Do we see God’s work in all creation? – Dennis Ormseth reflects on John 9.
Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2014)
Readings for the Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)
1 Samuel 16:1-13
The theme of God’s presence in the “water and Spirit,” or alternately “living waters,” identified with Jesus was first introduced in the Gospel reading for the Second Sunday in Lent. As developed in the reading for the Third Sunday, it has drawn us into a complex set of relationships crucial for appropriating the significance of the Gospel for this Fourth Sunday of care for creation.
When Nicodemus the Pharisee comes to Jesus looking for God, he is told that in order to see the kingdom of God one must be born from above, and that to enter the kingdom of God one must be born of water and the Spirit (John 3:3-5); in this context, we explored the significance of Spirit for the healing and restoration of the creation, the cosmos God loves.
Then, in Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman, we heard that Jesus’ gift of “living waters” brings eternal life (that is, life in the eternal presence of God), thus setting aside the divisive question of whether one should worship God with the Samaritans on Mt. Gerazim or with the Jews on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem; in this context, we also sought to understand the significance of the universal presence of water in the creation, as integral to the practice of Christian life.
Now, in the lesson for this Sunday, the evangelist takes us into the temple complex in Jerusalem, where once again water and the presence of God are closely linked in “living waters.” The story is about a man born blind who now sees; what one “sees” taking place with Jesus on the grounds of the temple is the central concern of the reading. Thus, the Gospel circles round to the question first raised by Nicodemus: How does one “see” the Kingdom of God, and what does such sight confer upon the person who follows Jesus? Our readings from 1 Samuel 16 and Psalm 23 suggest an answer: To see God one needs good eyes, even such as David had, in seeing the presence of God not only “in green pastures” and “beside still waters,” but also in ‘the darkest valley.’
The story of the man born blind is accordingly connected to these earlier episodes by its setting in the complex of the Jerusalem temple. The story, Raymond E. Brown observes, comes “in the aftermath of Tabernacles,” that is, the Feast of Tabernacles which is the setting for chapters 7 and 8 of the Gospel. Accordingly, it will be helpful to describe briefly the festival as it might have been celebrated in Jesus’ day. The third major feast in the Jewish calendar, the Feast of Tabernacles (or Sukkot, as it is commonly known today) combines, strikingly, remembrance of the wilderness wandering with the celebration of the triumphant arrival of the Messiah on Zion. The booths into which the people move recalled the former, while the latter, at least in Jerusalem, was observed in solemn ceremony celebrating the “day of the Lord” according to the account of Zechariah 9-14, which Brown summarizes as follows:
The messianic king comes to Jerusalem, triumphant and riding on an ass (ix 9); Yahweh pours out a spirit of compassion and supplication on Jerusalem (Xii 10); He opens up a fountain for the house of David to cleanse Jerusalem (xiii 1); living waters flow out from Jerusalem to the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea (xiv 8); and finally, when all enemies are destroyed, people come up year after year to Jerusalem to keep Tabernacles properly (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 1996, p. 326).
Like Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob, the Feast of Tabernacles is about water. As we suggested in our comment on that earlier story, the provision of water has great religious significance for the life of the people. There it was linked to the presence of God on Mount Gerazim. Here it is linked to the presence of God on the Mt. Zion. The celebration in Jerusalem acknowledged that water was essential for the well-being of the land (from the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean Sea!): Priests offered prayers for rain, and the people were put on notice that there would be no rain for those who did not attend the ceremonies. Each morning of the week-long festival, golden pitchers filled with water were carried up through the city to the Temple and emptied through a silver funnel onto the ground. On the last day, the priest circled the altar seven times. According to Brown’s reading of chapters 7 and 8, Jesus was present in Jerusalem for this festival, and “it was at this solemn moment in the ceremonies on the seventh day that the teacher from Galilee stood up in the temple court to proclaim solemnly that he was the source of living water . . . . Their prayers for water had been answered in a way they did not expect; the feast that contained within itself the promise of the Messiah had been fulfilled . . .” (Ibid. p. 327).
Brown points to two specific elements of the narrative of the healing of the man born blind that connect it to the waters of the Feast of Tabernacles. First, the water used in the ceremonies was drawn from the pool of Siloam, where the blind man was sent by Jesus to wash. And secondly, the tension with the Pharisees on account of that healing first came into the open with Jesus’ pronouncement regarding his “living waters.” It is important to note that the central issue in that conflict—seeing and acknowledging the presence of God in the city as that presence was manifest in the flowing of waters from the Temple grounds—was a major theme of the ceremonies; examining the man born blind who now sees, the Pharisees’ concern is clearly to refute the identification of Jesus as God’s Messiah (Brown, p. 376). It is perhaps also noteworthy that the means of healing was mud made by Jesus from his saliva and dirt, like the water spilled on the ground in the ceremony; Irenaeus, Brown notes, saw in the mud “a symbol of man’s being created from the earth” (Brown, p. 372).
Thus when Jesus tells his disciples that the man was born blind not because of sin but rather “so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (more on this statement later), the reader is alerted to the larger significance of the narrative: beyond both the healing itself and the controversy it occasioned, this story is about seeing or not seeing what God does to make life in the land flourish in and through the flow of water. As Brown points out, “Although Jesus’ gestures are described, it is emphasized that the man was healed only when he washed in the pool of Siloam. Thus . . . the story . . . illustrates the healing power of water. The Gospel pauses to interpret the name of the pool where this healing water was obtained; and the explanation that the name means ‘one who has been sent’ clearly associates the water with Jesus.” Jesus, in John’s view, clearly appropriated for himself the significance of the waters flowing from Zion. This will naturally provide a basis for the church’s development of the practice of baptism (Brown, p. 381). But the significance of the healing is also clearly meant to remind us of Jesus’ relationship to the Creator. As the man born blind himself testifies, “Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing” (9:32). We are reminded of words from the Gospel’s prologue: “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The world came into being through him” (1:3-4). But of course Jesus’ own words have already laid hold of that claim: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (9:4-5), a likely reference not only to the “light of the world” in the prologue of the gospel but beyond that to the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 49:6. Jesus is from God, and he can make something out of nothing—eyes that were blind can now see.
So if this is “a tale of how those who thought they could see (the Pharisees) were blinding themselves to the light and plunging into darkness” (Brown, ibid.), it is also about what they failed to see. Jesus, on behalf of God, was doing the “works of him who sent me,” while “the light of the day of the Lord lasts.” This connection provides an explanation for including 1 Samuel 16:1-13 in this set of readings. Here the story of the selection of David to succeed the faltering Saul as king in Israel reminds us how significant eyes are for the office to which David would ascend. God’s eyes, seeing into the heart, settled the choice (16:7). And in spite of Yahweh’s caution concerning judging on the basis of outward appearances, we notice that David’s beautiful eyes were noteworthy (16:7, 12.) How else than with such faithful eyes, the reading of Psalm 23 suggests, could David have beheld the creation so gratefully, and sung about it so beautifully, as he did in the psalm we most love to hear: “He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters.” We read this psalm most often for the solace it offers those who grieve the loss of a loved one and for the hope it offers for life to come. More obviously, however, it celebrates the “goodness and mercy” that follow us “all the days of my life,” because we dwell our “whole life long” in the “house of the Lord”—not merely the Jerusalem temple but the entire, great creation of God. How joyful we can imagine the man born blind to have become so newly able as he was to appreciate such a psalm!
The Pharisees, on the other hand, are not able to see the works of God that Jesus is doing; nor do they regard God’s creation so gratefully. On the contrary, they become more and more obdurate in their blindness as the story unfolds. Their blinders, however, are theological rather than physical. They share the view first articulated by Jesus’ disciples at the beginning of the story: A person born blind must himself have been a sinner before birth, or his parents must have been sinners, since the sins of the parents were visited unto the third and fourth generation. So, the Pharisees have reason to trust neither the man’s testimony nor that of his parents. And since Jesus has made mud by kneading soil and water—kneading being work, forbidden on the Sabbath—he also must be a sinner. God does not listen to sinners, the Pharisees were convinced; therefore, Jesus could not have healed the man. So they refused to see what God is doing in the light of day! In their dark view, God uses the relationship between humans and creation as a means to punish sin. And they consider the healing of creation on the Sabbath to be a sinful violation of sacred order. For them, creation remains in the cold grip of sin and death.
With his assertion that, on the contrary, the man was born blind “so that God’s works might be revealed in him,” Jesus clearly distances himself from the idea that there is a direct causal relationship between sin and sickness, a view that, as Brown suggests, the Book of Job should have long since banished (Brown, p. 371). For today’s reader, however, Jesus’ answer actually raises the issue of theodicy in a different way, and perhaps more forcefully: Would God blind a person from birth, with all the suffering that such an affliction occasions, just to provide this occasion for Jesus, as Brown suggests, to manipulate “history to glorify His name?” Such cruelty for the sake of self-glorification would seem to provide ample grounds for disbelief, much in the same way that the idea of creation disturbs many skeptical adherents to the theory of evolution: How can a God who is said to be good and who, out of love, is said to have created a good creation, use a process so “red in tooth and claw” as natural selection to bring about the glorious variety of animal life we see on the planet?
Theologians seeking to reconcile science and theology have recently responded to this question with the proposal that the creation is indeed good, but imperfect, and must necessarily be so to have the good characteristics that it has, such as freedom, pleasure, and love. The genetic variation by which we would now explain the man’s blindness is also essential to the evolutionary process leading to the diversity of created life. In this view, humans are created with power and responsibility to improve on those imperfections, thus moving creatures toward greater and greater fulfillment of the promise both of the species and of individual creatures (For this argument, see especially Christopher Southgate, The Groaning of Creation, God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, pp. 40-54). It seems to this reader that while obviously this is not what the author of the Gospel had in mind in his telling of the story, Jesus’ words and action here are consonant with this new view. Jesus’ act of healing can be seen with the eyes of faith as an instance of precisely such an “improvement,” in this instance, of a genetic error we might hope by means of modern medicine to eliminate, albeit by rather more “scientific” methods than mudpacks! In any case, it is an example of work that “is pleasing to the Lord,” as Paul mentions in our second reading for this Sunday, his letter to the Ephesians (5:10). And, of course, so also would all manner of work to heal and sustain the other “imperfect” creatures of God’s making count as “God-pleasing” as well.
All the same, we observe that in our time there is all too much blindness to both to what God has done and to what God is doing in creation; the need for healing and restoration of that creation is the burden of these comments. If the theory of evolution rescues us from the need for a theory of punishment of sin like the Pharisees held, it still does not readily inspire the kind of passionate love for the creation which we might hope our present environmental crisis might call forth. A sixth great extinction may be treated dispassionately as just that, another in the long series of inevitable cosmic events. As William Brown insists, for “all its theoretical elegance and empirical power,” it does not “provide sufficient ‘consciousness-raising’ to inspire new practices, to establish a new orientation toward the environment. . . ” Global warming, Brown notes,
“. . . could dramatically disrupt the “accumulative power” of natural selection, as [Richard] Dawkins puts it But is that enough to motivate significant change in our habits of consumption? A keen awareness of the sanctity of life does not emerge unambiguously from evolution. Rather, reverence for life arises directly from discerning the world as creation, as the open ended product of God’s resolve and delight. In the faith spawned by the ancients, the climate chaos spawned by our imperious practices is nothing less than a breach of covenant, one that threatens a new inundation of destruction. To claim the world as created is to claim God’s care for it and our responsibility to care for it. In faith sacred responsibility meets holy passion” (William P. Brown, The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010, p. 235-36).
Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” And the Pharisees replied: “Surely we are not blind, are we?” They were; and, unfortunately, we too are blind to the damage we inflict on God’s creation by viewing it so casually as an appropriate object of human manipulation. And because we have some notion of what it is to see, and we think we aren’t blind, we do sin. We sin terribly against the will of the Creator, whose role for us is to take care of all creation
Fortunately, however, contrary to what the man born blind man, Jesus’ disciples, and the Pharisees believed, God does listen to sinners. The hope set forth by these texts is that those whose eyes are opened by the Spirit of God in the living waters of baptism will see the vision suggested by the psalmist: a creation in which the grateful human is at home, beholding it with eyes that take in its beauty and goodness; and that such people will follow Jesus in doing those works of restoring creation that greatly please the God who so loved the world. Because, as William Brown puts it, “If science excels in revealing the wonders of creation, then faith excels in responding to such wonders in praise, humility, and gratitude, out of which emerges the holy passion and sacred duty” (W. Brown, p. 236).