Jesus, the Prophet of Mud

This is the text from a recent sermon of mine taken from John 9 where Jesus heals the blind beggar. (We used the Message version of this story which seem to capture what was going on more clearly than the more literal translations).

Our text in John 9 is chalked full of things that could be addressed but I want to focus on just one of those things, the metaphor and riddle surrounding blindness and eyesight.

Up to this point in the Gospel, Jesus has been addressing various Questions about what it means to follow him, how we can become his disciples, or as John 1 says “Children of God.” Each episode and interaction Jesus has outlined receptivity or hostility to his overall demonstrations of his message. We become disciples of Jesus when we, like it says in John 1:12, extend hospitality to God and God’s message, opening ourselves up to those movements. Last week we witnessed a Samaritan woman who was able to receive Jesus as “the one who told me everything I have ever done,” the one who re-orients, and re-centers our lives.

_original blame

I mentioned last week that often John 4 is told as just another “woman gone wrong” type of story, looking to her as one to cast the blame upon and yet Jesus seems uninterested in her sin and more interested in offering her the gift of living water, which we referred to a “unlimited, or overflowing, life.”

And in our story this morning about a blind man, his friends, family and the pharisees we see blame as again sitting at the crux of the story.

Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem near the temple (the center and most powerful symbol of institutional religion — think the Vatican for Catholics or Philly for Quakers!) and had just challenged the temple system back in Chapter 7 and got the temple police called on him to arrest him.

Now that things have calmed down he and his disciples are walking about the city when they pass a beggar who is blind sitting near the temple where he could try and get a little money for food from passer-byes.

Because of the situation in that time, to be blind and beggar was a double-whammy.

Both were interpreted as being marked out as a sinner before God. In Jesus’ day a sinner was someone who was ostracized in one way or another from the temple religion, it was a social category, not an individual spiritual state. There are many possible reasons for this, one would be their nonconformity to Hebrew law, another, as in the case of this man, could be simply because he is disabled thus seen as a blight on that community. Because they were ostracized they were also deemed unclean or sinners and were had a lower position in society.

So here were find a ‘sinner’ blind and begging and his disciples want to know who is to blame for his situation. The man or his parents.

This is because the religious community had become so tied up in their interpretations of right and wrong that it cast blame freely and created a structure that had social ramifications.

Isn’t this the question that is so often held up as the most important in faith communities, and religions every where? Who really is to blame here? Who messed up? What’s the dirty little secret?

Then Jesus simple says:

There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do.

Instead of giving into a debate about whether there’s such a thing as original sin or not Jesus bypasses the debate, it doesn’t matter, what matters is what happens now. What God can do?

Why is blame something we get so tangled up inside of?

Jesus knew that blame is just another way of keeping people at a distance, deflecting the real issues. Blame draws lines. It shows that we think we are good at following the rules, but not good at accepting responsibility.

But here’s the main issue at stake in John 9: When we are busy casting blame we are unable to see, let alone participate in the works of God, and if we are unable to see the works of God, we are unable to receive the works of God. (Remember, the Gospel of John is about how to both receive and become a participant – disciple in the works of Jesus).

And so Jesus simply undercuts that whole system and says stop looking for blame “There is no such cause-effect here. Look instead for what God can do.”

_anointed with mud

So blindness then, in this passage is represented by a way of relating to God in which blame, shame, and religious ideology are used in a way that keeps some people on the outside and others on the inside. In fact, in the Gospel of John this kind of theology represents institutional religion, the kind of religion that keeps people in powerful and the powerful literally make money off of (this is what is behind the action at the temple with the whip).

So blind and blame are connected.

Then in the NRSV Jesus says “4 We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.  5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

In other words, if we’re not going to waste our time blaming and castigating, what should we do?

We must work the works.

It’s like exercise. Every time I hear those words “work the works” I can’t help but think of Richard Simmons doing his workout.

Jesus says, if we’re not going to cast blame, if we are going to counter-act religious blindness what we need to do is first, be ready and on the lookout for whatever God can do and second, we need to get to work. Work the works means engage in concrete actions, stop sitting around and debating the law. If you’re too busy with your eyes on the page of the law then you’ll miss what God is doing right in front of you.

In common parlance it would be: Don’t just sit there, do something!

And this is what Jesus does. He hocks a luggy. And then he mixes it together. He picks it up. Mashes it onto the guys’ face. And then he tells him to go wash it off.

Is this a new comedy central show? Jesus’ Greatest Pranks.

Hey, I’ve been a youth pastor before. I know how you get your students attention, but I can’t say I ever just spit on the ground to make a point. (I remember tossing chickens).

But we can safely say this isn’t just another drive by spitting. So what’s going on here?

Earlier I said that Jesus was challenging the whole temple religion, a system based on Moses and Moses’ law (9:28-29 We are Moses’ disciples). In effect, he’s saying that he is the new Moses, and there is a new law in town, and that law is based not on these laws that have been set up (the doctrines, the orthodoxies) but on the motion of love (And includes people like the woman and this blind beggar). Which creates quite a major clash with the religious gatekeepers of the time who actually call the (temple) cops on Jesus.

Then he spits on the ground. The mud that Jesus makes is central to this clash.

For one, spitting on the ground wasn’t just impolite it is in our time, it was down right offensive. And because it was a taboo, it was meant to catch the attention of those who would be watching. And the fact that it was an offensive move is clearly seen by all the people who get dragged into the story later – friends and neighbors, his parents, pharisees, the man himself.

Jesus sure was ruffling feathers and it wasn’t just because he healed a guy.

But the mud does symbolize healing as well. And by “healing” this man Jesus offered him a new life, one that was restored back into his community. He is no longer ostracized, he is no longer the “blind beggar.” And that kind of restoration can be rather disruptive, as was witnessed during the civil rights era, just how difficult it is for those who are prejudice to allow those once named and labeled in a certain way to break loose of that power. By healing this man Jesus brings this man back into wholeness, back into his community, and in the process challenges the very underlying racisim and prejudice of the religious establishment.

So, Mud is central to the clash.

The mud lies at the interface between those who are blind and those who see. And the mud is a “work” or a concrete act (I like to think of it as public theater) that calls into question who it is that is really blind?

In the clash between blindness and eyesight Jesus quite literally muddies the situation.

_being made blind Movement of Faith

Let’s press into this theme of blindness a little more. Jesus’ denouncement of blame, his call to work the works, and his making of the mud is ultimately a call to a different kind of faith, an alternative understanding of faith than what his contemporaries understood.

Here then blindness is a positive act. It is an act of unlearning one thing so that we might be open for a new thing, a new movement, a new message from God.

For Pharisees, much like today, the idea was that you show off your religiosity. You become pious and clean. You learn all the Law and the Scriptures and can compete in any battle over God necessary. You have the right answers. You become a teacher of the Law. You worship at the temple day and night. You make sacrifices. You get enough power to rub shoulders with some political leaders. You participate in a system that works for you but it doesn’t work for people like the Samaritan woman and the blind beggar. You become the kind of person who really sees.

And then Jesus shows up and does this public theater with the mud in the guys eyes.

He says, If you really want to see, first you have to become blind.

When a person is blind you typically cannot tell that they are so, at least not just by looking at their face. So Jesus offers a physical illustration of blindness by putting mud on this man’s eyes. The mud on his eyes was an invitation into true blindness, a blotting out of all that he had been taught, told, and called by his religious community that kept him ostracized.

There is no space for movement in this.

Questions and challenges are not allowed in this old religion. Doubting and rubbing shoulders with people who are “sinners” is always a threat to this system.

_From Blindness to Washing

Then Jesus put mud on his eyes as though to say forget it, become blind to it, unlearn it, go and be washed clean of that toxic story and enter into a new life and a new faith. I take the mud to be a physical illustration of Christ inviting his disciples to a different kind of faith one where you first need to become blind.

He essentially said to the beggar: “Here take some mud, smear it on your face and become blind. Unlearn that religiosity that has so oppressed and crippled humanity. That has drawn a line between you and the Samaritan, that has afflicted so much pain on this poor blind beggar, that keeps you from seeing what God can do.”

I know this is where a lot of you are at. What a lot of you need to hear. Questions, doubts, uncertainties, skepticism, etc. Some of you have been hurt by the “defenders” of truth. I take this passage to be saying Jesus is on your side. So, I want to affirm this both about your own growth in faith but also in how we hold that tension as a community.

There are a lot of you who are in need of something new. The old no longer works, and you want something that makes sense of where you are at and is real. You may come to learn that you’re going to need a divinely inspired facial.

And some of you are more or less starting out with what it means to be people of faith and grow within the Quaker tradition.

If this is a process that Christ is leading then it will involve both blindness and washing (and these two things cannot be rushed or done in our own time and they will happen more than once).

When we read the rest of the story we see that the Pharisees are the ones who think they see and they are unwilling to budge. They do not care that the guy was healed, they are made that Jesus healed on the sabbath thus breaking a religious code.  They are the ones who know without a doubt what is right and wrong, they are the ones who offer the interpretations and decide who is orthodox and who is a sinner.

[Joke: They are like the criminal who was faking blindness for disability benefits in Sapporo, Japan, when he filed a claim with police saying he had been ‘run over by a red car.’]

They were exposed as the ones who were truly blind to God.

They had not yet been washed.

Blindness is necessary in the process of discipleship. But we cannot stay there either.  If we get stuck in our systems of belief, our orthodoxies as well as our doubts, our questions, our skepticism, then we have not yet finished this whole process.

We all need a little mud in the eyes and a good rinsing.

Here then for Lent we are invited to get a divine facial, to be blinded and be washed.

If we are to follow Jesus, the prophet of mud, it will be in becoming blind, unlearning and dismantling those parts of our “religion” that keep us from working the works and from seeing what God can do. If we follow Jesus, the prophet of mud, he will help us to see again.