Look and see
You probably know that a new epic movie about Noah opened on Friday. The trailers show some pretty spectacular looking special effects. I’m sure you remember the Noah story from Sunday School, the rainbow and the dove and the olive branch and the procession of animals lining up two by two to get on the ark. From what I’ve read and seen, the movie seems to focus on the darker side of the Noah story, the grim implications of God’s decision to wipe the slate clean and start again. I don’t know that I’ll go see it in the theater; at two hours and seventeen minutes, it’s a bit long for me to sit still, so I’ll probably wait for it to come out on Netflix. I’ve also read that the movie takes some liberties with the biblical account. So, in case you are planning to see the movie, here’s a little quiz about what the bible actually says about Noah and the ark, with thanks to Joel Hoffman of the Huffington Post.
First question. How many of each animal did Noah put on the ark? a. Two; b. Seven; c. Fourteen; d. different numbers for different animals. The answer is d. Genesis 6: 19-20 says Noah collected two of each animal, one male and one female, and that’s the image that is seared into our imaginations from Sunday School, but Genesis 7:2-3 says two of some and “seven each” of others.
Second question. God sent the flood in response to human wickedness. What led to that wickedness? a. People ignored God’s laws; b. People offered the wrong kind of sacrifices; c. the Devil tempted people to sin; d. Evil angels mated with humans and bore giants. The answer is d. Genesis 6:2-4 refers to the time when angels took human wives and gave birth to giants. However, regardless of what the movie depicts, the bible does not say that the giants helped to build the ark.
Third question. How big was the ark Noah built? a. Much smaller that the Titanic; b. about the same as the Titanic; c. a little bigger than the Titanic, or d. much bigger than the Titanic. The answer is a. At 300 x 50 x 30 cubits, the ark was 450,000 cubic cubits. A cubit is about 1.5 feet, so the ark was 450 x 75 x 45 or 1,518,750 cubic feet. That’s the equivalent of about 1,300 of today’s standard 20-foot international shipping containers, and today’s megaships carry some 9,000 such containers. The Titanic was three times bigger than the ark, with a volume of about 4,600,000 cubic feet.
Final question. How long did the flood last? a. Seven days; b. forty days; c. one hundred and fifty days; d. one year and ten days. The answer is d. The rain lasted for 40 days (Genesis 7:14), but the water didn’t start receding until the 150th day (Genesis 8:3), and mountaintops remained submerged until about the 250th day (Genesis 8:5). But according to Genesis 8:14, the land wasn’t dry until the 27th day of the second month — one year and ten days after the flood had started.
It’s turning out to be quite a year for bible based movies. A few weeks ago, 20th Century Fox released Son of God, now we have Noah, and later this year, we’ll see Exodus in 3-D. This isn’t a new phenomenon, of course; movies based on biblical stories have been big box office draws for decades, think about The Greatest Story Ever Told, Ben-hur, or The Ten Commandments. In more recent years movies like The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion of the Christ have sparked a fair amount of controversy for the liberties taken with the biblical text or for the depiction of graphic violence. I tend to think that movies about the bible are a good thing overall. I guess I hope that they get more people interested in this book that is at the center of our faith, a book which I have come to love more and more as I get older and continue to study it. My favorite stories from the bible, however, tend to not be the ones that end up on the silver screen. Rather, my favorite stories are like the one we heard this morning from John’s gospel, the story of the man who was blind from birth. It probably wouldn’t make a very good movie, at least not the blockbuster sort. There’s very little action, and no need for special effects. What there is, however, is a lot of dialogue, with very human characters doing their best to understand who God is, what their relationship with God is like, and how they are called to live with one another. It is a story about darkness and light, about blindness and sight, and maybe most importantly, about learning to see and choosing not to see.
Jesus and the disciples are walking along and they see a man blind from birth. The common understanding back then was that birth defects or illness or any sort of handicap were caused by sin, so the disciples ask Jesus whose fault the man’s blindness is, his own or his parents. Jesus tells them that neither the man nor his parents sinned; in fact, sin has nothing to do with the man’s blindness. His blindness, however, does provide an opportunity for God’s works to be revealed; specifically, it provides Jesus an opportunity to show people who he is as the son of God. And even though the blind man doesn’t ask for Jesus to cure his blindness, Jesus spits in the dirt and makes a little clay and rubs it on the man’s eyes. This sounds pretty unappealing to us today, but it was a common sort of healing remedy back then. Jesus tells the man to wash, and when he does, he is able to see.
This is when the story really gets going. The neighbors had been used to seeing the blind man sitting on the side of the road begging. They had probably felt sorry for him and helped him out here and there. They maybe even felt kind of good about themselves for doing this, for helping someone in need. But when the blind man shows up able to see, the neighbors don’t recognize him; they’re not sure it’s the same guy, but rather they think it’s someone who looks like him. Before, they couldn’t see anything about the man except his blindness; now that he can see, they can’t see him. The poor guy is standing there while they argue with one another, and he keeps saying, “I am the same man!” Finally, they ask him, “How were your eyes opened?” And he tells them, “The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, told me to go wash, and when I did, I received my sight.” They want to know where Jesus is, and the man tells them he doesn’t know.
The neighbor want to get to the bottom of this, so they take the man to the Pharisees, those so-called experts on how to live a godly life. The issue is complicated because Jesus did what he did on the sabbath, in violation of the rules against working on the sabbath. The Pharisees start arguing amongst themselves, some saying that Jesus must be a sinner because he doesn’t observe the sabbath, but others countering that no sinner would be able to heal someone. Finally they ask the man what he thinks, and the man replies that Jesus must be a prophet; after all, prophets proclaim a new vision for the world, and that is exactly what the man has received from Jesus. Some of the folks hit on a new explanation, that maybe the man wasn’t blind at all, so they call his parents over. His parents tell them that indeed he was blind, but they don’t know how it is that he now sees. So they go back to the man and question him again. “Look,” they say, “It’s clear that Jesus is a sinner, because he’s working on the sabbath, and since he’s a sinner, there’s no way he healed you. Tell us the truth, how is it that you can see?” I just love the man’s response. “I don’t know whether he’s a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” I suspect in the few hours that he’s been able to see that he’s re-evaluated life as he understood it. Since birth, he’s lived with the belief that he was blind either through his own fault or through the fault of his parents. He’s believed that the only role for him in society was as a beggar. He’s believed that there was no way he would ever be able to see. He’s believed all this things because the Pharisees, the religious authorities, told them they were true. But now Jesus has come along and given him his sight, and he sees things in a whole new way. Maybe the Pharisees have got it wrong, maybe his blindness wasn’t anyone’s fault, maybe God’s love and mercy aren’t doled out in a complicated system of rules.
The Pharisees keep pressing him, asking again how he was healed. The man says he’s told them already and they wouldn’t listen: first the neighbors can’t see him; now the Pharisees can’t hear him. Finally, the man has had enough. “What is wrong with you people?” he explodes. “Who cares where he comes from, or whether or not he’s a sinner according to your rules: he opened my eyes!! If that isn’t a gift from God, I don’t know what is. And I’ll tell you another thing: If Jesus shows up again, I’m going to look carefully at what he does and listen carefully to what he says, because I think what he does and says is life-giving; I think he is from God.”
As I said, I love this story. I love that Jesus doesn’t let himself get caught up in the disciple’s theological and philosophical questions about why the man is blind or whose fault it is or why there is suffering in the world. Rather, Jesus sees someone in need and he helps him, no questions asked; he doesn’t even wait for the blind man to ask for help. I love how the neighbors’ inability to see the blind man once he is healed serves to remind us that a person is not defined by a handicap or an illness or something that makes them different from other people. There is more to the blind man than his blindness; there is more to a patient in the hospital than their cancer; there is more, I suspect, to most people that we meet than what we think we immediately see. Finally, I love the simple straightforward response of the blind man to his gift of sight. In spite of what he’s been taught from birth, in spite of being shouted down by everyone, the man knows what is life-giving and holy when he sees it and he refuses to ignore it.
The story of the man blind from birth isn’t blockbuster movie material, but it may help us to see God, each other, and ourselves in a new and different way. Look and see how we can help people in need. Look and see more than just the one or two most obvious things about the people we meet. Look and see what God has freely given us, the gifts that have changed our life for the better. Look and see how we can walk in the light of Jesus. Amen.
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The Rev. Paul Frolick has been the priest at St. George's since August 2012.