Addressing Poverty when the System Fails—John 5:1–9

The Politics of Scripture

In our own world, the Bethesda story reminds us of the fact that social and economic systems meant to assist the needy often keep them in poverty. Our story suggests that the 40 million Americans who live in poverty will need to doubt and challenge the system, and to look for help outside of it. Further, our sermons will need to speak life into death as a reminder that there is life beyond the system.

John 5:1-9

1 After this there was a festival of the Jews, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem.
2 Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Beth-zatha, which has five porticoes. 3 In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. 5 One man was there who had been ill for thirty-eight years. 6 When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, ‘Do you want to be made well?’ 7 The sick man answered him, ‘Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.’ 8 Jesus said to him, ‘Stand up, take your mat and walk.’ 9 At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk.
Now that day was a sabbath.

In May of 2018, the United Nations released a report on the state of poverty in the United States—and it specifically criticized President Donald Trump’s policies.

“For almost five decades the overall policy response has been neglectful at best,” the report states, “but the policies pursued over the past year seem deliberately designed to remove basic protections from the poorest, punish those who are not in employment and make even basic health care into a privilege to be earned rather than a right of citizenship.” [1]

When that UN report stated that 40 million Americans live in poverty, that 18.5 million live in extreme poverty, and that 5.3 million Americans live in “Third World conditions of absolute poverty,” the Trump administration ridiculed the findings. It was later learned that, based on internal State Department emails and other documents, the economic officials consulted on a draft questioned the accuracy of the data the administration was citing; as a result, the final statement the administration issued in June painted an overly optimistic picture of the American economy. [2] John’s Gospel tells us that when Jesus came to Jerusalem for a religious holiday he didn’t visit the temple to worship or the wise men of the city to seek philosophical discussions; instead he visited “conditions of absolute poverty,” Jerusalem’s equivalent of a hopelessly over-crowded city hospital:

Now in Jerusalem by the Sheep Gate there is a pool, called in Hebrew Bethesda, which has five porticoes. In these lay many invalids—blind, lame, and paralyzed. (John 5:2–3)

Jesus bypasses all the centers of power of Jerusalem and goes to a place where no one has power. This hospital-like place around the pool is dank and smelly and filled with people lying around, waiting for a miracle, hoping for wholeness and new life.

Archaeologists have uncovered the reservoir that once formed the pool of Bethesda. In the remains of this pool, they also uncovered a faded fresco on one of the walls which pictured an angel troubling the water. This is reflected in the legend that people associated with the pool; the NRSV includes this verse only inside a footnote, prefaced by “other ancient authorities add, wholly or in part.”

For an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool, and stirred up the water; whoever stepped in first after the stirring of the water was made well from whatever disease that person had (John 4:4)

Medical cures in the days of Jesus were little more than trying to conjure up divine intervention. Around the year 50, Pliny the Elder made a list of the currently available medical treatments for human maladies, including the horns of a stag, heads of mice, eyes of crabs, and the livers of frogs.

The Bethesda Spring attracted a crowd of the destitute who knew they had come to the end of their rope, and the end of their hope. Bethesda was a mass of humanity at its lowest point of hopelessness. Everywhere Jesus turned, there were voices of despair crying out for one last chance, one moment of hope. It was, in many ways, a place of final hope. While walking through these corridors of despair, Jesus meets a man who has been been sick for 38 years. The Greek word that describes him as a paralytic literally means, “dried out”.

When Jesus saw him lying there and knew that he had been there a long time, he said to him, “Do you want to be made well?” (John 5:6)

On the face of it, Jesus’ question, “Do you want to get well?” seems unnecessary. Perhaps the man has gotten so accustomed to his predicament that he has given up any hope of change:

“Sir, I have no one to put me into the pool when the water is stirred up; and while I am making my way, someone else steps down ahead of me.” (John 5:7)

It really isn’t too hard to understand how his spirit would become defeated. Not only is he “dried out” in body, his spirit has dried out as well.

Our story suddenly moves at an accelerated pace:

Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.” At once the man was made well, and he took up his mat and began to walk. (John 5:8–9)

Even though “the action” is over in a flash, it seems useful to take a closer look at what has happened. Rather than joining the other disabled people in waiting for the healing powers of the pool, Jesus does something unexpected. Instead of helping the man into the water so he could be healed, Jesus asks him to get up, pick up his mat, and walk.

The action Jesus takes is symbolic. It is in line with what Walter Brueggemann describes as the prophetic task: “to maintain a destabilizing presence, so that the system is not equated with reality, so that alternatives are thinkable, so that the absolute claims of the system can be critiqued.” [3]

Even though the paralytic and the other invalids at Bethesda had been taught that “the system is the solution,” on their small scale, the system (the Bethesda Pool) was a solution only for some, at the expense of all the others. By telling the paralytic to get up, pick up his mat and walk, Jesus taught him to bypass the system and to challenge it. Brueggemann writes, “The goal of the managers and benefactors is to stabilize the system so that it is not noticed that it is a system, but there is only reality.” [4] Jesus taught the paralytic that indeed there is life outside the system.

As we make connections to our own world, the Bethesda story reminds us of the fact that social and economic systems meant to assist the needy often keep them in poverty. Our story suggests that the 40 million Americans who live in poverty will need to doubt and challenge the system, and to look for help outside of it.

Even as income and wealth disparities have increased in the last thirty years and the structures that accentuate such inequality have been strengthened, there are still many who believe in the myth of the American dream: that if only one worked long and hard, one would make it because economic mobility is for everyone. That myth now is being perpetuated by the prosperity churches, even as inequality shows its ugly head every time the media report on the lavish lifestyles of their pastors.

Even as we read just a month ago of Vice President Mike Pence’s claim that the American Dream was “rescued” from dying when Mr. Trump was inaugurated, as the People of God we need to have a healthy portion of doubt whenever someone tries to argue from within the system. [5] “The official forms of power are not only dysfunctional, but in fact also bring death. Life will have to be sought and found elsewhere, outside the system that has failed. So, a transformative gesture of solidarity turns out to be destabilizing. It declares that the dominant definition to reality is null and void.” [6]

We and those who are engaged by our sermons need to speak life into death (“The prophet is the one who has the power, the authority, and the freedom to commit acts of life in a world that has been defined by death”). [7] No matter how small our gestures toward those who have nothing, they will be transformative precisely because they teach that there is life beyond the system.

Tokusan was studying Zen under Ryutan. One night he came to Ryutan and asked many questions. The teacher said: “The night is getting old. Why don’t you retire?” So Tokusan bowed and opened the screen to go out, observing: “It is very dark outside.” Ryutan offered Tokusan a lighted candle to find his way. Just as Tokusan received it, Ryutan leaned forward, and blew it out. At that moment the mind of Tokusan was opened. [8]

Since Mr. Trump’s inauguration I often have felt that “it is very dark outside,” because the new administration has embarked on a course that favors the haves and ignores the have-nots. But even though the news is filled with moments that feel like someone blew out another candle in my hand, we can rely on the fact that our minds will be opened again and again by God’s life-giving Word, embodied in the prophets of old, in Jesus, and in us. That Word is FEAR NOT.

[1] http://fortune.com/2018/06/04/trump-policies-u-n-report-u-s-poverty/

[2] https://foreignpolicy.com/2018/08/02/internal-documents-show-how-trump-administration-state-department-misled-public-on-poverty/

[3] Walter Brueggemann: “The Prophet as a Destabilizing Presence,” in The Pastor as Prophet, eds. E. Shelp and R. Sunderland (New York: The Pilgrim Press: 1985), 51–52.

[4] Brueggemann, “The Prophet,” 51

[5] https://www.cnbc.com/2019/04/11/mike-pence-says-the-american-dream-was-dying-until-trump-was-inaugurated.html

[6] Brueggemann, “The Prophet,” 61.

[7] Brueggemann, “The Prophet,” 60.

[8] https://www.sacred-texts.com/bud/glg/glg28.htm Modified by author.

4 thoughts on “Addressing Poverty when the System Fails—John 5:1–9

  1. What an awesome response to the text about the pool at Bethesda. It is significant for two reasons. The first is personal. My mother cross the chili Jordan River on 26 May 1982. It seems like yesterday and so reading your sermon gives me hope for my mother was not a wealthy woman. She is my father did the very best they could with limited income. My mother was widowed when she was 44 years old and raised five children. People with limited resources are resilient and systems/principalities and power are called to do what must be done for life to flourish with minimal toil. The second reason this text and your sermon is important is because it is the central text of St. John’s Apostolic Faith Mission Church in Southern Africa founded By mother Christinah Nku. Wynne land rights were taken from Luxe south Africa as apart tide was emerging she had a vision for the church that would be a healing station for people trapped in systems that create part when land rights were taken from like South Africa as apartheid was emerging, she had a vision for a church that would be a healing station for people trapped in systems that create poverty. These churches are understood as hospitals and provide essential care for the sick and ailing. This is revolutionary. I give a shout out to my mother, Mary Jeross Pollack Thomas as Christinah Nku. Thank you Fred for bringing this word.
    Linda Thomas
    This comment was dictated and may have spelling and grammatical errors.

    1. Thanks, Linda, for providing a glimpse of how you received my sermon. This kind of feedback is so rare, at least in the two congregations where I preach. Blessings on you, especially as you remember your mother’s transition into Life Without End today.

  2. I loved reading this. Insightful, thoughtful and a challenge to us all. Again a brilliant reminder of how the Bible is still relevant for the situations we face today

  3. Linda and John, thanks so much for the feedback.

    I posted an earlier response to you, Linda, but since it didn’t post, I assume it disappeared into cyberspace.

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