Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Bible Reading & Commentary: John 9

I’d like to use a “special interest group,” the disabled, as a case study for better understanding the Bible, the morality of equality and charity, and the message of Jesus Christ.

To have a disability, such as either blindness or a crippling accident or disease, or from the onset of old age, was much more than just a problem of prejudice in Biblical times: it was a problem of life and death. Everyone had to be able to work in the fields, tend the flocks, glean food if one was poor, prepare housing and clothing, etc. because one’s life and that of one’s whole family and community, depended on everyone being able bodied. If one could not work one was a great burden on the family. Yet among rough cultures who thought nothing of killing or abandoning their disabled, the Israelites received specific mention by God in their Law of being kind to the disabled.

Leviticus 19:14
Thou shalt not curse the deaf, nor put a stumbling-block before the blind, but shalt fear thy God: I am the Lord.

This passage is put right in between 19:13 where God orders that neighbors and those who are hired by you are not to be cheated of their wages and belongings, and 19:15 where God orders all to not be unrighteous toward any person (including not tilting in favor of either poor or mighty). Thus as God gives to Moses the litany of the Law and the good behavior, the disabled (in the form of the deaf and the blind) are embedded in their rights and dignity among the list of the able bodied.

Thus God says that the disabled should not be “cursed,” as in scolded or disparaged or made to feel “doomed” by their disability. Further, God orders that hardships do not be placed in front of the disabled. “Stumbling block” is a common phrase in Biblical times. It has a meaning that is like in today’s vernacular “to stub one’s toe” except it has a crucial seriousness, as a fall could lead to a life threatening condition such as a broken leg or a cracked head. As I said, this would be more than an annoyance but life threatening in an active subsistence culture where all must be able bodied. So God orders that one should not only not disparage or verbally abuse the disabled, but one should also refrain from, and indeed remove, “stumbling blocks” that hinder, endanger or at the very least shame them. This is much more than “putting up with” or just feeding the disabled, and God seals that order with the statement of closure that “but shalt fear thy God: I am the Lord.” God uses “but” to mean like “instead,” so God is saying instead of hurting or hindering the disabled, remember to fear God, who will bring anyone who harms or does not care for the disabled to judgment in front of him.

Deuteronomy 27:18
Cursed be he that maketh the blind to wander out of the way: and all the people shall say, Amen.

God now explicitly states that someone who allows the blind to lose their way is cursed. God expects the blind to not be led astray or allowed to wander lost, scared or confused. In this section of Deuteronomy, God lists a number of “don’ts” and seals each “don’t” with “and all the people shall say, Amen.” This means that the people should denounce, scold and punish anyone who breaks this Law. So this is not God only saying that spiritually the person who allows the blind to wander is in trouble, but God orders the people to denounce such a person.

Thus one can see that the Israelites were ordered by God to honor and care for their disabled, even though a disability was, during that time, a great liability in an agricultural society where all had to labor in order to survive and eat. This is one of the many ways that the Israelites distinguished themselves from the pagans around them, including the “great” civilizations such as Egypt.

Consider, then, how far things had sunk by the time of Jesus Christ, where Jesus was born into a world where the Jewish people believed that those with infirmities were being “punished” by God for sin, either their own sin or that of family. This was one of the fundamental corruptions of the faith that Jesus Christ attacked head on. This is one reason why the priests, the Scribes, the Pharisees and other critics of Jesus feared and hated him so much when he performed miracles to cure the blind, the deaf, the lame and the otherwise ill and afflicted. Jewish religious and cultural belief had been corrupted to adopt the belief that all who were sick or who had accidents had “brought it upon themselves through sin” even though their own Law, as cited above, makes it abundantly clear that they are not to think that at all. In the over thousand years of time while claiming to follow the Law, Jesus caught them out in not following the Law over and over, and this is why he called them hypocrites.

Consider, then, one of my “favorites” of the miracles of Jesus at the pool of Siloam. The word “Siloam” means “sent,” by the way. Here you read what I just explained above, that everyone, laity and priestly, believed that disabilities were the result of sin. Notice that the Jews discount the blind man’s very words even after he is cured, because they insist that because he was blind he was “born into sin” and not worth believing. They refused to let go of this prejudice that is contrary to what God stated in the Law.

John 9

As he passed by he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him. We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

[Jesus is not only refuting the notion that the man was born blind due to some sort of sin, but Jesus announces that it is God’s will that this blind man will now and in the future bear witness to the true Light of the world, Jesus.]

When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva, and smeared the clay on his eyes, and said to him, “Go wash in the Pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). So he went and washed, and came back able to see.

His neighbors and those who had seen him earlier as a beggar said, “Isn’t this the one who used to sit and beg?” Some said, “It is,” but others said, “No, he just looks like him.” He said, “I am.”

So they said to him, “[So] how were your eyes opened?” He replied, “The man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes and told me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ So I went there and washed and was able to see.” And they said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I don’t know.”

They brought the one who was once blind to the Pharisees. Now Jesus had made clay and opened his eyes on a Sabbath.

[Jesus “broke the Sabbath” by doing three actions that were considered “work,” and all “work” is forbidden on the Sabbath. Jesus spit (thus working to make something he will use for work), kneaded clay (work) and healed the man (work)].

So then the Pharisees also asked him how he was able to see. He said to them, “He put clay on my eyes, and I washed, and now I can see.” So some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, because he does not keep the Sabbath.” [But] others said, “How can a sinful man do such signs?” And there was a division among them. So they said to the blind man again, “What do you have to say about him, since he opened our eyes?” He said, “He is a prophet.”

[Notice that the blind man who now sees is clearer and wiser about Jesus from the start than the Pharisees. Now, you might think, of course he believed in Jesus as a prophet, since he benefited first hand from the miracle. But remember, by washing in the pool the previously blind man also “did work” on the Sabbath, and it would be understandable if he waffled somewhat about Jesus being a prophet, under such disapproving questioning about the Sabbath. But as Jesus prophesied, this man immediately witnessed to the works of God, since a prophet only works at God’s behest and grace].

Now the Jews did not believe that he had been blind and gained is sight until they summoned the parents of the one who had gained his sight. They asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How does he now see?” His parents answered and said, “We know that this is our son and that he was born blind. We do not know how he sees now, nor do we know who opened his eyes. As him, he is of age; he can speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone acknowledged him as the Messiah, he would be expelled from the synagogue. For this reason his parents said, “He is of age; question him.”

[The plot thickens. St. John the Apostle took great care to record all that back and forth and give and take that took place so that this man could bear witness for all time, in the Gospel According to John. This is thus a precious record of how the people reacted in detail to a miracle, those who believed and those who disbelieved. Modern critics need to pay attention to this chapter because the Bible is not “just” a collection of people making claims to “push” their religion. John records here an example of how the Jews simply did not know what to make of this miracle, and the dialogue as it took place and the strength of this anonymous blind man even as he and his family are threatened with being expelled from their community of faith, the synagogue].

So a second time they called the man who had been blind and said to him, “Give God the praise! We know that this man is a sinner.”

[The Pharisees are trying two new tactics here. They tempt the man to say that God just happened to cure him at the same time that Jesus was standing around, and so Jesus had nothing to do with the miracle. They also use an Old Testament expression that is a formula to force someone to tell the truth by reminding them of the fear of God].

He replied, “If he is a sinner, I do not know. One thing I do know is that I was blind and now I see.”

[This, by the way, is the Biblical origin of the phrase that is used in the modern song “Amazing Grace,” written by a slave merchant who had a conversion: “Was blind and now I see” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amazing_Grace].

So they said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples, too?”

[Ha! Whoever this man was he was respectful but very bold; notice he gives them a zinger by asking them if they want to become Jesus’ disciples “too”].

They ridiculed him and said, “You are that man’s disciple; we are disciples of Moses! We know that God spoke to Moses, but we do not know where this one is from.”

[See, here is where they claim to be followers and believers of Moses and the Law that God gave him, yet their every action indicates lack of respect for the spiritual equality of the disabled, contrary to Leviticus and Deuteronomy].

The man answered and said to them, “This is what is so amazing, that you do not know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if one is devout and does his will, he listens to him. It is unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything.”

[Ha! He points out the irony that he was the blind man yet they, the Pharisees, are not the ones who refuse to see. The previously blind man now tries to use logic, referring to their temptation to credit God with the miracle but not Jesus, by saying that God obviously would not give miracle performing ability to the likes that was unheard of before to someone who was a sinner, as the Pharisees try to charge].

They answered and said to him, “You were born totally in sin, and are you trying to teach us?” Then they threw him out.

[There it is; there is the point I made earlier. Just because this man was born blind he was totally demonized as being a sinner born in and doomed to sin. There are few clearer examples than this one of how the Pharisees and others were hypocrites who had actually moved most outrageously and egregiously away from what God actually stated in the Law, which they love to selectively quote and disobey the rest of it].

When Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, he found him and said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered and said, “Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “I do believe, Lord,” and he worshiped him. Then Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see might see, and those who do see might become blind.”

Some of the Pharisees who were with him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not also blind, are we?” Jesus said to them,
“If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains.”

Is this not a precious treasure of dialogue that St. John has preserved, writing it down in his old age? Not only do we have record of one of Jesus’ miracles, but we see Jesus going head to head against those who preached that those born with disabilities (or who acquired them) were born into hopeless sin. It is not just Jesus performing works on the Sabbath that outrages the Pharisees, or their jealousy at his God given works, but they have inculcated a culture that is class based, based on supposed sin or no sin, and Jesus mightily corrects them. They wanted to continue to hang onto the idea that all who were disabled were sinners or born of sinners, and that disabilities were not only the mark of “sin” but the punishment by God for sin. This is what Jesus means that their sin remains because they say “We see.” They continue to sin (by thinking the disabled are born into sin) exactly because they have not let their eyes be opened, as was the blind man’s.

By the way, when Jesus says he came into the world for "judgment," he does not mean "judge" the way that moderns understand an adjudicator who listens to a legal conflict and renders judgment. "Judging" in Biblical speech meant to take actions, some of which are hard actions such as military (that is why there is a Book of Judges, which recounts the actions of military leaders, for the most part). To "judge" Biblically means to take action. Jesus took action by performing miracles, particularly those that are right in the face of the hypocrites who oppressed and who did not believe.

A few years ago archaeologists found what they have identified as the original pool of Siloam, by the way. The current upper pool had been rebuilt, but in 2005 they found a lower pool that dates to the time of Jesus and the Apostles: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siloam_Pool

This is one reason I was an early supporter of the American with Disabilities Act, by the way, even though a lot of money was wasted with poorly designed wheel chair access… the point is that people should do whatever they can to mainstream the disabled as much as they can and desire to be mainstreamed. This is especially true of our wounded veterans, who have given so much for their country. Biblically one can be assured that no money spent wisely on “removing the stumbling blocks” is wasted in God’s eyes.

This is also why I am infuriated, as I blogged yesterday, with those New Agers who “teach” illness and disability as being related to “karma,” “past lives,” “bad spirits,” or “doing evil.” I mean, that is even more outrageous than what the Pharisees believed, and they were an outrageous disgrace of hypocrisy and defiance of what God said in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Jesus then stated clearly and for all that the religious and cultural belief that the disabled had “sinned” in any way was wrong and should be condemned. Both God through Moses and the Law AND Jesus Christ most clearly refuted that disabilities were the result of sin, to say nothing of “past lives,” “karma” and “evil spirits.” (Jesus is very explicit when he casts out an evil spirit; he never links illness in and of itself with evil spirits, as you can see most clearly in this miracle). There is a world of difference between being ill due to an evil spirit (I mean, duh, having an evil spirit certainly does not promote one’s mental health) and saying, as New Ager ignoramuses do, that biological illness is “caused” by evil spirits. Unbelievable, I find this wicked demonizing of illness by New Agers to be just unconscionable. That is in defiance of what God instructed the Israelites AND what Jesus Christ refuted, at the cost of his life.

I hope that you have enjoyed this, one of my favorite sections of the Gospel. It really is a glimpse into the day to day back and forth that was the heart of the revolution that Jesus Christ genuinely brought to both the faith and the culture. In this chapter one sees it all and thus you have a genuine view into what it was like as Jesus Christ proclaimed God and combated the hypocrites of the time who had not only insulting hypocrisy but very dangerous and damaging beliefs that were contrary to God’s teaching in the Law itself.