Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- St John has a predilection for complicated stories about Jesus which reflect upon his career and the progress of it which led to the cross. Someone recently asked me how John knew all these details. It could of course simply be that he was there; or, much rather; as John was writing in the 80’s, some 50 years after the resurrection, and we know had a highly developed understanding of Jesus, that he took some incidents he remembered from that extraordinary life and built them into his highly developed theology of Jesus. After all, pictures can paint a more memorable understanding for most of us where words fail. John’s writing also reflects the situation in the Church after the time of Christ.
Our story (John 9:1-41) is not primarily about the healing of a man born blind, remarkable as that is; but much more a tale of prejudice and rigid and unthinking religious attitudes. It is of course, being John’s account, not devoid of humour and a sense of the ridiculous. After all, who would not rave and be amazed by the healing of one blind from birth, and be equally stunned by the reaction of the Pharisees who were enraged that this healing took place on the Sabbath, and therefore concluded it must be discounted, not possibly the work of God. Pharisees were those who wanted all Jews to live according to the strict rules laid down for the temple priests, following all the minutiae of the law. Imagine therefore their horror when Jesus performs this miracle on the Sabbath, infringing the 10 Commandments supposedly given to Moses by God!
Both Jesus and John (and perhaps the Pharisees) would have remembered the earlier and equally scandalous story of the prophet Elijah and the healing of the leper Naaman, the foreign general whose troops occupied Palestine and conquered the land.(2 Kings 5) This too speaks of God’s power to break out of the narrow confines we humans set for him. The healed man indeed acclaims Jesus precisely as ‘a prophet,’ just like Elijah. This is all drawn out by John’s use of the lengths everybody goes to in an attempt to get out of the apparent dilemma caused by the healing; some claiming the healed man only ‘looks like’ the one born blind whilst the man’s parents, fearful of the reaction of powerful vested interests and exclusion from their synagogue, resort to the excuse, ‘He’s of age, ask him.’ This comment, so reminiscent of the buck passing of Adam and Eve, should alert us to what is going on. After all, remember, this is when their son, blind from birth has been healed!! Clearly in a society ruled by fear even the most earth shattering events, the most glorious revelations of God, can be greeted with denial and hopeless rejection. Many scholars indeed think that this part of the story reflects the Jewish curse on the Minim, the Christians in effect, which dates from 88AD and is one of many signs in this gospel of intractable division between Jews and Christians by this time.
But the Jews apparently persist, insisting that Jesus is a sinner, one who breaks the law and they confront the newly sighted man who simply points to the healing miracle. If the healer is indeed a sinner, how come he can do the works of God, perhaps they too would like to become his disciples? Here then we come to the crux of the matter, which is about the meaning of our faith and how we practise it. It is possible for any of us to be so blinded by the minutiae of our belief as to allow its rules, which are there for our benefit, to become so all consuming that they actually no longer guide but dominate and obscure our real appreciation of our faith. From such an approach springs a narrow biblical literalism and fundamentalism which brooks no imagination; stretches no rule in the interest of charity or human kindness. The sort of thing which leads a person to refuse to help someone when they are on the way to Mass in case they might be late; or which excludes people of different faith or denomination from among our circle of friends; or, as has happened recently where a bishop has called for MP’s who voted in favour of ‘Gay’ marriage to be excommunicated, indicating that they are not free to determine their Parliamentary vote because of their Catholic belief.
Jesus, and indeed John here his biographer, plays with this whole question of what belief in God is about in the midst of the maze of the scandalising implications of Jesus and the challenge he posed to Judaism, to its temple, its law and its way of life. We may like to think that these are old issues, long answered by the move of Christianity away from Judaism, but the fact remains that they are not, and are issues which still haunt us to this day.
Our reading from Paul (Ephesians 5:8-14) written by one who, remember, had made that great leap from Pharisaic Judaism to faith in Jesus, or as he puts it from dark to light in the Lord, is equally telling. What he wanted the Christians of pagan Ephesus to grasp were the infinite possibilities of their belief in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and total transformation of their lives real belief implied and he seems to imply that this is what it will mean for all of us, anything illuminated turns into light.
When the prophet Samuel (1 Sam 16:6-7.10-13) chose David to be anointed king of Israel a similarly divinely appointed selection occurs, to the scandal of the family of Jesse. Traditionally, as we see, the prophet should have chosen the eldest son, and indeed, nearly did. He looked the right sort of man, and society would have accepted his choice. Yet Samuel does not choose him, nor indeed any of the elder brothers, but David, so insignificant that he was not even at home to greet the prophet but stuck out in the country with the sheep, a very unprepossessing task, and definitely not respectable for Jews. God, as we see, does not do the expected thing, and the Incarnation was definitely the last straw, but it was and is God’s way of being human and we have to be alert to the way of this God of surprises.