Nourishing Questions: Who Gets to Belong?
Today we continue our Lenten journey of nourishing questions. What is a “nourishing” question? In my imagination, I like to think of questions in connection with the life cycle of plants. A nourishing question can maybe plant a seed of curiosity; or perhaps it can water a seed that’s already been planted; or it might shine light on the seed, causing it to grow.
But when we speak of “nourishing” questions, we might also be made aware of some questions that might not be “nourishing.” They might be ignorant, rude, or otherwise unkind. Instead of planting or watering a seed, they might uproot a fragile plant. In our story from John’s Gospel today, I think we are shown some examples of “discouraging” questions, as I like to call them, rather than nourishing ones; divisive questions rather than hope or curiosity-sparked questions.
Let’s enter into the story. Jesus has just left the Temple after making a very subversive statement about his identity: “before Abraham was, I am.” This statement greatly angered the religious leaders of his faith community, and he had to hide himself away so that he could escape death.
As Jesus goes on his way, he and his disciples encounter a man born blind. The disciples ask our first question for the day; an ignorant, but provocative question: “Jesus, who sinned? Was it this man, or was it his parents that did the horrible thing causing him to be born blind?” In Jesus’ time, it was a commonly held view that people’s wrongdoings could cause them physical disabilities, pain, or other suffering. It was even conceivable that the person’s parents could sin so badly that their child was born suffering in some way.
We might think that our modern culture could never believe such horrible things about disabilities or physical pain, but sadly, this perception persists. With homophobic media portraying the AIDS crisis as a punishment for being gay, with the failure to provide adequate safety nets and funding for disabled people to live in America, and with religious leaders fighting for exemption of ADA requirements in religious spaces, we see that there is still some underlying belief that disability, bodily difference, or suffering makes a person “less-than,” and the society we have constructed reflects that.
This past January, I had the opportunity to intern in a school, and I sat in on a few high-school ethics courses. A particular ethics question was brought up that reminds me of this story in the gospel: “Should trans women be allowed to compete in women’s sports?” This is also not a very nourishing question; in fact, it’s a divisive one. It has a similar ring to it as “who sinned? this man or his parents?” This type of question singles out a marginalized person or group of marginalized people—in the scripture’s case, a blind man; and in our case, trans women—and puts them on a platform to be judged worthy or unworthy of participation in the everyday structures of society. This kind of question seems to be life-leeching rather than life-bringing. This kind of question doesn’t plant or nourish a seed of love and care; rather, it attempts to pull up the plant and examine the roots, causing deep damage. At the heart of this type of question is a fearful worry: “who is good enough to participate?”
In our scripture story today, Jesus doesn’t take the judgmental bait. He responds with a contextually surprising answer: “neither this man nor his parents sinned, he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Jesus takes the question about participation and worthiness and turns it totally on its head. Here, Jesus says that the unique identifier that this man was born with—his blindness—is an avenue to revealing God’s mighty works in him, rather than a quality with which to judge his worthiness to participate in everyday society. Jesus has already decided that this man deserves to participate, despite other people’s judgements about him. So, Jesus does what Jesus does: He heals the man of his physical blindness.
It’s important to me that we don’t say that disability is a result of sin, like Jesus points out here. But it’s also important that we don’t consider disabled people—or other marginalized groups—as a means to an end. the works of God that are being revealed in this man don’t consist solely of the physical restoration of sight. These works are displayed by Jesus giving other people the chance to recognize this man as worthy of participation in the way Jesus has already seen him—always seen him.
I think the way that Jesus heals this man is very interesting: he grabs some dirt and spits in it to make mud, puts it on the man’s eyes, and then tells him to wash in the waters of Siloam. I like that a lot of the components of this healing are connected to our plant and seeds analogy. Jesus uses dirt and water to help the man see light, for the first time in his life. Jesus brings nourishment to this man who had been on the outside of society for his whole life, and now he has a chance to participate in this society as a fully welcomed member. The disciples’ ignorant question has been used by God as an avenue to healing and restoration.
But unfortunately, our story doesn’t end there. You see, societies don’t like change to the power balances (or imbalances) that exist within them, and this man receiving his sight was no exception. The neighbors see him, now a seeing man, and ask another question, another discouraging question: “wasn’t this the man who used to sit and beg?” Though they see that his sight is given to him, they can’t look beyond the person they once knew him to be. The neighbors, while having the physical vision to see the changed circumstances, don’t have the spiritual vision to see that Jesus has brought both sight and societal status shift to this man.
This reminds me again of the ongoing debate in our country about trans women in women’s sports. There is an inability to see beyond someone’s past and to recognize them for who they are now. As a young trans person myself, I know there are people in my life who can’t see me as a nonbinary person, because they have a history with me, like these neighbors did with the healed man. These people in my life remember my old name and pronouns, and they wish that things could be like they were in the past. They don’t want Jesus to challenge the societal structures around gender that they have built up, which makes my very identity a threat.
This is pretty much exactly how the neighbors responded to the formerly blind man receiving his sight; they felt threatened. They interrogate him: how did you receive your sight? and where exactly is this Jesus who healed you? The man answers honestly, but the neighbors are starting to get fed up. So, they take the man to the religious leaders of the community.
And uh, oh. Turns out the day that Jesus healed this man was a Sabbath day—a no-work-day. As if it wasn’t enough that Jesus disrupted the status quo by giving this man a chance to participate in society; he’s also done this on a day that is set aside for rest and worship! The religious leaders also interrogate the man, and even bring his parents into the mix. We hear a whole host of discouraging questions at this point in the story: “how did you receive your sight? how could this Jesus, who doesn’t observe the Sabbath and is clearly a sinner, perform such signs? Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How does he now see?”
The healed man has had enough. he speaks up against the religious leaders and says boldly, “If this man Jesus were not from God, he could do nothing.” This man, though only being able to physically see for a little while, has a deeper spiritual insight than the religious leaders questioning him. He is able to understand that Jesus is sent from God, while the religious leaders remain unable to recognize Jesus’ origin and source of healing power. They can only see a threat to their delicately balanced way of life that privileges a few over the rest.
The story ends incredibly sadly, with the people in the town and the religious leaders driving the healed man out of the synagogue. This would have been a crushing loss, well understood by the readers of John’s gospel, who were also put out of the synagogue. For this to happen would mean losing one’s whole community in every aspect of life. What Jesus did to bring the man into participation in society was reversed by those who were unwilling to see that he had been changed.
So, what is the lesson we as Christians today are called to take from this story? Perhaps there are some nourishing questions we can ask around participation and belonging. There are papers and pens in the box at the end of the pew for you to write questions that will go up on our Wonder wall out in the foyer. Perhaps the question you might write today connects to people who live in a marginalized space.
I’ll leave you with a few of my questions after interacting with this story: In what ways am I complicit in societal structures that privilege me over others? Where am I creating exclusionary and isolating spaces that some people can’t join? How can I love and bring in each beloved child of God to true community? And how can I begin to see others the way Jesus sees them?