Not What Is Expected
What are you afraid of? Does your known fear cause you to do or avoid doing things or saying things, just to protect yourself?
We have all tiptoed around hot political topics, especially around the loudest and most aggressive our friends and relatives in these recent days. Some people are wound so tight that it does no good, even if you just stick to the facts and avoid inserting your opinion. Given an opening, they just flame out.
While this is awkward in personal situations, there are times when these same kinds of issues have direct implications on your freedom of speech and movement.
The nation of Israel is highly insulted by the movement, based on the international pressure that was brought to bear on the apartheid regime in South Africa, to use Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions against businesses in either Israel or the Settlements in the West Bank. The BDS movement is now illegal, and Israeli citizens are under direct threat of prosecution if they encourage the movement against either Israel or the Settlements. The local people take this threat very seriously.
A new law permits the state to refuse international visitors entry, if they are part of a group that promotes the BDS movement. Today the Israeli ministry is building a database of organizations that are no longer permitted to enter the country. Recent reports show that this ban has not been strictly enforced to date.
The past two weeks, a new law has been hotly debated in the Knesset, that would permit the ministry to build a data base of Israeli citizens who are associated with the BDS movement. The very conservative faction within the Israeli government is taking an aggressive stance against their critics. This challenges the definition of democracy.
In the gospel this morning, the parents of the man born blind are very careful when talking with the “Jews.” They are aware of threats made against those who speak in favor of this Jesus of Nazareth. When questioned, they carefully avoid speaking up for Jesus, or speaking against their son. They do not want to get in the middle of this debate and risk being shunned in their community.
While the parents have fear, clearly the Temple authorities are very anxious about Jesus. We might want to understand their position better.
The Holy Land in the time of Jesus was an occupied country, under the direct control of the Roman Empire. The people were heavily taxed. It costs a lot of money to maintain and deploy a huge army to police the world. Rome justified their taxation because the great local benefit was the “Pax Romana,” the Peace of Rome.
Since Rome controlled the greater swath of civilization surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, all the typical squabbles between neighbors over control and access to ports, and shipping lanes, and trade routes were settled (or simply squashed) by the powerful and ever present Roman army and their conscripted soldiers.
The Temple in Jerusalem continued to exist and have its own level of control, through a negotiated arrangement with the puppet King Herod, and then his descendants. The Temple and the priests, received a share of the taxes, and in turn, they were expected/required to help root out and eliminate violent revolutionaries. Over the years, there were many violent revolutionary responses to the heavy-handed occupation. Jesus of Nazareth fit the model of a political revolutionary. He also, took great delight in mocking the authority of the Temple. The Temple authorities were motivated to quiet him.
In the gospel of John, it was the raising of Lazarus from the dead that prompted the Temple authorities to action. Chapter 11:47 - 50 reads, “So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, "What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation." But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, "You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed."
These patterns of fear and repressive laws and aggressive enforcement, continue to exist with the world today. I have highlighted the response of Israel to the BDS movement, and you have heard news stories about the United Nations Reports, that are critical of the inhumane treatment of the people of Gaza and the West Bank. But these temptations exist wherever nations try to make a systemic response to threats, real or perceived.
Jesus cured the blind man, on a Sabbath morning. The Jews could not accept that a holy man would do work on the Sabbath, in direct violation of the 10 commandments. You and I, do not live in a culture that supports the Sabbath with such a clear set of expectations. Although there was a time, when Sundays were treated very differently than they are today. As faithful people, we still have the option to honor the Sabbath if we choose.
Jesus has set himself apart from the Temple authorities, by making compassion for the poor and sick more important than abiding by strict rules. Rules are a substitute for relationships protected by respect. Jesus has set himself apart from the Roman authority, by living a nomad’s life, with no taxable income. That can tick off the government.
Jesus sets himself, and his movement - apart from the expectations of the culture. You and I know that he was not raising an army. You and I know that he was not building a cache of weapons in remote rural hiding places to arm the revolutionary forces when the time was ripe for attack.
We even know that Jesus was not insulting the God of the Temple. He did enjoy mocking the pretentious who acted holy, but lacked humility and compassion. What are we to learn from Jesus, that can empower our living in this day and place?
First, let us recall and embrace the story of Jesus. These narratives are rich with models for living in a charged atmosphere, but staying grounded in the truth. The truth is continually pulling on our own self-deceptions, helping us to be real with our selves, our friends, our neighbors, and in the political world. (This Lent we have taken to calling this “A Posture of Confession.”)
Grounded as we are in the truth about our own limitations, we can see with fresh eyes, what are the legitimate needs of our neighbors, near and far, and what might be considered fair game for challenging and confronting. We are able to challenge the pretentious. We are able to “see” where unjust laws are used to prevent detection of greater systemic injustice, and overt lack of compassion. We can recognize the manipulation of information to foster prejudice and bias, build fear, and justify huge armies and the taxation required to support them.
Like the Pharisees in the story, let us ask Jesus, “are we blind, too?” If we are blind to our own pride - and worse yet, blind to the kind of prejudice and fear that make us willing partners to injustice, may Jesus open our eyes. Let us trust Jesus enough, that with his love we can handle the truth about ourselves, and change our ways. Let us wash our faces in the pool, and with open eyes, be ready to worship the God of Jesus. Truth will set us free, free to love and share, without inordinate and inappropriate fear. Amen.