Tough Teaching Moments

The astute listener, especially one who is listening with the hope of arguing against the religion founded by Jesus’ disciples, will notice a disturbing trend in the Gospel lessons for Lent 4 and 5 in Year A.  No, it isn’t that they are insufferably long, Lent 3 had that too, but that is an interesting conversation topic for preachers who visit this website with regularity.  How does a six minute long Gospel reading impact the way in which a preacher prepares her sermon.  Do we allow the text to tell more of they story, or do we, as TKT and I have done the last two weeks, just preach as long we always do and risk breaking the imaginary one-hour threshold for service length?

Like I said, that’s not the trend I wanted to talk about today.  Instead, I’m troubled and seeking a good answer for two things that Jesus says in these lessons, both early on, that seem to require some unpacking.  First, from last week’s lesson about the man born blind, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”  Then from this week’s story of the resurrection of Lazarus, “This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”  It sounds like the old attack on God that he is arbitrary and capricious.  God is in need of a couple of teaching moments for Jesus so twenty-some years earlier, he formed a blind baby in his mother’s womb and decides to strike Lazarus dead.  At best, Jesus (or John) seems to be setting up faulty causation by suggesting that the man’s birth defect and Lazarus’ illness are predestined by God so that Jesus could perform miracles.

Perhaps I’m making something out of nothing here, but my preaching goal on Monday morning is to figure out what I think the average listener in the pew will be thinking about while I read and preach the gospel.  Aside from looking the bulletin and thinking, “O MY GAWD!  Could this be any longer!?!” I’m thinking that maybe some people will find Jesus’ reasoning troublesome.  I’m thinking of the parishioner who has just undergone surgery or received an unwanted health diagnosis or has recently lost a loved one or has been unemployed for months on end.  How do they hear that these words from Jesus?  Are they hopeful words?  Are they condescending words?  Are they scary?  Are they comforting?

No matter what, it seems to me, they both are and offer a tough touching moment.  Or maybe they just get lost in the glazed over eyes of the long lesson.  What do you think?

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7 thoughts on “Tough Teaching Moments

  1. So what if God predestined it to happen that way? What’s wrong with that? All Calvinist hyperbole aside, when did theologians become scared of talking about God causing things to happen for a bigger purpose? (Hint: take a look at theological development post 1950)

    Maybe a better way of putting it is this. Is it right to say to a man born blind that God caused that to happen so that his works might be revealed? Not unless you’re the kind of person who can restore his sight. But, if you’re Jesus, go ahead. Is it right to say that God caused Lazarus to get sick and die so that Jesus could perform his miracle? Not unless you’re the one calling him out from the tomb.

    Who gets to monopolize God’s will? Who is authorized to ascribe divine purpose to a particular situation? If we speak in generalities, I think anyone can. “Q: Why did that child die so young? A: I don’t know, but I believe that God’s plan includes that tragedy and transcends it at the same time.” The only people who have a right to speak specifically to cause and effect are God and the person in the midst of the tragedy who speaks only for herself. “Q: Why was my daughter taken from me so early? A: Because God wanted to show me…” No one else has the right to make a linear association of cause an effect because God’s will doesn’t work that way. We might be able to make cause-and-effect sense of something happening to us, but God doesn’t allow each day to unfold as a series of consequences. We just think it works that way.

  2. Evan,
    Thanks for this. I’m actually really struggling with this as I think about it in the particularities of life, which probably can’t be shared in a comment section on a blog, but that create real challenges for me. On the grand scale, I have no problem with God’s will being acted out upon his creation, but in the particular, it can really suck, and trying to understand how God works both for me and for the larger kingdom is where I’m getting stuck.

    I also think you’ve almost hit the nail on the head by suggesting a post-1950 date for this new discomfort with God’s greater purpose in suffering, but I think it has to be post-Holocaust. Christians just couldn’t figure out what the bigger purpose was in 6-10 million innocent people dying at the hand of a “Christian” who was following “God’s will.”

    • I don’t know if I’ve ever really been forced to struggle with it on a personal level, so I like to acknowledge that I can only speak from the luxurious perspective of one who has experienced very little suffering, but…

      I don’t think the problem is that an individual identifies a particular circumstance as “God’s will” or “predestined.” The issue is when someone is arrogant enough to speak for God on HOW a particular event is a part of God’s plan. (Isn’t that why the commandment is to stone the prophets whose prophecies turn out to be false?) It’s one thing for a preacher (you and me) to say, “That’s terrible. I have no explanation for it. I’m searching for the hope that comes from believing that somehow God is still God and that his loving, saving plan for the universe will be revealed even in this tragedy.” It’s quite another–and theologically abhorrent–thing to say, “I know why that happened. I know how God’s will works in this circumstance.” No one owns God’s will except God. Even the prophets, who are given God’s direct speech, are tested by the community. Someday the community may be able to look back and identify how a particular moment is linked to the divine purpose, but to suggest that any one person–except perhaps the one experiencing the tragedy and then only as an attempt to find hope–can connect all the dots now is ridiculous. Still, that doesn’t mean that God’s people deny God’s plan in even the most terrible moments. (Just read the Hebrew scriptures, right?)

      To believe that something IS God’s will is very different from understanding WHY something is God’s will. I’ve always pushed back on the human tendency (yes, post-Holocaust) to automatically divorce God from things we don’t like: “If it seems bad, it must not be God’s will.” That’s just as arrogant and misfounded as the hack-preacher who tells the grieving family that “God needed another angel in heaven.” So I cling to the belief that everything is a part of God’s plan–even the evil in the world–but I only say that while also acknowledging that I do not and cannot understand why. That’s what hope is to me.

  3. Hello Stephen,
    Here is the gist of what I said yesterday: all our imperfect lives reveal God’s works. There is no “so that” clause needed. The man did not have to be born blind to reveal God’s works. There’s textual support for this idea: have a look at this comment (http://leftbehindandlovingit.blogspot.ca/2014/03/the-blind-accusing-blind.html). Even if one does not agree with the blog writer’s emendation of the text (placement of full stop), a reader can see that “so that” in English creates a causal link where the Greek actually has contrast. The “ἀλλ’ ἵνα” can be rendered “but” rather than “so that.” In preaching on this text yesterday, I asserted that Jesus sees the whole person, not the blindness. The question for me, then, is why does Jesus change him into a sighted person? My provisional answer is that Jesus, using the categories the crowd understands, dissolves the boundary of “sighted” and “blind” (remember the neighbours do not recognize the man after he can see–they have no place to put him) to turn attention to belief as the sightedness that matters. I’m not preaching this coming Sunday so I haven’t worked at the Lazarus passage yet. I’d be interested in your thoughts.

  4. I haven’t reread Lazarus so I can’t speak to it. As to the man born blind. I recall the suggestion to punctuate Jesus’ reply (forgive my short hand): No one sinned. This man was born blind. let the works of God be made known. (I am reasonably sure the ‘so that’ is not in the Greek. This 1. eliminates fuzzy causality and 2. imputes on us some responsibility to reveal the works of God in every situation. That what Jesus is up to. It’s we as stewards of Jesus’ ministry, as called to be up to.

  5. Pingback: Taking a Step Back | Draughting Theology

  6. Update on this conversation. I just found this quote from Alyce McKenzie in Patheos’ Edgy Exegesis, and I wonder if she isn’t really on to something.
    “Jesus responds to Lazarus’ illness with equanimity. He says that “this illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (Jn. 11:4). He is not expressing his hope that, because of the miracle he is about to perform, he will be admired and praised. “God’s glory” is a reference to Jesus’ own resurrection. His raising of Lazarus from the dead will speed his own death, which will lead to his resurrection, in which we all participate.”
    http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Lazarus-Is-Us-Alcye-McKenzie-04-04-2011.html?print=1

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