Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Reflections on another Sabbath healing and a God who refuses to be contained (John 5:1-6)

Jesus heals another sick man on the Sabbath and incurs the ire of the scribes and Pharisees. “They began to persecute Jesus”—the gospel tells us. Such tragic characters! These are individuals who had gotten so stuck in their ways that they simply refused to accept the possibility that God could choose to act in ways that were new, and to reveal himself in ways they least expected. Even their religion had become stultified that they could not even recognize Jesus’ pity and compassion for the sick and suffering as a clear sign that God himself was at work.

The scribes and the Pharisees are not simply characters in bible stories. The scribes and Pharisees are with us, even today. In fact, often enough, they are us. When we think we have God all figured out and tucked away in a neat and tidy box that there could be no other possible way by which He could manifest himself, we become these very men.

This is a very real danger for many religious individuals, and especially for those who are in positions of leadership and authority—like the Pharisees and Scribes. There’s a thin line separating authentic religion from religious fanaticism, and there are times when careful and prudent discernment between “the will of God” and “the will of one who believes he speaks for God” becomes necessary.

There are those who believe they know God’s mind completely and have gotten him all figured out; seeing themselves as possessors of the fullness of truth, and everyone else—especially those with whom they disagree—as lesser human beings. [Perhaps it wouldn't hurt to once in a while be reminded of a simple lesson we learn in the philosophy of the Great Medieval Scholastics; the human mind is incapable of possessing absolute truth--not by itself, not in this life, not through its own power or strength.]

Lent is a time of soul-searching, of penance, and contrition—for all of us, but most especially those of us who now occupy the position once held by the Scribes and Pharisees in Jesus’ day--we who call ourselves religious leaders, we who sometimes forget, not through malice but through simple weakness, that it is Christ and his truth we proclaim, not our own, not ourselves. And his truth possesses us; we do not possess it. Rather, we search for it; yearn and desire it, with our whole heart, mind, body, and soul--and in doing so, it heals us and sets us free.

We are fellow-discerners of the People of God; we aren’t God’s oracles. And with God’s people, we must discern God’s revelations which—as we see again and again in Jesus’ healings in the gospel, and as we see in Jesus himself—can come to us in things, experiences, persons, and events, we sometimes least expect to find them.

Putting God in a ‘box’, just as the scribes and Pharisees did, is a very real danger against which every Christian, and especially every religious leader must be on guard. The God of Jesus Christ is a God who refuses to be contained in our neat and tidy little categories and boxes. He reveals himself wherever, whenever, and in whomever He chooses.

Paradoxically enough, in all the narratives of the New Testament in which Jesus heals the sick or gives sight to the blind, especially on the Sabbath, those who think they have God all figured out, turn out to be the ones who really cannot see, and those who believe themselves well and have an extremely high opinion of themselves turn out to be the ones who are most in need of healing and the restoration of genuine sight. And so we pray:

Lord, heal me of my blindness and my illness, my biases, my prejudices. Tear open and shred the neat and tidy boxes into which I insist on putting you; break the chains I use to bind you which, in reality, are the very chains I use to shackle myself. Heal me, Lord, I want to be well; I want to see.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)