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John 9 is a deep meditation upon a story of Jesus meeting a blind man. The man is described as born blind and blind from birth. We are told his eyes are opened; his sight is received; he had formerly been blind. (See here) The meditation is not about physical healing, but about seeing.
It is hard to see clearly, and difficult to see life for ourselves. As John 9 says, "Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind." (John 9:32)
There are always people who wish to define what we see. The story of the man who had been born blind leads us into John Chapter 10. For his story is a story of Jesus' argument with the gatekeepers of the faith. Those careful keepers of rules we call Pharisees tend also to be arbiters of people's faith. They are gatekeepers of people's access to God. They define what it means to be in relationship with God, or not.
The man was told he was "born entirely in sins," and driven out of the synagogue. (John 9:33) His vision of God, and his relationship with reality, was defined as wrong. Therefore he did not see. The Pharisees did not let him pass. They defined him as a sinner.
35 Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ 36He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ 37Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ 38He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him. 39Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ 40Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ 41Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.
10:1 ‘Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. 2The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. 3The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. 5They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.’ 6Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.
7 So again Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, I am* the gate for the sheep. 8All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. 9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture. 10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.
11 ‘I am* the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. 14I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, 15just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.
It turns out the ones who have appointed themselves as gatekeepers and insiders of the faith have actually jumped the fence. They are imposters not recognised by the only true gatekeeper. The shepherd of the sheep does not fence people off from God, he leads them in and out of God's presence, calling them by name. The image of being led to pasture is obvious, etched into our consciousness by the twenty third psalm. But also present is the image of being taken into the house of God, the sheepfold, past the gatekeeper.
I am your true shepherd
I will lead you there …
In my house you'll dwell forever
You shall not want for care
Surely goodness and mercy will follow you
Come and meet me in the middle of the air
I will meet you in the middle of the air
Come and meet me in the middle of the air
The shepherd leads us into the holy of holies!
Paul Kelly's beautiful song combines Psalm 23 and 1 Thessalonians 4:17. According to Fr. Chris Ryan, Paul Kelly says the line from 1 Thessalonians
has been around for a hundred years in blues, Gospels and spirituals. Woody Guthrie, Dylan, Led Zeppelin have all used the line, asking God/Jesus to meet them in the middle of the air. It has become a key phrase in the history of American music for expressing the human being’s desire for God.
This is where Paul Kelly’s use of the line takes a significant twist, because in the past it has been used as an invocation, as a prayer that the singer prays expressing his or her desire for God, his or her desire to be met by Jesus. But in Kelly’s song, the protagonist is not the human person, it’s God. It is God who is saying, ‘come and meet me in the middle of the air’. It is God telling us that he is our true Shepherd, who will lead us home. In this lyrical twist Kelly is being deeply faithful, perhaps more faithful than he realises, to a critical scriptural insight: that our desire for God is superabundantly surpassed and fulfilled in God’s desire for us.
There's a twist in John, too, for suddenly the Shepherd is the gate for the sheep. (10:7) We read that the Gatekeeper has opened the gate for the shepherd because the shepherd is the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.
The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. 13The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.
The Pharisee does not care for the sheep but is a "thief [who] comes only to steal and kill and destroy." If we think this is only a story about an ancient Jewish religious group, then our eyes are not yet opened. Gatekeepers and rule makers— faith arbiters— are defining a safe place for themselves and are fencing out those who threaten this safe place. Our only use to them is as people who relieve their insecurity by joining them— aha! We are right, they agree with us! or, we are useful as people who may be cast as sinners to confirm their prejudices.
Pharisaism uses people. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for people; he lays down his life for the sheep. That's why he is the gate. The laying down of life for others means a person becomes a gateway into the presence of God. They reveal the deep reality of our existence which is that we are called into life through and by our dying.
In its original setting the text is incredibly savage: "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy." Matthew said, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you cross sea and land to make a single convert, and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves." (Mt. 23:15) The authors reflect the battle of the new community against the old.
In the wider context, these verses suggest that life lived by strict rules, by right belief, and by the keeping of a gate around God, is deadly. It means our sin remains; (John 9:41) that is, our very attempt to hold the Divine in a box for our own existential insurance** fences us off from God.
Because the man who had been blind follows Jesus, he is led into life; into abundant life. He sees the imposter gate-keepers for what they are and can pass by them.
How can we have our eyes open to abundant life? There is a great tragedy in the text of John, for the Pharisees think they have their eyes open. They think they can see. They know they are living the life. To be a Pharisee is to be self-deceiving.
The contrast John draws is between the folk who are reckless about their safety— Jesus and the man who had been blind, and those folk who are determined to be safe. The psychological roots of Pharisaism are an attempt to be safe in the face of our human vulnerability and inevitable death, by defining how to relate to God. Not defining our faith in the sense of being prepared to give an account of our faith (1 Peter 3:15) to others, or for the soul searching of ourselves, but in the sense of defining how others must believe; that is, what they must see. That urge stems from our need to protect ourselves; it shuts the gate on the fearsome question of what will happen to us and to our God if someone doesn't agree with us, by arbitrarily defining them as wrong, and as blind.
John shows us a Jesus who lays down his life for the sheep, and a man with opened eyes who is prepared to lose his community life by being cast out of the synagogue.
For myself, I am reminded of Auntie Flood. She was, I think, my father's favourite Auntie. She died before his last surviving sibling was born. I often ride past the cemetery where she is buried, but have never made time to find the plot. No one who knew her remains. In a few years her grave will be ripped up and re-used. No one will know Auntie Flood; perhaps she will be a name in an archive, somewhere. This is my story, too. I will die. In a few years no one will remember me. Twenty years after I die, most people who knew me will also be dead. A few more years, and I may be the name of a great grandparent in an eight year old's school project. But then, after that, no one will care.
I don’t know what to make of this. On good days my prayer includes the words
… I shall die.
Whatever is needful will be mine
and what is not needed shall be taken from me… all shall be well.
On harder days, it all seems rather pointless.
But one thing remains clear, even on the worst of days. Seeking to remain safe by building fences around my belief, does nothing to protect me from your differing ideas about life, let alone your physical predations. It simply boxes me in, closes my eyes, and suffocates my living. My only freedom is to surrender my life.
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!
* I am is ego eimi. It is a play on the name of God I am. So in John 8:58, Jesus says, "Before Abraham was, I am."
** English has three words which are similar. Ensure is to make sure things happen. Assure is to remove doubt. Insure pays a fee to compensate for loss. (See here) When we seek to ensure our assurance it costs us.
Previously on One Man's Web
John 9: 1-41 - When Mud Gets in Your Eyes
John 10 - The Discernment of Shepherds and Sheep
John 10 - A Voice calling my Name
John 10 - Sheep and Other Mamils
John 10:11-18 - Life in all its fullness
John 10:11-19 - Meeting a Distant Shepherd
John 10:11-19 and Psalm 23 - Living in the Long Paddock
You can find more reflections on biblical texts on the Lectionary page.
Father Chris Ryan - Paul Kelly, Salvador Dali and the Crucifixion of Jesus (note that the link to Kelly's song is broken. See the link below)
Listen to this – I will meet you in the middle of the air
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