John 9: Understanding the assignment

“They understood the assignment.”

That’s been a popular phrase lately. I noticed it in social media posts about celebrities at the Met Gala who showed up in sufficiently avant-garde fashion choices, but I’m sure it long predates that (and will soon be passé). It calls to mind the kid who shows up to class having done the wrong homework, or the one who misreads the essay question on the exam. They didn’t understand the assignment. These other folks did.

The academic element of this phrase is ironic, because when it comes to my mind, it’s usually because someone thinks they can win the day by being the smartest person in the room, the kid with all the answers. A major part of our culture conflates academic success with success, period, and well, sometimes that’s not the assignment. I remember being at a political debate once, when one candidate was clearly establishing himself as the “smart one”. The other guy ceded that lane, instead positioning himself as the “normal one”. And I knew, in that moment, that the “smart one” was going to lose, bad. He did, because he didn’t understand the assignment. I’ve been a huge nerd for most of my life, and I remain an unabashed fan of learning. But more often than not, thinking you are the smart one in the room gets in the way of success rather than aiding it.

John 9 tells that story. For all the griping I’ve done about John’s gospel, John 9 is a GREAT story, worth your time. It’s a healing story, well told, with interesting characters, and even some humor! 

Fr. Raymond E. Brown’s commentary was really helpful in highlighting the reversal of fates of the man born blind and the Pharisees. The Pharisees, confronted with this guy who was healed on the Sabbath (contrary to their rules), start with the certainty that they know what’s what and just dig deeper into their confidence that they have the right answer. 

First, it’s “This man [Jesus] is not from God because he does not keep the Sabbath,” which gets some pushback. 

Then, it’s “We know that this man [Jesus] is a sinner.” 

Then, when the formerly blind guy argues with them, they turn on him: “You were born steeped in sin, and now you are lecturing us?” 

By the end, Jesus is pointing out that while they claim they can see, they are really more blind than the other guy ever was. Because they started from a place of certainty, they lost the opportunity to learn.

What about the protagonist of the story? He starts from self-acknowledged ignorance and picks up momentum as he goes. 

The first time he tells his friends what happens, all he knows about the guy who healed him is that he’s “That man they call Jesus.” When they ask where he is, he says, “I have no idea.” 

When he tells his story to the Pharisees and they ask who he thinks Jesus is, he takes a step forward. “He is a prophet.” 

And by the time he gets called back up to the stand, he’s lecturing the experts. “We know that God pays no attention to sinners, but He does listen to someone who is devout and obeys His will. It is absolutely unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could have done nothing.”

(And that’s when he gets thrown out by the Pharisees.)

As I read the gospels, the recurring unpleasant realization I have is that I see myself (and the Church) a lot more in the Pharisees than I do in the people Jesus really connects with. When you’re a Church Kid, you get rewarded for knowing the “right” answers about God, and it can seduce you into believing that that’s what’s really important. We in the West so conflate faith with cognitive belief that you can be trapped into thinking that if you memorize all the rules and learn what’s what, you’ll pass a final quiz to get into heaven. The last judgment? St. Peter at the Pearly Gates? They’re basically just oral exams.

But that isn’t the assignment.

Unlike other healings, the man born blind doesn’t ask Jesus to be healed. In fact he doesn’t speak at all until later. And when he does, he doesn’t really know any of the answers that matter; he just knows he was healed. In fact he says once, “Whether he is a sinner, I do not know; one thing I do know: I was blind, and now I see.” All the rest comes later.

That’s the trick of it all. The good news is that there isn’t really an assignment to understand at all. Accept good gifts we didn’t even think to ask for. Be grateful and curious about the giver. Lean into all the things we don’t know instead of leaning on what we think we do know. Remember that we’re being invited to a family reunion, not a dissertation defense.

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