Dividing light

“’Is this your son?’ they asked. ‘Is this the one you say was born blind? How is it that now he can see?’

“’We know he is our son,’ the parents answered, ‘and we know he was born blind. But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don’t know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself.’ His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jewish leaders, who already had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.” (John 9:19-22)

“Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father.” (Luke 12:51-53)

The story of the man born blind (Jn 9:1-41) is about light—the Light coming into particular lives, the light it sheds on what the kingdom is about (like the parables, “the kingdom of heaven is like . . . “), and no less important, the light that people live by.

We often speak figuratively of “being on the same page.” Aside from the location of the text in your Bible (unless it straddles two pages), “on the same page” is not the way the story concludes. Far from it. This is a story of light dividing people as well as enlightening them.

It’s a superficial assumption that church unity is all about simple agreement. We see things the same way. We do things the same way. We all sit in the same pews every week in the same way. (Someday an architect will design a church with nothing but back pews. It’s bound to be the most popular church in three states.)

But even Ananias and Sapphira agreed: “With his wife’s full knowledge he kept back part of the money for himself but brought the rest and put it at the apostles’ feet” (Acts 5:2). It may have been his idea—who knows? —but she wasn’t about to blow his cover. They agreed on that.

It remained for the Spirit of God to blow their cover, as Peter’s accusation makes clear:

“About three hours later his wife came in, not knowing what had happened. Peter asked her, ‘Tell me, is this the price you and Ananias got for the land?’

“’Yes,’ she said, ‘that is the price.’

“Peter said to her, ‘How could you conspire to test the Spirit of the Lord?’” (vv. 7-9). To conspire, which means to plan this thing together, also means you have to agree

These two frauds agreed on deceiving the brethren after Jesus had clearly taught that this kind of “for appearances only” (or “for men to see,” Mt 23:5) religion had been summarily rejected by the Father. It was intentional and it was an agreement. The plan was, literally, DOA.

But there are some agreements that don’t quite reach the level of intentional deception that nevertheless place a premium on unity or agreement over the truth of what’s agreed upon.

You probably suspect I mean denominationalism, and you’d be right. The people who belong to denominations agree on areas of strength, but they also share weaknesses and even blind spots. It’s not as if they all got together and, with a wink and a nod, decided there were certain things commanded by the word where they agreed to look the other way. It doesn’t have to be.

(Belonging to a denomination is not ipso facto evil in my book, incidentally. I’m just describing behavior I’ve observed for more than 40 years in denominations across the spectrum.)

Where we depart from revelation we usually resort to some sort of rationalization, aka The Fig Leaf Study Bible (Gilt-edged and thumb-indexed). It reduces our sense of being exposed, which is real enough and not imaginary, but it covers it with something we think is adequate while God begs to differ.

So when I say the light comes to us and exposes “the light we live by,” I mean the areas that may have more to do with tradition than true scriptural mandates, or a disparity between what we confess as the truth and the way we actually live, or something else that colors the light we use to reach decisions, form opinions or make judgments.

Jonah believed (and confessed) that God was both sovereign and merciful, and he high-tailed it for Tarshish anyway, taking the message of mercy with him in the opposite direction from Nineveh, the authorized destination. He was pleased with the relief he obtained from the sovereign provision of a vine that shaded him from the burning sun, but somehow couldn’t appreciate that a large city might also appreciate the same “shade” from the wrath of God. “If the light within you is darkness . . . “

Jesus’ disciples were the first to receive light in John 9. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (v. 2)

“‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned,’ said Jesus, ‘but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him’” (v. 3). The disciples were walking in the light of religious conventional wisdom. I can’t tell you where this particular belief originated, but Jesus quickly corrected their understanding.

The man’s neighbors were next. And after the man was healed and could see, they were divided over whether this was the same man they knew. Some said yes, others no (vv. 8-12).

Then came the Pharisees. The healing took place on the Sabbath—as if Jesus forgot to check his Outlook Calendar before spitting, making mud from the ground and applying it to the man’s benighted eyes.

“Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.’

“But others asked, ‘How can a sinner perform such signs?’ So they were divided” (v. 16).

Remember, Jesus simply did something and it revealed the light by which these divided groups lived. For one, the Sabbath took preeminence, so they labeled Jesus as “not from God.” But others, quite reasonably, couldn’t reconcile this anathema with the ability to perform a healing. (Think about this for a moment. Does this sound like any “divide” you can think of in your lifetime?)

The most heartbreaking—for me, anyway—is the response of the man’s parents. I am not positive what “he is of age” signifies exactly in years, but we can assume that his blindness was a long-standing condition. (He could have been as young as 13 to qualify according to one source I found, but that doesn’t seem likely given the exchanges he has with various persons in the story.)

In any event, to this man his parents had never been anything but disembodied voices, perhaps a scent he came to recognize from their hair or clothes, an occasional touch or embrace. And probably on the very same day they saw each other for the very first time, his parents were distancing themselves from him. He was no longer just their poor disabled son.

Why? Because they saw, in Jesus and what he did for their son, a threat to their membership in an exclusive religious community, which apparently was paramount, even over their blood relationship to a child that had been dependent upon them from birth. Blood may be thicker than water, but it wasn’t thicker than the mud that Jesus applied to their son’s eyes.

“His parents said this because they feared [the leaders of] the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone should acknowledge Jesus to be the Christ, he should be expelled and excluded from the synagogue” (v. 22).

If you think the fear of man is a “victimless crime,” think again.

Finally, the man himself, no theological sophisticate apparently, ultimately expressed the purest revelation of who Jesus was. When the Pharisees tried to pump him for more information, the man replied, “I do not know whether He is a sinner and wicked or not. But one thing I do know, that whereas I was blind before, now I see” (v. 25). Do I have to paint you a picture?

For this plain truth, the man was ostracized. No one agreed with him, not even his parents, in any meaningful way. Later, Jesus found him and asked him:

“’Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered by saying, ‘And who is He, Sir–I love this man’s simple faith–that I may believe in Him?’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have both seen Him, and He is the one who is talking with you.’ And he said, ‘I believe, Lord.’ And he worshiped Him” (vv. 35-38).

There are numerous things we don’t agree on—too numerous to catalogue, really. And why do we insist on making so much of our differences? Can’t we agree with the man born blind, and with each other, and worship Him?

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