come to believe one step at a time. No matter what holds us back – “fear or doubt or habit”[1] God will open our eyes and give us time and space to find our way to the truth and to take our place in the story that is without beginning or end.

 

 

[1] To quote hymn writer Elizabeth Smith.

Keeping up

December 14, 2013

Advent 3 – 2013

Matthew 11:2-11

Marian Free

In the name of God who breaks into our lives and changes them forever.  Amen.

There are some events that irrevocably change the course of history, some ideas that change our lives in a way that is irreversible and some experiences from which it is impossible to recover. When Martin Luther nailed his ninety-nine theses to a church door, he had no idea that the church of which he was a part would never be the same. He had no thought that after his death his followers would break away from Rome and form their own church and no notion that the ensuing Reformation would divide the church in a way which continues to have repercussions today. Much later, Darwin’s Origin of the Species shook the world and the church causing people to revisit the stories of their beginnings and to reconsider the nature of humanity. For many of us, our concept of who we are and where we came from changed forever. There are many such events or discoveries that interrupt the direction in which the world is travelling and sends humanity on a completely different and often unexpected path.

The same is true on an individual level. Our view of the world and of ourselves changes – sometimes radically – as we grow and learn and have both positive and negative experiences. Over time we learn for example, that our parents do not know everything, that clouds are not made of cotton wool, that there is no “man in the moon”. Sadly, there are more sinister ways in which our world is changed. A child who is abused by someone whom they trust loses their innocence, their sense of themselves and their ability to trust – often forever.

In the first century, this who came to faith in Jesus, believed that his life, death and resurrection formed one such seminal event. From their point of view the stream of history had been irreversibly interrupted, the time space continuum disturbed. They believed that God in Jesus had broken into history shattering the connection between past and present.

It is this attitude to the world that explains Jesus’ apparently dismissive words regarding John the Baptist. “The least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” How can Jesus say that? It was John who called people to repentance, John who drew “all Jerusalem” to him, John who announced Jesus and John from whom Jesus sought baptism. It seems an extraordinary claim that John rates lower than the least in the kingdom of heaven. How can this be?

For the gospel writers it is clear – history has been divided into two – before Jesus and after Jesus. From their point of view, John does not belong to the new dispensation, he belongs to the time before Jesus, a time that had not been affected by Jesus’ breaking into the world. No matter what John the Baptist had contributed to Jesus’ ministry, he was not a part of this new world order. He had not made the transition from one time period to another. John belonged in the past as the last of the prophets, firmly situated in the Old Testament culture and experience and cannot bridge this dramatic disruption in time.

It is possible that John was relegated to the past simply because he did not live to see what was happening.  He was executed at about the same time that Jesus began his ministry so it was impossible for him to participate in what was happening. However, it is also possible that John was stuck in the past because even while he lived he was unable to see and join in what was going on. John’s announcement of Jesus indicates that he expected something different from what actually happened.  He predicted a fiery Saviour who would come to judge the world. Let me remind you what he said: “His winnowing fork is in his hand and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire”  (Matt 3:12).

As we know, the reality of Jesus was vastly different. John’s question from prison demonstrates that it is not clear to him that Jesus is the “one who is to come”. He remains open to the possibility that they might have to “look for another”.

John was not confident that Jesus was the one sent by God because his vision was clouded by the image that he (and many of his compatriots) had developed of a Saviour or Redeemer.  On the basis of some prophetic ideas he and they, it seems, had built up a picture of someone who would come with power to judge the earth, who would separate the wheat from the chaff, the good from the bad. In the process he and they had failed to take note of other prophetic ideas – those from Isaiah in particular – which spoke of a “suffering Servant” whose programme would be to heal and liberate rather than to condemn. They were unprepared for a Jesus who did not fit the image that they had created.

There is a warning for us here. It is very tempting for us to give in to our need for certainty, to scour our Bibles and to try to draw conclusions about the nature of God and the nature of God’s future. However, God is always doing surprising things, the most surprising of which was Jesus who did not conform to any preconceptions and who suffered a shameful, God-abandoned death. For this reason, we should not try to second-guess God, to read into our scriptures things that may and may not be there or to try to tie God down to something someone wrote two thousand years ago.

If we do this not only will we fail in our attempt to define and categorise God but we are in danger of blinding ourselves to who and what God is and we will  – like John – be unable able to see the new things that God is doing in our time.

A vulnerable child, a crucified Saviour – what will God do next and will our eyes be open and our hearts ready for whatever it is that God will reveal? Advent is a time of anticipation and waiting, of preparing ourselves for God’s coming. Let it be a time in which we let go of all our expectations so that we are ready for God, no matter how God comes.


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