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My friend Frederick Dale Bruner loves teaching the big narratives in John’s Gospel. When he and I used to do a preaching seminar together, a favorite story Dale taught was of “The Man Born Blind” in John 9. Or as Dale called the main character, “the man who always told the truth.” Each time the man is asked a question, he just tells the truth (and usually with boyish enthusiasm given the miracle he experienced). The story itself has its share of comedic elements but the overall arc of the tale is tragic.
The story begins simply enough as the disciples see this blind man and ask Jesus who had sinned to bring about the obvious punishment: had the man himself sinned or was it his parents? As is always the case in the Bible when someone tries to draw a thick black line between a certain situation and an alleged cause, so here Jesus answers “Neither.” Things don’t work that way so simply. Situation B is rarely the direct result of divine retribution for Cause A. But their encountering this hapless man will have an outcome that they would all shortly see: a revelation of the glory of God in their midst.
But that’s just the tragedy of the story: a great many of the allegedly most Godly, pious, spiritual people there that day would completely miss the glory of God. In fact, they would work overtime to dismiss the glory.
In any event, back to the story: Jesus heals the man through a somewhat unusual multi-step process, the result of which is that the blind man will not have a chance to see Jesus upon recovering his sight after washing away some mud in a nearby pool. But he is healed and so heads back into town grinning like a Cheshire cat and proclaiming over and over to one and all, “I once was blind but now I see!” The townsfolk gawked. “That sure looks like the blind beggar we have more-or-less averted our eyes from for years” they said. “But can’t be–blind people don’t get better.” “Oh no, it’s me” the man gleefully replied. “I once was blind but now I see!”
Soon enough John lets the penny drop: the day when this happened was the Sabbath (cue menacing-sounding music). And so the religious authorities haul the man in for questioning and it goes on and on for about 10 rounds. Who did this? How did he do this? Can you explain how and why he did this? They get nowhere with the man himself who just gleefully keeps praising someone named Jesus even as he wonders how it could be that religious experts like themselves did not already know about someone so clearly full of the power of God. “This kind of seems like your bailiwick so how come YOU don’t have this man on your radar already!” Such an honest man! And really annoying too so they decide to try a different tack.
Hence the authorities haul in the man’s terrified parents hoping they would confirm that just maybe the man had not really been all that blind to begin with. Or that he had not really been born blind. Or ANYTHING they could use to dispute that a miracle had taken place. Knowing they were on the verge of being de-synagogued / excommunicated, the parents confirm their son’s lifelong blindness but take a pass on commenting further about this Jesus person or anything else that might have happened (“about which we know absolutely nothing so please leave us alone!”).
So one more try with the man: “Give glory to God” they (ironically) say. “Who did this and how?” To this the man replies–without guile or a sense of irony–“You all sure seem interested in this Jesus fellow. Say, could it be because you want to become his disciples too?” Insert smiley face emoticon.
Well and of course they threw the man out on his ear and it is only then–once the religious wrangling is over–that Jesus reappears and reveals himself to the man as his healer. (Funny how Jesus disappears so long as the action is to DENY God’s power and glory in their midst, but that often happens when rules become more important than people).
The glory of God was right in front of these people but it turned out–as Jesus himself says in the end–they were the truly blind ones (and the ones who just possibly could not be healed of that condition). Why? Because the religious leaders had one very firm conviction: if a man of God–much less the Messiah–were in their midst, they’d know. They would know because he would think, talk, and act just like them. He’d live in their kind of neighborhood, shop at their kinds of stores, vote for their kind of candidates, endorse their version of theology (starting, ah-hem, with the nature and purpose of the Sabbath). This Jesus pretender did not fit the bill on a single category. So they fruitlessly–but furiously–did everything in their power to make Jesus “other.” The glory of God was shining in their midst and so it was time to don their best pairs of ultraviolet-filtering Ray-Bans.
But why am I thinking of this story this October day? Because in the last tension-filled weeks as I have observed many conversations as well as comments on social media there has been–from both or all sides of the political aisle–a lot of finger pointing and speculation that seems to run along these lines. A “fellow Christian” has to look, think, shop, and vote just like Group X, or just like the people with whom I worship, or just like my family. Taking a different position on everything from your regard for Barack Obama to your assessment of Brett Kavanaugh leaves folks suspect in terms of really understanding the faith, really being a Christian, really trying to follow Jesus.
But when we pre-determine sets of categories or characteristics into which others must fit or else, we too run the risk of missing the glory of God in our midst and the presence of God in the hearts of brothers and sisters of all socio-political persuasions.
As with all Bible stories, there is a wealth of lessons and takeaways from John 9. But surely among them is this call to caution in pre-determining where and how and in whom God dwells and is revealing his glory. A little more openness to divine surprises and to a God and a Savior who does not want to dwell within the confines of anyone’s particular box might do all of us–myself included–a lot of good just now.