Not-So-Secrets of New Life: Simplicity
Many of you know I’ve been trying hard to have a healthier lifestyle – eating better, moving more. I’ve been getting into a rhythm, and it feels good. But, like most people, I admit I sometimes wish there was an easier way, a quick fix, that would still allow me to eat as many slices of pizza as I want at our pizza and games party this afternoon! The easy way out. Aren’t we all looking for that sometimes? I still vividly remember meeting a woman while I was serving as a chaplaincy intern at Crouse Hospital during seminary. She was telling me about her diet plans, because when people are stressed and worried about big things in their life, they will often talk a lot about the less stressful, worrisome things just to have a break. She was frustrated that her dieting didn’t seem successful, and she explained to me in detail what she was doing. On certain days of the week, she’d follow the Atkins plan, and on certain days she’d do South Beach, and certain days she’d do Weight Watchers, and so on. A little bit of this plan, a little bit of that plan. The end result seemed to be that she picked the foods she liked best from every program, and ditched any parts of the diet that were too tough or unpleasant. And surprisingly, this was not proving to be a successful plan!
We can smile/laugh at this obvious plan for failure, because we can see the absurdity of it. But I suspect that all of us have some areas of our life that we approach the same way. There’s something we want to do or be or achieve. We may even want it very badly. But we really, really want to find an easy way to do it, to get it, to be it. We know the steps it would take to accomplish the task, but we’d really like to skip steps 2-9 and go straight to the last step. In my experience, though, almost nothing worth having in life can be attained in this way. As Jesus-followers, I believe that sometimes we approach our discipleship, our walk with God in the same way. There are certain things we’d like to get out of relationship with God. But we really, really want to find an easy way to do it.
For example, there’s how we read the Bible. We all have different ways of reading, understanding, and interpreting the Bible, which is not a bad thing. We bring different perspectives together in a community of faith, which makes for great conversation, where we learn from each other. Most of us tend to use the same techniques to read the Bible for the whole book. For example, if we tend to read stories and view them literally, we do that consistently. If we see a lot of metaphor in the Bible, we tend to always see a lot of metaphor. If we seek out the historical fact of a passage, that’s often how we read the whole Bible. The usual “lens” we use to look at the scriptures is called our hermeneutic. Your hermeneutic, your lens, might be different from my lens, and that’s ok. But it is the best if you are consistent with what lens you use. What raises alarm bells for me is when we suddenly discard our usual method of interpretation when we get to challenging passages of scripture because we don’t like the conclusion our usual method brings us to. If your usual way of reading scripture works for you right up until you realize you’d have to change your life if the scripture means what you think it mean, well, we’re probably looking for that easy way out. One of my favorite quotations is from theologian Søren Kierkegaard. He writes,
The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes, it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament. (1)
Kierkegaard writes with a sense of humor, certainly. But he also means very much what he says. He argues that what the Bible calls us to do, how it calls us to live – that’s simple. We try to make it more complicated to protect ourselves from having to do what the Bible says – we take the easy way out, ironically, by pretending the Bible is too difficult to understand. I love this quote because of how uncomfortably true it rings for me! I think simplicity is something we seek after in our crazy, fast-paced culture. I seek it. I value simplicity. I think the Bible even speaks to the value of simplicity. But I think sometimes we hear “simple” and we think “easy.” We’d like that too – easy. Just like the Staples commercials. A nice, big, red Easy button. But simple and easy are not actually synonyms. What God calls us to do might be simple. But I’m not sure that means it is easy.
Our gospel lesson from John today is a passage that starts out as a simple healing story. Ok, healing might not be simple for us, but for Jesus, stories of his healing are frequent, and if you just read the several verses of this story, you’d think it was a “typical” healing story. Jesus sees a man who is blind, a beggar who has been blind since birth, while traveling with the disciples, and Jesus, saying he is the light of the world, creates mud with his own spittle, puts it on the man’s eyes, and tells him to go wash the mud off in the pool of Siloam. The man does as Jesus tells him, and sure enough, he is healed. He can see.
A healing. How would you respond? If someone was blind, and this man, preaching about God, healed this person’s blindness, what would you say? Well, of course, we’d rejoice! We’d be thrilled, right? We’d thank God! If we didn’t know God, or know this preacher, we’d probably start to take this man and his message a little more seriously, maybe think there was something to this God thing after all. Simple, right? The most natural way in the world to respond to this miraculous healing, right?
And yet, instead of this passage being a few verses long, it is 41 verses, one of our longer single scenes with Jesus. And in those 41 verses, no one, other than Jesus and the formerly-blind man himself seem particularly happy about the healing. Something else is happening here. We’re tipped off in the first verse when Jesus and the disciples first encounter the blind man. One of the disciples asked, “Who sinned, that caused this man’s blindness? Was it the man, or his parents?” That question might sound weird to us, but in Jesus’ day, blindness or illness in general, or really any bad circumstances in your life, like poverty or disease – they were mostly attributed to sinful behavior, punishment from God as consequences for not being righteous enough. And the punishment could span generations. If you, a parent, were sinful, your children might be punished. Part of us recoils at this logic, thinking it totally ridiculous. But part of us can relate – the questions we ask when someone gets sick, gets cancer, aren’t always so different today. Why did this happen? What did so and so do to deserve this? Our questions imply we believe God is the cause of the event, don’t they? When Jesus answers the disciple, “neither this man nor his parent sinned,” his response is hugely impactful. Jesus heals to glorify God, to show that he is the light of the world. And a man who was born blind can now see. But the rest of the passage shows us the curious reactions of everyone around Jesus and this man.
The disciples start out wanting to analyze the reason for the man’s blindness, as if he is an interesting subject of theological debate. They never speak to the man directly – Jesus does that. The man’s neighbors, when they see him healed, don’t recognize him. Remember, nothing has changed about this man’s physical appearance. He was blind, and now he can see. But his neighbors, who have lived near where he sat begging, aren’t sure it is him. How can they fail to recognize him? I can only suspect that as a blind beggar, someone on the fringe of society, his neighbors never really paid him much attention, never really looked him in the face, made eye contact, as we sometime do when we are confronted with need and we’d rather keep on walking. So the neighbors aren’t sure this is even the man born blind at all, or that maybe, this man wasn’t blind his whole life as he’d claimed.
The Pharisees, the religious leaders of the day, get involved. They fight over whether the man was healed by a person from God or not, since the healing took place on the Sabbath, and healing would have been a forbidden act of “work” not “rest.” Some of them say only a man from God could have done this healing, and the formerly blind man calls Jesus a prophet, but other Pharisees can’t believe a rule-breaker like Jesus could have performed this healing. How they explain the man in front of them who can see, I’m just not sure. So they call the man back to explain his situation again, and to urge him to call Jesus a sinner, and tell the truth – in other words, tell some other version of the story that would fit with their rules about who God can use and how God can use them. The man, once blind, is baffled. “Do you want to become his disciples? Is that why you have so many questions about this miracle?” The Pharisees become more enraged.
The man’s parents are called in. Surely, they will be thrilled, right? But instead, they deflect questions. They will confirm that he was blind, and now he can see. But they say they know nothing about who healed him or how, and repeatedly they tell people to talk to their son, not them. They’re afraid of getting in trouble with the synagogue leaders.
Finally, the man who was healed is reunited with Jesus, and when Jesus confirms his identity as the son of God, the man worships Jesus. Jesus responds, “‘I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” The Pharisees, overhearing this, can’t believe that Jesus implies they are the ones who are blind. But Jesus concludes, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.” This story, this healing, is about something that should be so simple. A man was blind, and now he sees. Thanks be to God! But we witness in this passage everyone taking what is very simple, and making it very, very complicated, so that they can take the easy way out, and not have to change their lives, not have to give up their power, not have to admit their wrongs, not have to wrestle with their assumptions, not have to let go of their prejudices and stereotypes, and not have to let God be in charge.
Easy sounds so good to us sometimes. But that’s not that how we receive the fullness of the abundant life God promises. Fortunately, even though discipleship isn’t always easy, it is pretty simple, when we don’t muddy the waters. Follow Jesus. Try to do what he does, love like he loves. Not always easy. Maybe the hardest things we will ever do. But Jesus, light of the world, opens our eyes, and leads the way. We simply have to follow. Amen.
(1) From Provocations, by Søren Kierkegaard.