Jesus can't help himself...

Gospel: John 5:1-18

Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. 3In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralysed. 5One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 6When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?’ 7The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.’ 8Jesus said to him, ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’ 9At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.

Now that day was a sabbath. 10So the Jews said to the man who had been cured, ‘It is the sabbath; it is not lawful for you to carry your mat.’ 11But he answered them, ‘The man who made me well said to me, “Take up your mat and walk.” ’ 12They asked him, ‘Who is the man who said to you, “Take it up and walk”?’ 13Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had disappeared in the crowd that was there. 14Later Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, ‘See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.’ 15The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well. 16Therefore the Jews started persecuting Jesus, because he was doing such things on the sabbath. 17But Jesus answered them, ‘My Father is still working, and I also am working.’ 18For this reason the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because he was not only breaking the sabbath, but was also calling God his own Father, thereby making himself equal to God.

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Jesus can't help himself

The readings in recent weeks are often about seeing a new reality. In One Thing Leads to Another I quote Richard Carlson: What has changed is the scope of 'all.' And I began that post by saying "even now, we have barely understood what it means when God says to Peter, 'What God has made clean, you must not call profane.'" And I say of John 14 this week, in May Peace Be Upon You that

He is speaking of the deeper reality which we can only approach through contemplation, poetry, art, and the gospel; the reality of living and reflecting upon, and desiring— giving ourselves to, that ultimate beauty which can be called Glory. So, this week, I cannot explain John 14. I can only witness to the reality of it. I can only say, "Yes! I have felt this too!" The peace the world cannot give has to be lived rather than 'understood.' Or, at least, lived... before we can begin to describe it.

After writing that post, I turned to some commentary on the alternate reading in John 5. Brian Stoffregen quotes something remarkable about Jesus.

...his breaking of the sabbath seems pointless and unnecessary. He is not performing a good deed that, if delayed, would become unperformable. This is not a man who needs immediate rescue, not a man laying unconscious in a burning house. This is not even a man whose case is like the one Jesus cites to justify the healing -- a sheep fallen into a pit who would drown if left till sundown. The Pharisees are reasonable men. Of course they would pull out the sheep. If you care to make a rather Latin-style theological argument for them, you might have them reason that since the sabbath is the chief sacrament of the order of creation, it may lawfully be broken only if some significant individual instance of that order is in danger of imminent and irreversible disordering.

But that is not the case here. This man has had a withered hand for years [or been ill for 38 years]. Why in God's good name can't Jesus wait out the afternoon and cure him without flying in the face of the Torah? Why can't he sit with him till sunset and use the time to fix the man's mind on the graciousness of God? Why can't they search the Scriptures together and set the stage so that the healing will be seen in all its unquestionable rightness? What is the point of this unnecessary muddying of the water?

He is quoting Robert Farrar Capon who, in Between Noon and Three,  goes on to say

Whenever someone attempts to introduce a radically different insight to people whose minds have been formed by an old and well-worked-out way of thinking, he is up against an obstacle. Their taste, as Jesus said, for the old wine is so well established that they invariably prefer it to the new. More than that, the new wine, still fermenting, seems to them so obviously and dangerously full of power that they will not even consider putting it into their old and fragile wineskins.

But try to see the point of the biblical imagery of wine-making a little more abstractly. The new insight is always at odds with the old way of looking at things. Even if the teacher's audience were to try earnestly to take it in, the only intellectual devices they have to pick it up with are the categories of the old system with which it conflicts. Hence the teacher's problem: if he leaves in his teaching a single significant scrap of the old system, their minds, by their very effort to understand, will go to that scrap rather than to the point he is making and, having done that, will understand the new only insofar as it can be made to agree with the old -- which is not at all. [pp. 140-142]

Stoffregen says Capon concludes

that if Jesus had waited until sundown, his wonderful miracle would have supported the people's expectations of a victorious and immortal messiah -- one "who is coming to punch the enemies of the Lord in the nose."

It does seem as though Jesus just couldn't help himself when it came to healing people in a way that would cause offence to the establishment. And yet it's clear why. Unless something radically different breaks in on our consciousness in a way that is startling, or aggressive, or even offensive, then we often don't see it for what it is. We remove its offence, or we domesticate it in some way, or we simply forget it.

We all live inside our own view of the world; some would say we live within a paradigm (Kuhn) or an episteme. (Focault) Whatever we call it, and however we nuance it, we live in a reality which we may not much like, but which is our reality; we know it or, at least, we think we do. Going outside of it is really frightening, and extremely hard work. Everything about us works to prevent us from going outside.

I have a friend for whom there'll be a new thing, a great new idea, and a new enthusiasm which is going to set their world to rights. And indeed, things blossom for a little while... but then something always goes wrong, and the new way of being fades out of sight. I recognise this as self-sabotage. It has to go wrong, or my friend might get better; they might even become happy! And why can I see this? Well, it's much easier to see in someone else (that is, blame them) what I don't want to see and accept responsibility for with-in myself. I am just like them. I can't help myself. I self-sabotage.

I shout myself down. My self-criticism drives my wife crazy.

I desire freedom. But I know, too, why [I] cried, "Oh... An-drew!" For just now I am being offered a slight increase of territory, a new area of freedom, an expanded life. And the world, the not-peace part of me is reacting with terror: stay safe, don't leave, be careful. Listen to us! You are ours, you belong here. Do as you are told! (One Man's Web: May Peace Be Upon You

It is hugely difficult to perceive how much we blinker our own view of the world, for our survival— being able to bear to live— depends upon not letting ourselves see that the world might be different, and therefore, since it is different, might in fact be just as dangerous as we always feared. Why would we risk losing control again? Richard Beck explains the reality expressed by Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death like this:

the higher cognitive and symbolic capacities of humans make our workaday lives existentially unbearable. The specter of death looms over all, making a mockery of our life projects. Our primal instincts for self-preservation come up short in the face of our cognitive capacities, which continually remind us that death is unavoidable. This clash between our self-preservation instinct and our ever-present death awareness creates an extreme burden of anxiety that other animals are spared. (The Slavery of Death, Chapter 3)

And so we reject the offering of something truly new— something deep in us tells us our life depends on this rejection, and that it is better not to disturb things. Or, like the man in the story of John 5, we grasp onto something of the surface of a new thing, but in reality, it becomes merely a gloss painted over our old being, which remains fundamentally unchanged.

The man in John Chapter 5 couldn't help himself; he couldn't get to the pool unassisted. But he was healed, it appeared; he could now walk. He had been healed, it appeared, like the man who had been born blind, in John Chapter 9. But the man who had been born blind, refused to kow-tow to the Pharisees and the authorities who were opposed to Jesus. He refused to be intimidated, even though they cast him out of the synagogue. Which is another way of saying they thrust him out of his paradigm,  and they sought to exile him from the reality in which he lived, and which gave him life. Whereas the man in John chapter 5 simply dobbed Jesus in to the authorities and walked off. In the grace of God, he remained able to walk, but he also remained blind.

I think Jesus does not come into the world to paint over things and give a surface appearance of things being better. That's what politicians do. That's what they're offering us this coming Saturday in Australia with the federal election. Everything, under the surface, will remain the same regardless of the outcome. The reality of life will not change. There will simply be a slight shuffling around of the winners and losers in society and, mostly, it will benefit those who are already numbered among the winners.

Jesus offers us a change which, although it is healing and life giving, and saves us, requires the undergoing of great pain. The pain of the cross which we take upon ourselves when we follow him, is not, first of all, the pain perhaps visited upon us by people are frightened by us because we renounce our privilege. It is, first of all, the pain of discovering and being inducted into a new world.

In my early adulthood, I fell into the paradigm of Fundamentalism. I wanted to be safe; I wanted to have certainty, and it appeared that fundamentalism offered this. And for a while I had a certainty, and everything hung together well, and it was so exciting, and such a relief. And then I began to realise that I was trapped in a dead end. I tried to find a way out. I began to read people who were not the safe and approved authors of my paradigm and my slavery. And one afternoon I paused in my reading, absolutely stunned by what I had just read.

I found myself on the top of a high, dark tower in an equally dark night. Standing on the very edge of the parapet, I felt myself being sucked out... that kind of overbalancing which there is no stopping, even though there seems no reason for it. I began to fall out into the darkness- a moment of utter terror- until for some reason, my feet almost glued to the wall, I was able to sway back to safety. In the middle of the day I had been somewhere else, and utterly terrorized. (OMW)

But this was the beginning of healing.

Later, as I described this experience to a friend, he said, "Aha! The moment of revelation!" And I saw he was right. That terrifying blackness had been something of God showing me more of reality; showing me the reality that the world and the Bible was not the neat package I had worked out for myself. But it had frightened me because it was destroying my ordered world and offering me something different. Something that was better and more accurate, but frightening because I couldn't understand it and control it. OMW

Each life is different, but all of us face a moment where we need to enter into a world which is different, which challenges us, which frightens us. Or else, we will remain where we are, trapped. We might even learn to walk again, or be healed of a disease, or become rich, but we will always be trapped in a place which seems safe, but which we are too frightened to leave. And therefore, we will not see that it is a slavery.

Christians live in a world of cognitive dissonance.

The term cognitive dissonance is used to describe the feelings of discomfort that result when your beliefs run counter to your behaviours and/or new information that is presented to you. People tend to seek consistency in their attitudes and perceptions, so when what you hold true is challenged or what you do doesn't jibe with what you think, something must change in order to eliminate or reduce the dissonance (lack of agreement). A classic example of this is "explaining something away." (The emphasis is mine.)

It has ever been so. In John's time, we see this being expressed in John 14, the alternate gospel reading for this week. The question that's hanging over people is how can the world be good if Jesus is going to leave us. That's the question that's hanging around in the drama of CE 30 that John presents, which means it was clearly a live question for the original readers of the Gospel of John perhaps 70 years later. It is still a live question; how can it be that life is good, and that we are saved, when Jesus is not here? It's been a long time.

How can it be that evil persists if Jesus has triumphed? How it is that people could not see Jesus for who he was, and that so many of them— most of them— rejected the Messiah? Are we crazy, or are they simply not hearing his voice because they don't belong to him. (That answer in John chapter 10:26 raises other questions.)

Of course, it could be that we do live in a world of cognitive dissonance. A world that sees only scarcity in the midst of God's abundance; a world which thinks we can heal violence with violence— The Myth of Redemptive Violence; (or see Walter Wink) a world which thinks death is the end, and which has no conception that death is our category mistake, a turning point in life which is, in fact, not an ending of that part of God's creation which is us. If the world has been created good, where does the dissonance lie?

It all depends on your point of view. Sit in a new paradigm and the same world can look entirely different, or parts of it which were invisible are now certainly and strangely prominent, and other parts of it have faded into relative irrelevance, or almost disappeared. Old ambiguities become plain.

So Jesus offers us in his salvation a new paradigm, a new way of being in the world. But how do we get across the vast gap from one paradigm to another— the gap is real; I cannot understand how I believed what I believed as a fundamentalist. If we wanted to take the leap of faith— for we can only trust and hope, in my experience, how do we leap out of our safe world into the unknown? From my experience, we do not create the new paradigm. Neither do we understand it beforehand and decide to adopt it, for in western culture, to understand a thing really means we master it. But new paradigm is something we can barely see, if we can see it at all. Rather, we simply find ourselves there. We find we are seeing what always was but which we could not see. The difference between the two men in John 5 and John 9 was that one continued to see, and continued to look. The other one walked away, even though Jesus came and found him. He stayed safe and he stayed blind.

Entering the new paradigm begins with offering ourselves. At the end of his book, Becker said

The most that any one of us can seem to do is to fashion something— an object or ourselves—and drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it, so to speak, to the life force. (pp285)

Entering the new paradigm of the resurrection life means keeping on trying to understand what cannot be understood, (even in the end,) trusting that one day the confusion will become clear and a new world will come into focus. We simply offer ourselves.

To offer ourselves means beginning to live as Jesus lived even though it makes no sense, and even though what we do see of his life seems mostly to promise... cost. It's being like the student who is overwhelmed in the new semester, but resolves to go on in trust that eventually she will see. And finds at the end that she has found a new world. It's like learning a language:

I was leaning against a fence outside a pub in central Australia one day.  A Pitjantjatjara man stood next to me, and we had rapidly exhausted our stock of common English and Pitjantjara words. As we stood contemplating the hills, two bright shiny new cars arrived off the long dusty highway from the south. Out hopped six young Japanese students, black trousers, white shirts, all bespectacled and camera bearing. They began to take multiple photos of the pub, as if there were some architectural marvel my companion and I had not noticed. We marvelled at them. Eventually the man from Imanpa mumbled to me out of the side of his mouth, "They all look the same, don't they?" It was one of those hilariously funny and incisive Pitjantjatjara digs at white racism. But the stunning thing was that I had heard him. I did not have to translate him. For a moment I was in the new reality.

So we step in. God forgives us when we step back, when we deny Jesus, when we dob him in, as it were. But each time we live as Jesus lived, each time we make ourselves vulnerable, each time we risk loving, being compassionate, being in danger so that someone is not alone— each time we do that, we somehow open ourselves to seeing the world as it really is.

There's a fascinating comment from Malina and Rohrbaugh (Social-Science Commentary on the Gospel of John) which is repeated in Stoffregen's commentary on this text. Jesus has said

‘See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you.’

They say

If we assume that Jesus' reference to something "worse" happening to the man is a reference to his illness, the puzzle is indeed present. Jesus seems to be threatening another disease if the man should sin again. But if we recognize that in Mediterranean societies "sin" is a breach of interpersonal relations, there ceases to be a problem. For if sin is whatever destroys one's relationship with the group, and if we note that this man was devoid of friends to put him in the pool, Jesus' comment makes perfect sense. As a friendless outcast, the man was indeed a "sinner," an outsider unattached to a group. He may have been sick, but he was also ill. Given his age and the short life expectancies in antiquity, should the man repeat whatever disrupted his relationship with the group, he would indeed risk the worst of all fates: having no one to bury and remember him. [p. 112]

So... with which group did the man keep relationship— the people of the Way, or the Ioudaioi? For our group will enlighten our world view or overshadow it.

Andrew Prior (2019)

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!

This post follows on from One Thing Leads to Another, and May Peace Be Upon You.



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