The Power of Story and Symbol

The Power of Story and Symbol

What a feast of stories we are having from John’s gospel over these weeks of Lent –Nicodemus going by night to question Jesus, the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well, today the healing of the man blind from birth, and next week the raising of Lazarus. These extended stories with their vivid characters and dialogue bring the gospel alive in all its complex humanity. They engage us with people exploring difficult issues that are still relevant – the tension between legalistic and spirit led religious expression, liberation from gender and cultural stereotyping, the empowerment of women in ministry, a redemptive theology of suffering, the spiritual blindness of judgmentalism, healing as re-creation, death, grief and resurrection. The advantage of a story in exploring such deep and meaningful themes is that it shows the dilemmas and questions, the motivations and emotions. A story does not come to us with the black and white categorizing of dogma, but instead shows us the overlapping greys in a subtle and universal picture of people wrestling with faith and life. In the poem “Another Way of Seeing”, I wrote the following lines about the shift in our perspective given by stories, using the metaphor of looking at a landscape without my spectacles on:

I slip my glasses off and lift my eyes:

my gaze turns outward to a world grown blurred,

the edges softened and the shapes more strange.

Expected outlines shift before my eyes.

Here certainties dissolve and sight is drawn

to blends of colour and the wash of light.

The world is made like this with layered veils,

and stories patched like quilts, ambiguous

to naked eyes, and yet perhaps the lens

we look through tames awareness to plain sight.

We miss the warp of chaos, interlaced

in patterns underpinned and edged with grace.

Gospel stories and Jesus’ parables challenge our theological and cultural preconceptions. In other words, they take off the lenses through which we view the world. We see this happening at the very beginning of the story of the blind man. The disciples ask a question: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Here we have characters we identify with expressing a theological assumption that has had a damaging impact down the ages, and still does, the assumption that if someone is afflicted in some way, then they are being punished by God for sin. I was devastated as a young adult when my dear devout grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer, and she asked the question: “What have I done to deserve this?” It’s a question that is ingrained in our thinking, but I was so sad that she agonized over whether she was being punished by God. Why would God punish a godly and loving lady who worked tirelessly for family and disabled children? It seemed to me that either God or our common view of God was at fault, not my grandmother. The theological explanation that suffering is a consequence of sin may have some validity at the level of the whole society, which I gather is the Jewish understanding. For example, pollution does have a causal link to cancer, and that knowledge helps in prevention. For the individual, blame by self or others is not helpful in facing affliction. Just imagine the number of times in which the man blind from birth and his parents faced the judgement and rejection implied in the disciples’ question. No wonder his parents were so fearful of being rejected yet again.

Why do we ask this angry or self-harming question: “Why me?” I guess it’s part of the search for meaning, but it often cripples that very search. For observers, like Job’s pastorally inept friends, the assumption that suffering is a punishment for sin is an attempt to distance themselves from the suffering, and assure themselves of their own safety. The theological assumption that suffering is a punishment from God is challenged dramatically and thoroughly in the book of Job. Jesus turns it upside down: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” What a healing change in perspective for the afflicted man! God is not judging him but treating him as a special focus of grace. This is another case of God’s preferential option for the poor that we see throughout Scripture, and which the liberation theologians focus upon. As in the archetypal story of the Exodus, God liberates people from bondage, whether it be political or economic oppression, prejudice, rejection and marginalization, or physical, mental or spiritual disabling. As Mary says in her great liberation hymn, the Magnificat, God has “brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.” That transposition is seen in this gospel story – the blind man is healed, the spiritual authorities who reject him and refuse to believe his story are seen to be spiritually blind, but resistant to awareness and healing. This creates an ironic new perspective from Jesus on the themes of sin and judgement. He says: “I came into the world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see,” your sin remains.”

The healing of the blind man is a symbolic action which confronts the spiritual blindness of those who dare to judge both the man and Jesus, and who will not accept healing for their distorted view of religion. They invent every excuse to disbelieve the man’s story, and judge Jesus as sinful because he mixes mud and heals on the Sabbath. Over and over again, Jesus confronts the legalistic abuse of religious authority by healing on the Sabbath. He heals the woman bowed down by a spirit of bondage not only on the Sabbath but in the synagogue, and she stands up straight symbolically by publicly praising God in the synagogue, an action forbidden for a woman. There is a powerful symbolic aspect in all the key healing stories of Jesus. He liberates through healing the people marginalized and rejected by the society’s attitude to their affliction, and he heals the physical afflictions that parallel the spiritual malaise of the society. It is the society that is spiritually deaf, blind, crippled, leprous and possessed by destructive spirits. The physical or mental healings are symbolic of the healing needed in the people, the country, and particularly among the authorities. The contrast of the healing of the blind man and the conspicuous failure to hear, to see or to be healed among the religious establishment makes the point so powerfully.

Jesus underlines the symbolic aspects of this healing story in his use of the contrasting metaphors of day, night and light. He says: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.  As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” Another fascinating aspect of symbol in this story is the use of mud and washing in the healing process. Jesus’ mixing of dust with his own water, saliva, to make mud, and putting it on the man’s eyes suggests a new creation aspect to the healing. Just as creatures were formed from the earth, so this man’s eyes are transformed through earth and living water. The washing suggests baptism and rebirth, but also empowers the man to take part in his own healing. It’s a symbolic enactment of what Jesus says to other people he heals: “Your faith has made you whole.”

There are so many layers of meaning in this story that we could keep on exploring them all morning. Perhaps we can already begin to see how a story engages us with developing an authentic theology of experience, rather than an inherited and unexamined theology. A story asks us to empathize, and to connect to our own related stories. The stories that Jesus told and the stories that he lived out with others have a unique capacity to overturn our expectations, and so to unsettle our preconceptions. If we were challenged on those grounds in debate, we would become defensive and entrenched in our position, but a story sneaks up on us, seeking our identification with that which will open us up to transformation. That is the power of Jesus’ parables but also of these beautifully crafted stories in John’s gospel.