The experience of silence is now so rare that we must cultivate it and treasure it. This is especially true for shared silence. Sharing silence is, in fact, a political act. Gunilla Norris
A few years ago, as one of the last assignments in my Biblical Greek class, I had to translate the lengthy narrative from John’s Gospel of the healing of the man born blind. Previous lessons had required only brief translations of a few sentences, so my heart sank when I saw these multiple pages of Greek letters staring me in the face. But the slow pace of translation makes the process of uncovering the text feel like a detective novel and I started getting really into it, wondering what was going to happen next.
A story I was vaguely familiar with as just another one of Jesus’ many, mostly interchangeable healings became full of twists and turns as the poor guy gets summoned before the Pharisees (as if he’s done something wrong), then his parents get dragged in and throw their son under the bus (“He is of age; ask him!”), then he’s cast out from the synagogue, ultimately ending up as a new disciple. This is not a placid story of some wretched beggar receiving a miraculous cure, this is a hard-fought salvation, not only for the healed man who has to try to protect this beautiful miracle that happened to him from being destroyed by the spiritual mudslinging of the authorities, but also for Jesus, who knows the danger of what he’s undertaking.
Political, Not Just Spiritual Healing
This healing must be understood as a political act–a brave one, at that, because immediately before this, the authorities have just tried to stone Jesus for blasphemy. But instead of doing what I surely would have done and laying low till it all blows over, he encounters this blind man and heals him on the Sabbath, then afterwards, digs himself deeper into a hole by continuing to preach to the Pharisees about their misunderstanding of God’s identity, of course inspiring them to promptly try to stone him again.
Giving God Away for Free
So Jesus knows what he’s getting into. This is not a quiet act of compassion, but a public rebuke to the legalistic teachings of the Pharisees. What causes Jesus to pick this particular man for healing is that the disciples have been taught in their faulty spiritual formation that physical afflictions are a result of sin, so they ask Jesus about that and he shoots it down verbally, then adds in an object lesson to bring his message home. By healing this man, Jesus makes clear that the religious authorities are peddling a tired, corrupt version of religion meant to prop up their own power.
The Pharisees don’t want people to have hope in a forgiving, transforming God of light, they want them to believe in a harsh God who metes out punishment for sin and can only be mollified by sacrificial offerings to the temple–that’s what puts money in their pockets. But Jesus is giving away God for free with no offerings required. In fact, he is the one giving offerings of healings, teachings, and feedings to his followers.
And this particular follower matches Jesus’ bravery by refusing to succumb to the pressure of the authorities. The whole power of this passage is summed up in the moment when the man calmly faces off against his interrogators and proclaims, “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”(25b) The quote that begins this blog speaks of the political power of silence, and here we have its companion: the political power of truth. Simply by telling the truth about what happened to him, the healed man enrages the Pharisees. “Fake news!” they say, (or the first century version therof) and cast him out.
Solitude and Silence: Spiritual Disciplines, Political Statements
A recent New York Times article about Donald Trump’s staff picks had a throwaway line that caught my attention, which said that the president “detests solitude.” When I first read it, I was annoyed, seeing it as just another example of poor leadership practices. If you can’t spend time alone, how can you expect to ever think deeply about anything and make reflective decisions? But then I realized how heartbreaking that was, to not enjoy the company of your closest companion from cradle to grave: your own soul. How unfathomably lonely.
In solitude and silence we seek God, and in truth-telling we honor God. These two practices, emphasized in most religions, are political acts because in them, we come to know our own power, independent of what the authorities want us to believe–the lies that put money in their pockets. So just as Jesus used a private experience of healing as a political statement, so must we understand what seem to be our private moments of silence, solitude, contemplation, prayer as political statements.
Neither Truth Nor God Are Dead
Time magazine asked on this week’s cover, “Is Truth dead?” in a recreation of their famous paradigm-shifting 1966 cover which asked “Is God dead?” The man healed of blindness cuts across time and history to speak to us and bear witness that despite multiple attempts to kill them, both truth and God are very much alive. We must join our witness to his and stand on the side of God and truth, for history will judge our navigation of these times as it does those who lived under apartheid, under McCarthyism, under Nazism, as it does the witness of this anonymous man healed by Jesus, living under the Roman Empire, who refused to be bullied into lying about the grace he freely received. His story has endured; may the stories we tell today of what we know of God and truth also endure. Let us be fearless in telling the truth, and fearless in the silence, trusting God will speak to us and never leave us alone.
Based on sermon preached at Sophia Alternative Worship, Pasadena, March 26, 2017