Human beings. We’re complicated. Why do we do the things we do? Some of our motivations may seem obvious. But we may be unaware of all the factors that have influenced our behavior: emotions operating beneath the surface, hidden circumstances. Whatever story we tell about what happened, it will probably always be a partial account. The reality is more complex.
So it is with biblical stories. We get what the writers give us. And when it comes to understanding people’s motivations, sometimes, the writers don’t give us much.
In previous posts, we’ve been looking at the story of Jesus healing a man born blind. After he received his sight, he went home — and people had trouble recognizing him. When at last they were convinced it was really him, they asked what had happened. He told them what he could: he had been healed by “The man called Jesus” (John 9:11, NRSV).
Not much of a personal relationship there. Nor did he seem to expect his audience to know much about who Jesus was.
When they asked him where Jesus was, he responded truthfully: he didn’t know. But why did they want to know? Did they want to go to Jesus to be healed of their own infirmities? I doubt it — because the next thing they did was drag the man before the Pharisees. John writes:
They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. (John 9:13-14)
“It was a sabbath day.” Given the earlier story of Jesus healing the lame man at the pool of Bethesda, that note has an ominous tone. Jesus is already in trouble for working on the Sabbath; it’s led to charges of being a law-breaking sinner, a blasphemer, and a person deserving of death.
So why did the people bring the man before the Pharisees? The simple statement that Jesus “made the mud” may be John’s way of suggesting that Jesus had committed a no-no by doing physical work. On the one hand, therefore, if we want to give the people the benefit of the doubt, we could say that they had a question as to whether a violation had occurred, and conscientiously decided to check with the experts, the ones who knew every little detail of what you could and couldn’t do on the Sabbath.
On the other hand, John will tell us shortly that a local anti-Jesus policy had been put into effect: anyone who dared to claim that Jesus was the Messiah was to be put out of the synagogue (vs. 22). It may be, then, that the people acted out of fear; inaction would have made them accessories to the crime.
Does it have to be one or the other? No. Like I said, people are complicated. We can have mixed motives. And we can do things to save our own skin even while telling ourselves that we’re being good religious citizens.
That’s a sobering thought, isn’t it?