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Poking the Bear, or On the Use of Incisive Wit

In the aftermath of the giving of sight to a man born blind, this man was subject to many questions about the miracle. John records that both his neighbors and then later the Pharisees asked him for an account of this incredible work of God. However, his steady and simple declaration of what had happened to him by the hands of “the man called Jesus” (v11) was too much for the Pharisees. After bringing this man back before them for a second time, they continue to press him for details: “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” (v26 ESV). At this point, the man moves beyond his steady and simple recounting of facts to a more critical response: “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” (John 9:27 ESV).

With this response, this man pokes the bear, as it were. John already informed the reader earlier that the religious authorities had threatened to kick anybody out of the synagogue who confessed that Jesus is the Messiah (v22). In light of that general knowledge, this man, perhaps at the end of his patience with the Pharisees, asks the incendiary question, “Do you also want to become his disciples?” I find it hard to believe that this was a naïve question, and, based on the general hostility of the religious authorities toward Jesus, I also find it hard to believe this was an honest question. The best alternative left to us is that this man changes tactics with the Pharisees and uses incisive wit to criticize their stubborn unbelief. Or, to say it another way, he pokes the bear, expecting to get a response.

And a response he certainly got. The ESV says that the religious authorities “reviled” him in response. To revile someone is to use “slander, insult, and disparagement of an opponent, e.g., as a weapon of the orator in a political dispute.”[1] In that sense, then, the Pharisees responded as expected because they understood the weight of what he had said to and about them. Undeterred, this man born blind but now seeing offers one more salvo, picking up their insult and hurling it back at them. He points out the incredible inconsistency that the Pharisees know nothing of Jesus’ origin and yet this mysterious man has done a marvelous work. Because this man is not merely out to ridicule the Pharisees, he ends his retort with the bold proclamation about the power of Jesus: “If this man were not from God, he could do nothing” (v33 ESV). For all his boldness, what he gets for poking the bear is a swift kick in the rear out the door of the synagogue, so to speak.

Now, this man’s use of incisive wit, maybe even satire of the Pharisees, is not an isolated phenomenon in the Scriptures. In fact, this man is tapping into a long and rich history of poking the bear in order to get a reaction. Sometimes, this manifested in startling sign acts, such as when God told Isaiah, “‘Go, and loose the sackcloth from your waist and take off your sandals from your feet,’ and he did so, walking naked and barefoot” (Isa 20:2 ESV). Other times, it took the form of mockery, such as when Elijah mocked the false god Baal’s silence, saying, “Cry aloud, for he is a god. Either he is musing, or he is relieving himself, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (1 Kgs 18:27). Either way, incisive wit was a tool used especially by the prophets to provoke a reaction through the use of humor.

But we should recognize that this tool was never used simply to break down. No, it was meant also to build up. In the words of one author, “This restorative art of exposing folly and sin and summoning one's audience to be corrected and cleansed begins with the Hebrew prophets. The primary purpose is not to get the audience to get the laugh; it is to help and heal one's neighbors and one's enemies (who often turn out to be the same people). … [The prophets] were not executioners, but individuals called to restore the people's hearts to God.”[2] The takeaway for us, then, is that this man is not being a jerk. Though he might be jesting, he does so to push his opposition into joining him. And sometimes, a joke can get at the heart of a matter better than anything.

[1] NIDNTTE, s.v. “λοιδορέω” [2] Terry Lindvall, God Mocks: A History of Religious Satire from the Hebrew Prophets to Stephen Colbert (New York: New York University Press, 2015), 18.

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