Monday, April 17, 2017

Didn’t See THAT Coming

Photo: Seth Lemmons
If you have a modern translation of the New Testament, you’ll find John 5:4 appears to have gone AWOL.

The missing text was there in my youth. I remember it vaguely from my first King James. The NASB and some older versions still retain it in square brackets for the three people in the world with worse memories than me. But having collected and compared early versions of that passage from all over the Middle East, modern scholars have concluded the verse-and-a-half was not part of divine revelation, but rather a parenthetical explanation added later on by a helpful scribe, originally tagged with asterisks (yes, they really used those back then).

If so, of course, they are correct in removing or flagging the text, but I have always found it useful in understanding the passage.

The Missing Explanation

Most first century readers had no problem grasping what was going on. They would have been conversant with the myth of the pool in Bethesda and needed no explanation as to why so many sick people were lying around it. We are less familiar with ancient Jewish folk tales. The missing bit (in bold) reads like this:
“In these [roofed colonnades] lay a multitude of those who were sick, blind, lame, and withered, [waiting for the moving of the waters; for an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool and stirred up the water; whoever then first, after the stirring up of the water, stepped in was made well from whatever disease with which he was afflicted.]”
We can quickly rule out the possibility that John left out the angel story to make his account appear more plausible.

Angels All Over the Place

As Michael Heiser notes, angels are all over the place in the Bible doing all sorts of things, not least in John’s own book of Revelation. He may have omitted it because hoping for an angel to stir the waters of the pool was nothing but a superstition, a Hail Mary pass in the fourth quarter, as valid as the conviction around my office that the next lottery ticket purchased will be the Big One.

It won’t be, but desperate people invent hope where none exists.

And the invalid in John’s story was desperate enough to spend day after day lying by the pool hoping, in effect, to win the healing lottery. John tells us he had already been there “a long time”, and Jesus took note of this.

An Unnecessary How-To

My point is that, like so many of us, this needy individual had in his mind the very particular, perfectly sensible way in which God might address his need: the angel would stir the water, in he would go, and voila! When Jesus approaches him and asks if he would like to be healed, this is first thing he says: “Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up, and while I am going another steps down before me.” He was hoping for some kind passer-by to give him a hand into the water. That would have been an entirely rational solution to his problem.

But he wasn’t really answering the question Jesus asked, and “rational” was not what he got. Improbably, this man he had never seen before and knew nothing about simply told him, “Get up, take up your bed, and walk.” So he did. And for the first time in 38 years his legs did their job properly and away he went, presumably giddy with joy.

No need for an angel. No need for a pool. No need for a race to the edge.

He didn’t see THAT coming.

Wasted Days and Wasted Nights

How much time do you figure this poor fellow had spent asking people around him for help, or plotting the quickest way to the pool, strategizing and wishing and hoping and speculating? Hours? Whole days, maybe? All wasted, in one sense: none of it was the least bit necessary. God’s plan was something else entirely.

It should not surprise us that a mind capable of creating the universe around us might be capable of constructing a better narrative through-line for our lives than we can. And yet we seem to find this reality endlessly shocking.

This is the story of my life, and perhaps of yours. I invest countless, pointless hours speculating about the specifics of the ways in which God might answer my requests or meet my needs, mostly due to my own failure of imagination. When my circumstances finally change, SURPRISE! Yeah, it happened again: God went a different route, and it was a better one. He is, after all, able to do “infinitely more than all we can ask or imagine”.

Recognition and Acceptance

I’m not sure our inability to anticipate what God will do in response to our needs is a huge spiritual problem, though it is a common one, provided we recognize and accept with joy whatever it is that God, in his good time, sends our way. When God says, “How about this instead?” the proper answer is always and only “Thank you, Lord.”

But I wonder if sometimes we allow our specific vision of the answer we are looking for to make us blind to the good things we receive from God and oblivious to the real answers to our needs. The rabble in the wilderness rejected manna because they craved fish, melons, leeks and garlic. That sort of ingratitude can be hazardous.

Picture, for instance, the invalid by the pool, invited to take up his bed and walk and fully, miraculously equipped by God to do so. Suppose he had replied, “Thanks, but I’ll just lie here and wait for the angel to stir the waters.”

How does that scenario end exactly? Not quite so well, I suspect.

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