John 5 and John 9
Preached at Friends Committee on National Legislation closing worship, November 18, 2012
These two stories from the Gospel of John have some important similarities. Both involve a person with a long-standing disability—one with 38 years of paralysis, the other with lifelong blindness.
Both meetings and healings occurred on Sabbath; both involved actions that violated current understandings of Sabbath laws. So both set off confrontations with the religious establishment, a group highly invested in enforcing compliance with the Sabbath law so that God would bless the Jews and send the Messiah.
Both were “stealth” healings—neither person knew who Jesus was at the time of the healing, and they found out who he was only later. In both cases, Jesus asked them to do something as part of the healing; their obedience reveals two things, their desperation and his authority, which must have filled them with enough hope to try to obey him, even going so far as to violate Sabbath laws.
These stories also have very different endings. Jesus warns the healed paralytic against continuing to sin; he reports Jesus to the religious authorities after their second meeting. The healed blind man defies these authorities to insist that Jesus is a prophet from God, based only on their first meeting, and they throw him out of the religion; when Jesus finds him again, the healed man worships him on the basis of finding out that he is God’s son.
John 5—The Paralyzed Man
Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a festival. He passed through the Sheep Gate where there was a pool called Bethesda. Five porches surrounded it, sheltering many invalids—blind, lame, paralyzed. They were all waiting for the waters to be stirred up, as they believed, by an angel of the Lord, and when that happened, whoever was first into the pool was healed.
One man had been there 38 years. Jesus saw this man and recognized that he had been lying there a long time. He asked him, “Do you want to be made well?” [This question is all by itself intriguing. Did he want to be made well?] The sick man answered, “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and someone always beats me into the water.” Jesus said to him, “Stand up, pick up your mat, and walk.” At once, the man was well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.
As it happened, that particular day was Sabbath. The Jewish authorities told the man who had been healed, “It is against Moses’s law for you to carry your mat.” But he answered them, “The man who healed me said to me, ‘Take up your mat and walk.’” The former paralytic did not know who had healed him, and Jesus had quickly disappeared into the crowd.
Later Jesus found him again in the temple and said to him. “See, you are healed! Do not sin any longer and invite something worse than paralysis to happen to you.”
The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. They therefore began hounding Jesus because he was doing such things on Sabbath. Jesus answered them, “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” This made them even angrier, because Jesus was breaking Sabbath AND calling God his Father, making himself equal with God. They looked for a way to kill him.
John 9—The Man Born Blind
As Jesus passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Teacher, who sinned so that this man was born blind? Was it this man himself who sinned, or was it his parents?” Jesus answered, “Neither his sin nor his parents’ sin made him blind. But he is blind so that the works of God might be revealed in him. I must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day. The night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground, made mud with the saliva, anointed the blind man’s eyes with the mud, and said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means “Sent”). So he went and washed and came back seeing. The neighbors and those who knew him as a blind man, said, “Isn’t this he who sat and begged?” “Yes, he’s the one.” “No, he just looks like him.” The man said, “I am he.” So they asked him, “How were your eyes opened?”
He told the story, and then they asked him who had put the mud on his eyes and where he was, and the man said, “I don’t know.” They brought him in to see the Pharisees, the Jewish authorities.
As it happened, Jesus made the mud and opened the blind man’s eyes on Sabbath. The Pharisees also asked him how he received his sight, so he told them the story. Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God because he doesn’t keep Sabbath.” Others said, “How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?” They argued.
So they asked the blind man again, “What do you say about him? After all, he opened your eyes.” The man said, “He is a prophet.”
The Jews refused to believe he had been born blind, so they called in his parents. They said, “This is our son; he was born blind; we don’t know anything about how it is that he now sees. He’s adult, ask him; he will speak for himself.” They were afraid of the consequences if they said that Jesus had done this and might be the Messiah.
So they called the formerly blind man back and said to him, “Give glory to God. We know this man is a sinner.”
He responded, “I don’t know if he is a sinner. One thing I do know: that though I was blind, now I see.” They grilled him again on how Jesus had done this, and he answered, “I told you already, and you didn’t listen. Why do you want to hear it again? You don’t also want to become his disciples, do you?” They raged at him and said, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know God spoke to Moses, but we don’t know that God speaks to this guy or even where he comes from.”
The man answered, “How is it possible that you don’t know anything about him? No one since time began has ever opened the eyes of someone born blind. We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners, but if anyone worships God, and obeys God, God listens to that person. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
The authorities answered him, “You were altogether born in sins, and do you teach us?” and they threw him out.
Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, found him, and said, “Do you believe in the Son of God?” “Who is he, Lord, that I may believe in him?” “You have seen him and are talking with him right now.”
The man said, “Lord, I believe!” and he worshiped him.
Jesus said, “I came into the world as a judgment, so that those who don’t see may see and those who see may become blind.” The Pharisees heard him and asked him, “Are we also blind?” Jesus replied, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you say, ‘We see.’ Therefore your sin remains.”
There are three points of view both stories share, and thus three lessons we can learn from comparing the stories.
The Religious Authorities
These folks were invested in the system of religious laws. They themselves were highly observant, and they believed that if Sabbath were properly kept, Messiah would come. One rabbinical text says, “If Israel keeps one Sabbath as it should be kept, the Messiah will come.” Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Isaiah singled out Sabbath-breaking as the reason for the Jewish nation’s collapse and exile, and called Jews back to keeping Sabbath.
No wonder the authorities are so angry when Jesus breaks Sabbath and leads others to do so also. No wonder they don’t recognize him as a prophet, let alone as Messiah.
This causes me to rethink my normal condemnation of the religious authorities and get in touch with my inner Pharisee.
1st lesson: What is my version of Sabbath-keeping? What are other people doing that I believe is preventing the coming of God’s kingdom among us? Does this blind me to seeing the movement of the Spirit of God?
The paralyzed man had waited for help for 38 years, invisible, hoping to win the healing lottery. The blind man had begged for a living and had never known anything but darkness, had to sit by while people debated about whether he was blind because of his own or his parents’ sin.
Jesus asks the paralytic, “Do you want to be made well?” Then he challenges the man to stand up, pick up his mat and walk. On the second meeting, he challenges him to stop sinning, to get a better aim at the target, to get on the path, to step into God’s light. If he keeps on sinning, he will put himself in a worse state than paralysis. And he immediately turns Jesus in, preferring staying safe to the risk of walking freely.
In the gospels there are at least two connections between sin—missing the mark, straying away from path, preferring darkness to light—and paralysis. In the other case (Matthew 9:2), Jesus meets a paralyzed man with the words, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” If we see these as acted out parables, we can see how living in error or willfully doing what we know is wrong will paralyze us to do good if we do not step into God’s light, see ourselves by it, and change as God wants us to change.
The blind man overheard Jesus say that his blindness was so that the works of God might be revealed in him. Without resisting, he sits while Jesus daubs mud on his eyes, he obediently rises and feels his way to the designated pool, and when he washes, he sees. It is tempting to identify the miracle as the way he reveals the works of God, but I think it is when he stands up before the authorities for the truth that God is the author of good and that the person who did this good to him is from God. This is where the glory of God shows up. The works of God are that he prefers light to darkness, accuracy to error, risky truth to the status quo. He believes Jesus is the light of the world. It costs him his occupation and his religion.
This causes me to ask myself about whether I actually want to be healed when that means everything may change.
2nd lesson: With which of these do I identify? What am I willing to risk in order to walk freely and see clearly?
Before and after these stories, Jesus tells us his point of view.
I tell you, I do nothing on my own but only what I see the Father doing.
My Father is always working, and I too must work.
I must keep on doing the work of God who sent me.
While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.
Whoever follows me does not walk in the dark but has the light of life.
You are the light of the world (Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 6).
This causes me to think about the example Jesus set of listening and obeying his Father every day.
3rd lesson: How do I depend on the Spirit to know what to do? How do I myself live in the light?
May the light of God’s Spirit inhabit our lives and guide our actions. Amen