One of my favourite television series is The Big Bang Theory. If you are unfamiliar with the programme, one of its central characters, Dr Sheldon Cooper, is a freakishly intelligent physicist who has absolutely no social skills. As brilliant as his mind is, he simply cannot relate appropriately to other people. Sheldon regulates his relationships with others through contracts. He has a roommate agreement with his best friend, Leonard, and a relationship agreement with his girlfriend, Amy. These agreements are supposed to lay out the rights and responsibilities of the various parties in the relationship, so as to facilitate cohabitation (to see some of the hilarious terms and conditions, click here). To Sheldon, they make complete sense. To everybody else, however, all they do is highlight Sheldon’s paranoia, his egomania and his social deficiencies. In many ways, the God modern Christianity has constructed is a Sheldon Cooper.
What Sheldon does not see is that it is demeaning to others to regulate your interaction with them through a contract. The beauty of a genuinely loving relationship cannot be reduced to transactional protocols. Most people see that – the comedy around Sheldon’s various social contracts works precisely because the viewers comprehend how utterly inappropriate they are. So why can we not see how inappropriate it is to attempt to relate to God through covenants?
As I noted in a previous post, if we think of our relationship with God in terms of a covenant, then the interaction becomes primarily transactional: if you do this for me, I will do that for you. If we obey God, He (note to new readers: I only use the masculine pronoun for God when I am discussing problematic constructions of Hen) will give us good things – health, wealth and sexual gratification. If we dishonour the contract, there are dire consequences. This kind of thinking still dominates Evangelical thinking. One of the most harmful consequences of this covenant thinking is its effect on our perceptions of suffering in the world.
If we see suffering as the consequence of breaking covenant with God, then it is easy to justify ignoring it. After all, to interfere is, technically, to act contrary to the will of the deity who inflicted the suffering in the first place. Basically, our consciences are assuaged when we ignore the suffering of others because in some way the victims deserve their fate. But Jesus will have none of it.
In John 9, the disciples see a blind man and they ask Jesus: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus has patience in truckloads, because I can only imagine how trying such questions were for him. After all, those who had walked with him most closely and who knew him best still could not shake their preconceptions of a punitive God. Who, they are asking, ticked God off so much that God lost it with this man? What follows is a typically enigmatic Jesus moment. He responds by saying that nobody has sinned. The man, Jesus claims, was born blind so that – depending on which translation you use – the power/glory/ works of God may be displayed in him. He adds: “We must quickly carry out the tasks assigned us by the one who sent us. The night is coming, and then no one can work. But while I am here in the world, I am the light of the world.” (John 9:4-5, New Living Translation). Then he spits in the mud and makes a paste, which he rubs on the man’s eyes, and tells him to walk across town and wash the mud off. Having done so, the man is able to see.
But I don’t think the beggar was the only man whose blindness Jesus aimed to heal that day. It is a dramatic production staged for the benefit of the disciples who had asked the ridiculous question in the first place. I have no doubt that Jesus could easily have simply spoken the word and the man would have seen. But he doesn’t. He constructs an elaborate drama instead. And I don’t think it is for the blind man’s sake; it is a response to the disciples’ perverted picture of God. The disciples look on suffering and want to know who is to blame. Who broke the rules? Who made God angry? But Jesus points out to them that they themselves are the blind ones, and they are asking an irrelevant question. The question is not: who is to blame? It is, how do we help? How do we demonstrate the love of God in a broken world? When Jesus claims that the blind man’s affliction is an opportunity to demonstrate God’s power, I do not think he was saying: this man was born blind so that I can heal him and God can show off how amazing He is, and the world can bow in awe and wonder. I think Jesus was saying, this man’s brokenness is an opportunity for me to do work that will demonstrate the loving nature of God. He is pointing out to the disciples that they are thinking about sin all wrong. It is not a matter of crime and punishment, but of brokenness and healing.
The writer of the gospel of John drives this point home when he describes the response of the religious leaders. All they can see is crime and punishment. They completely ignore the miracle, the revelation, and focus on the fact that Jesus performed the healing on the Sabbath. They are slaves to the Law and so miss the beauty of God as a result. They cannot let go of their faulty paradigms and they dismiss this man – this living revelation of the gracious nature of God – by returning to the covenant mindset they have always known: “You were born a total sinner”, they tell the newly-sighted man, “Are you trying to teach us?”
Well, yes. But some people refuse to be taught. And that has been a recurring theme in the story of religion, in the relationship between God and the world, since ancient times. Our depravity cannot come to terms with a God who is love. We cannot conceive of a God not made in our own image. And so we invent ways to curb the excesses we know – from bitter experience – that the mimetic rivalry that gives shape to our relationships must invariably produce. We invent contracts. And we include God, whether Hen wants to be included or not. And those few who dare to challenge the poisonous foundations of this system of sacralised violence tend to become the next scapegoat, and the mechanism preserves itself. Jesus warned his disciples about that: “For you will be expelled from the synagogues, and the time is coming when those who kill you will think they are doing a holy service for God. This is because they have never known the Father or me” (John 16:2-3). Sometimes the brutal rigidity of legalism is easier to come to terms with than the boundlessness of love. But that is not the way of God.
Let’s wash the mud from our eyes and see what Jesus reveals through this encounter: that God’s power is not expressed in punishment, but in restoration and service; that love trumps law in God’s eyes; that Hen does not require a relationship agreement with humanity to give expression to Hens love, nor can we ever express genuine devotion, either to God or to our neighbours, through the prescriptions of a contract. God’s way of love is not the world’s way of contractually mandated violence. And that is a relief. In Jesus’ parting words to his disciples (John 16:33): “I have told you all this so that you may have peace in me. Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows. But take heart, because I have overcome the world.”