There’s an old joke about a woman who was making a roast from her Great-Grandmother’s infamous recipe. She did everything as it stated and was very pleased when it turned out well for the family gathering she was planning. But one thing kept bothering her. After the meal she took her mother aside and asked her about the recipe. “Mom, Why do we cut the ends off of the roast? I remember you always doing that, but it seems like we’re wasting good meat.” Her Mom had no idea why she always cut the ends off, but it was part of the recipe and she didn’t want to change it because there must be a good reason. Weeks later when the woman went to visit her Grandmother, she asked her Grandmother why that was part of the recipe and what she ever did with the ends of the roast. Her Grandmother just started laughing. “My Mother’s pan was too short to fit the roast in,” she said, “and I inherited her pan. Don’t cut the ends off if it fits in your pan!”
There are traditions that make sense for those who come up with them, and then there are traditions that we hang onto without realizing that it was the tradition behind the tradition that was the important part. In her book God:Unbound, Elaine Heath says that as people of faith we have to “protect the tradition behind the tradition” of our faith. When we hold up a certain way of doing worship or a way of being a Christian that doesn’t make any sense in our cultural context or our way of experiencing the world today, than we have replaced the Gospel of Christ for something else— something not worth our time and energy.
Jesus is facing the same problem in his day. His cultural context is that the Pharisees, or religious leaders, hold the authority over God’s law— the rituals and habits of what people can or can’t do— and they have the power to call people clean or unclean; to keep them out of the temple or to welcome them in; to judge whether someone has broken the law or is keeping it. So when Jesus comes along and doesn’t fit into their box; doesn’t follow their rules; doesn’t abide by how they interpret the law, they don’t know what to do with him. And so they do what so many of us do when faced with something we don’t understand— they become afraid.
You can see this in the Pharisees’ behavior and in the behavior of the people around the man. The man who was born blind was led to the Pharisees by his neighbors because they couldn’t decide whether this was really the blind man or not, even though he kept telling them that it was him. The Pharisees start with a line of questioning, and it starts innocently enough: Who did this? How did he do it? But then the questions turn to show their judgment of the event: “How is it possible for Jesus to do this when Jesus is the one breaking the law of the sabbath by healing?” — In other words, tell us how this can fit into our box. And then, finally, “What do you say about Jesus?” The focus shifts from one of curiosity and information; to one of theology and explanation; to one of shaming and punishment. If the man says that Jesus is the Son of God, he will be thrown out of the synagogue— banished— which is ironic since he has been there begging— not really a part of the community in a healthy way, his whole life. So the man replies, “He is a prophet.”
This is totally unsatisfying for the Pharisees, who want to have someone to blame; someone to make this make sense; or at the very least, someone to discredit what Jesus has done so they can dismiss it. So they go to the man’s parents. “Is this your son? Was he born blind? How is it he can see?”
And here we see how fear spreads. For when the Pharisees come to the parents, questioning them out of their own fear, the man’s parents begin to be afraid. They don’t want him to be expelled from the synagogue— so they tell the Pharisees that their son is old enough to answer their questions himself.
So they go back to the man. Do you see the fear? It’s rampant at this point. The neighbors are afraid because they don’t understand the healing; the Pharisees are afraid because they don’t understand it and it’s coming from a source outside of their realm of authority; and the parents are afraid because they don’t want to lose their connection to God— their connection to their faith community— and in a small town— truly, their place in their community.
So who is living unafraid in this story? There are two people. One, is Jesus. We’ve been talking about how it is that he lives with courage; how it is that he puts himself out there in vulnerability time and time again; how it is that he speaks the truth and trusts in God which keeps him from reacting out of fear to his life circumstances. It is in his living in vulnerability, in courage, in truth, that allows Jesus to protect the tradition behind the tradition. Jesus knows that this man is more important the letter of the law. Jesus knows that this man, who was born blind and has had to beg in order to live, has not had a sabbath in his lifetime. So Jesus sees the man, mixes his own spit with the dirt of the earth, and spreads it on the man’s eyes and heals him. He uses what he has; he knows the power he can share; and even though it'll mean more conflict with the religious leaders, more confusion which will lead to his death, he lives out his life unafraid and God’s love is made known in a new way.
But just in case you think it's impossible for us to live like that since we are not Jesus, there is another person in this story who lives unafraid. And that is the man born blind.
This man will not be intimidated by the religious leaders who have been keeping him out for so long; he will not be pushed into saying something that isn’t true just to keep them comfortable. The man relates to Jesus as one dignified human being to another; he answer the questions of the Pharisees with respect; he points out the discrepancies in their beliefs and isn’t afraid to question their hypocrisy. He even asks the Pharisees if they are questioning him because they want to follow Jesus. He doesn’t blame someone else for what has happened to him. He won’t drop to their level and try to explain something that is a mystery. And he chooses in that moment to use the power that he has to speak the truth; to live into courage; to be vulnerable enough for God’s love to shine through. He is living unafraid.
We have the power to react out of our fear; to protect our institutions and our roles no matter what it costs us and those around us; or we have the power that God gives us to build relationships; to be part of healing one another; to offer each other kindness, compassion, and dignity; to share the power we have so that God’s love and power can grow.
We have been praying for God's Spirit to move in new ways, and what that means, is we have to have the courage to name that Spirit when we see it or feel it and be open to where it may lead us. We have to be willing to give up our own ideas at times and our own sense of control and allow God to lead us. We have to use the power we have not to hold on to our own lives with clenched fists, but to see how it is that God is calling us to let go and make room for new life. It is a struggle that is seen throughout Scripture— Old and New Testament; it is a struggle seen throughout history— ancient and recent; it is a struggle we will always be living with, because we worship a God that doesn’t fit into any of our boxes. And we are people who don’t fit into our own stereotypes. So let’s try living unafraid— recognizing the fears we have, but not letting them control how we will respond to our world; putting our trust in the Spirit that brings life and hope and love; and using the power we have to further God’s Kingdom in this world.
Resources Used: God Unbound by Elaine Heath Working Preacher Podcast out of Luther Seminary