Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Jesus' "dumb question" that wasn't (and isn't)

By Dan Phillips @http://teampyro.blogspot.com

Did Jesus ever ask a dumb question?

Given that everyone wants on the Jesus bandwagon, it's hard to picture anyone answering "Yes, you betcha: Jesus asked all sorts of dumb questions." Folks of every worldview enthuse about how wise and how wonderful Jesus was. "Dumb" isn't on the list of customary adjectives from thoughtful observers.

Yet surely I'm not the only one who raised an eyebrow the first time this verse came into focus:
When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had already been there a long time, he said to him, "Do you want to be healed?"
(John 5:6)
You know who we're talking about. This was a disabled man in a society not particularly accommodating to the crippled — no handicapped parking, special doors, ramps, legal employment protections.

The man had been disabled in some way, unable to walk — and not for a week, a month, or a year. Not for a decade, or two decades, or even three. He had been crippled for nearly four decades, for thirty-eight years (v. 5).

We don't know whether his condition was static or progressive. We do know that he had been this bad for a long time. And we know that, at this point, if no one moved him, he didn't move much (v. 7). Most of the time, he seemingly had no one to help him.

How did he spend his time? What was his life? What were his days like? What were his hopes or aspirations, his fears or regrets? We're left to speculate, except for this: when we find him, he's simply hanging around a bunch of people just like him: helpless, and just next-door to hopeless.

He's apparently got some notion about getting into the pool — but what a cruel hope even that seems to have been: to get the most help, you had to need it the least!

So Jesus comes up, and what does He say to the man? Well, what would you have said, or what would I have said? Would we have even noticed him, as we strolled by on our strong, healthy legs with our little group of equally-mobile friends?

Jesus does notice the man, and He walks up to him, and He speaks to him. Oh, but what He says! I mean, honestly — isn't it about the last thing you'd have thought to say, unless you lost your mind for a moment? And (be honest), if you didn't know who was talking, and what was going to happen, wouldn't you say that about the dumbest thing to say to this man would have to have been —

"Do you wish to become well?"

Yet that's exactly how the Greek has it: are you willing — do you desire, do you wish— to become healthy (θέλεις ὑγιὴς γενέσθαι;)?

Now, I don't believe Jesus ever asked a stupid question in His life. Not when He was twelve (Luke 2:44-47), and not now that He's an grown man. On the contrary, I've often thought what a searching, probing, apposite, and divinely-wise question this was. As a result, I've wondered the same thing myself betimes, wanted to ask the same of some others in different "binds."

(Note: what I am about to say can be easily misunderstood, particularly by those wishing to do so. I shall try to speak precisely and with care.)

Much as you and I might recoil from another's state in life, that person might not share our revulsion. One can grow to identify with a condition, to find meaning and individuality and significance in something that of itself offers nothing desirable whatever. Whether it be a natural handicap or a totally different weakness, failing, misery, affliction or sin, we can come to think of ourselves as Noble Sufferers, as Tragic Victims, as Tormented Souls. So (pathetically and unhealthily) rewarding is this identification, that we unknowingly have no real desire to be parted from our badge of uniqueness, our gimmick, our shtick.

This is particularly the case in our American culture, where we have come to prize, seek out, cultivate, and luxuriate in the status of victimhood.

To be clear: I speak not of a healthy, positive God-centered attitude towards a difficult turn of Providence. I speak of an unhealthy and God-dishonoring embrace of an undesirable state or behavior.

Nor am I the first to see this in the passage at hand. Reynolds, in The Pulpit Commentary, thought that Jesus'
question implies a doubt. The man may have got so accustomed to his life of indolence and mendicancy as to regard deliverance from his apparent wretchedness, with all consequent responsibilities of work and energy and self-dependence, as a doubtful blessing. ...There are many who are not anxious for salvation, with all the demands it makes upon the life, with its summons to self-sacrifice and the repression of self-indulgence. There are many religious impostors who prefer tearing open their spiritual wounds to the first passer-by, and hugging their grievance, to being made into robust men upon whom the burden of responsibility will immediately fall.
You see, it's an axiom of human nature that we do what we think works for us. The most maladaptive person, who chooses to careen from one horrid relationship or situation to another, persists in doing so because he is getting something out of it.

And so Jesus asks — not the question you or I would ask, if we spoke to the man at all, but — that question. "Do you wish to become healthy?" Then He heals the man, and He warns him to change his life (v. 14).

Isn't this question just as probing and incisive today as it was when Jesus first posed it? Again, I've thought so time and again.

I've thought it of some folks who identify themselves with a dead-end, road-out sexual passion God condemns, who go on and on about how lamentable their lot is, how grandly they suffer from it. The only object that arouses more passion than, well, their passion, is any person or organization who dares to try to help them find freedom from their vices.

I don't dispute that theirs is a miserable and unhappy lot, and that such temptations are sheer misery. I just wonder, sometimes, of some of them: do they want to become healthy? Do they want freedom? Or would it shatter their cherished identity and threaten their status?

I've also thought it of some folks who make so much of the grays and the gaps and the question-marks, who luxuriate in any uncertainty they can magnify and exaggerate, who work so hard to blunt edges and blur lines, yet strike grand and dramatic poses as great and brave Pioneers of the Void. They invest a lot of energy into convincing us how agonized they are by their doubts and uncertainties — though not with quite the energy with which they scald and upbraid anyone who dares to try to help them find truth, certainty, and assurance.

And so I find myself wondering, of some such: do they want to become healthy? Do they want to know the truth God has revealed? Or would it ruin the image they've crafted so carefully, spoil their cherished public image, lose valued associations?

Similarly, I think of a woman in a church I pastored. She complained bitterly about her husband, what a failure he was as a leader, how passive and unengaged he was. So I took her at her word, befriended her husband, and worked with him. Before long, he began to engage, and to exercise some relatively mild Christian leadership in the home.

Was she happy? It was, after all, what she said she wanted, and offered relief from what she very dramatically claimed to be the source of a lot of misery.

"Happy"? Good heavens, no. She was madder than a wet cat. You see (I came to realize, reluctantly) it messed with her shtick. What she loved was the status her "suffering" gave her, the opportunity to complain and grouse. She had no intention of giving up control. It served her too well. (I've since seen the same phenomenon for husbands with troublesome wives, by the way.)

Now, I think if any of us have as yet felt no singe from this reflection, we've not heard Jesus' question. That proneness to quick temper; to lingering too long over the wine; to clicking on the wrong links; to self-pity; to coldly rebuffing your wife; to belittling or shredding your husband; to faithless depression; to laziness; to selfish indifference; to cursory (or no) Bible reading; to hasty and shallow prayers — you and I lament these and more.

But do we want, do we wish, are we willing to be made healthy?

I'll answer the question with which I began. Jesus never asked a dumb question. This wasn't a dumb question at all.

In fact, it was (and remains) an uncomfortably, confrontively excellent question:

"Do you wish to become well?"

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