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Who sinned? Who is blind?

[Note: In regard to guilt and healing see also Healing the wounds of guilt at Lent 1 A. For more on miracles in general, see Miracles and the bread of Heaven and the introductory note to the sermon Faith or fear: Who then is this? ]

Who sinned? Who is responsible? What can account for this calamity! It is a common enough concern when things go wrong. There must be somebody to blame! Or do you think that is primitive thinking. Is it a kind of superstition? If it is, it is a very persistent superstition. It is not easy to get away from, even in the modern world. Whether superstition or not, when something serious goes wrong in any group there is usually a search for someone to blame. It is often so in business or government. In a family there is grief for all at such times when, for example, a rebellious teenager gets into trouble with the police, or there is a shameful and unwanted pregnancy, or someone suddenly becomes unemployed, or there is serious injury or death in an accident. Don't we ask in one way or another "Who sinned?", or "What did I do to deserve this?" In times of grief it may be very difficult to avoid feeling in some way guilty for what has happened even though we know rationally that we did nothing directly ourselves to cause the death of a loved person or some other serious loss. A death, or some other keenly felt loss, like unemployment or a permanent disability will bring back all sorts of memories of how we have treated the person who has suffered.

There are many subtle ways in which the ancient search for guilt is still with us. It enters too into public life when economic distress in a community will be blamed on one section of society or another or on the government, when in all probability no one in the community affected or even in the nation could have done much about it. Remember too those political advertisements a few years ago with photographs headed "The Guilty Party". Think of all the talk about the banks, or the unions, or those people in the city who don't understand the country, or the bias of the popular press, or the affects of immigration, or the attitudes of young people, or of old people, or whoever might be a suitable target when fear and anxiety are running high. Not that the unions or the banks or the government or we ourselves are altogether blameless, but the search for someone to blame is still an all too common practice, and too commonly combined with prejudice.

What is more, sometimes people are indeed guilty. It is interesting that while we are in some respects too ready to blame ourselves or to blame others when things go wrong, in other ways we live in a society that is very good at rationalised all kinds of selfishness so that we are encouraged to think that we are not really at fault at all. Advice columns in newspapers and magazines, for example, nearly always say, "It is wasn't your fault," or "You need to be liberated, and do what feels right to you: assert yourself." Sophisticated thinking will justify many social ills by suggesting that they result from circumstances beyond our control or events long ago which lead a person to break the law or cheat on a friend or go bankrupt, when there were in fact moral choices involved, when someone responsible chose to do what they knew to be wrong. Popular social theory and libertarian ethics are often combined to rid the wrong doer of guilt. So it is a strange thing: we look for guilt more than perhaps we should, and yet we are inclined to explain away the normal sense of responsibility. Oddly also, the irrational sense of guilt that goes with depression, the origins of which are largely beyond the control of the person who suffers, and which sometimes leads to suicide, seems to be quite prevalent in our society - I read a report recently that depression kills nearly as many people as cancer. We must be rather confused about moral responsibility and guilt and punishment.

[It is interesting how things change. What I have said about people dodging responsibility remains true in our society and for humanity in general. But in the few years since I first prepared this there does seem to have been a chnage of attitudes in Australian public life. One place in which it is evident is in national policy and attitudes to aboriginal welfare. The influence of some aboriginal leaders like Noel Pearson and Warren Mundine who emphasise the need for people people to take responsibilites for their own lives has increased, and this was taken up by the previous government. Since the election of a new government late in 2007 there have been further changes and the outcome in policy will probably not be clear for some time yet. One thing is clear, and that is in the readiness of the government to accept responsibility for the hurt that was done to aboriginal people. Saying "Sorry" officially has had a powerful symbolic effect, clearing the air and making new beginnings more realistically possible.]

Blame and conflict with the authorities

However confused we may be, we do have a sense of the question that was put to Jesus when they wanted to know who was to blame for a man being blind, and of the good sense of his answer when he said that no one was to blame:

This little exchange is only part of quite a long story, and the main point of it has yet to come, but it does focus our attention on something quite basic in human nature: the sense that our actions have consequences, that we are morally responsible, that bad things happen to people who behave badly; and so we tend to turn it around and ask what bad thing led to this? And we can understand Jesus saying, No, it was not the fault of either the man himself or his parents. In comparison, it is important to see that the moral teachers of the community at the time were of a different opinion, for they believed that the man's affliction must be a sign of his being punished, as you can see clearly later in the story when the authorities dismissed the man after questioning him, saying that he was born in sin:

Their belief was that he was unworthy, that is not blessed by God, and not in a position to teach them anything. They took as evidence of his sinfulness the fact that he had been blind. (Indirectly, just as they saw the blind man as belonging to a sinful group, they were attacking Jesus in the same comment because he was one associated with sin, as was clear in what they said about him earlier, in regard to healing this man on the Sabbath.) We might not say outright that a person suffers because he or she in guilty, and in such simple terms, but as I have suggested we are still inclined in our deeper feelings to imagine such guilt when things go wrong in important matters. Let us accept, though, that Jesus was teaching us something useful if we can learn not to be too ready to blame either ourselves or others when disaster strikes.

Is God like that?

But, but, yes, there is something else, the awkwardness of the following comment about its being to the glory of God: he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him. Is God really like that? Does it not seem to make God out to be a rather mean old character who would cause someone to suffer blindness just so that his Son could show his special powers when he cured the man's blindness. Do you believe that? Is that how you think of God? I don't, but I am very reluctant to use my general ideas about what God is like to limit what I will accept from holy scripture. Should we not be testing what we believe by reference to scripture rather than limiting what we will accept from scripture according to our prior beliefs?

Before we look a little closer at the interpretation of scripture, there is one way of looking at providence that might help. There is much uncertainty in the world. We often do not know what will happen and that is not just ignorance. Some things are chance events. God has built a degree of uncertainty into the world. Another way of looking at it, which I have discussed on other occasions, and will come back to later today, is that God has not fixed every detail because the work of creation is not yet finished. It is moving towards the fulfilment of God's purpose which is not yet accomplished, and in the meantime we suffer some imperfections and uncertainties in a world where there remains a degree of freedom in which not everything is determined. Whatever you think about that, our attitude to scripture needs to remain open if we are to learn from it, and it is a matter of faith whether we think everything must have been determined in advance.

Sometimes dilemmas of this kind in the interpretation of scripture are very difficult, but I think in this case there is a reasonable explanation. I don't think it was intended to be read the way we see it, because that kind of causal connection, which we tend to think of in scientific terms, was not present in the same way in ancient Hebrew thinking and writing. What was written later in Greek probably came from the kind of contrast and repetition that was common to Hebrew poetry and prophetic teaching when two things could be put along side one another for comparison and a cause for wonder, rather than by way of explanation in our more scientific sense. So it could be understood to say something like: don't worry about who sinned, but rather give thanks that God was able to use this misfortune to reveal the presence of the Messiah. That is brought out in the remainder of the story which is all about who this Jesus could be, if indeed a man who had been born blind could now see. It is the main point of the story which reaches its climax when the healed man says to the authorities who are questioning him that the man who made him well must be from God:

They then rejected him as we have already seen, calling him and his parents sinners, just as they had said Jesus was a sinner and so could not have done good.

A few further points of understanding can add strength to the drama. The point at issue was like the question of whether good fruit could come from a bad tree. It was another of those signs and wonders which John sets out one after another to show that Jesus was being revealed as the Messiah. The more good outcomes there were the harder it was for the authorities to maintain that he was a bad man who could not be blessed by God or have anything worthwhile to teach. So they tried to discredit the story of this healing, calling in the man's parents to ascertain whether the man who could now see was really the one who was previously blind or as some said only someone like him, and whether it was true that he was born blind.

It was not unknown among the Jewish rabbis for people to be cured of blindness, even in those days, but no one was known to have been cured who had been blind from birth, hence the importance of the parents witness on this point. If it was true and Jesus cured him that would be an event of great significance and must say something about who was. So you see how the story unfolds: there was an encounter with Jesus; later the man or someone like him is walking about and seeing normally; the authorities had to investigate and evidence piles up that indeed a remarkable thing has happened and the question must be faced of who this Jesus might be.

Do we believe it?

Perhaps we should ask ourselves now how convinced we are of what happened and what it says about Jesus. There are many things that can be learned from this chapter even if you don't accept the literal truth of the story: things like how the people regarded Jesus and the symbolism of seeing who he was and how there are none so blind as those who will not see, and even the guilt of people who have the knowledge but do not see. But the question of what people will accept about the events remains in our minds.

You might be inclined not to believe in miracles at all, or to say that sometimes such stories make sense but this one is difficult, for while people who cannot see for psychological reasons might be helped to see by what someone said to them, you find it difficult to accept physical changes like that supposed here. How could a person who was born blind see. How could it be done, at least without the aid of modern medicine? When you argue in that way you may be limiting what you will learn from scripture by what you already know, and with that attitude you will not learn very much; but still you might feel justified in having a sceptical attitude claiming that John wrote a long time after the event and that he tended not so much to tell stories as they happened historically but rather to sing a song putting images and ideas together in a celebration of Jesus.

Perhaps you might be prepared, nevertheless, to say that if Jesus was who we and John have believed him to be then it is at least possible that he literally did what John said he did. If he was the Word of God through whom the whole world was created then some further perfection of the creation, which is good but not perfect or yet complete, could really have been brought about by him in this reported event. This way of seeing it also helps with the question of why the man was born blind - not in an arbitrary way of intervention by God to set things up for a miracle, but as part of a world that is necessarily uncertain, imperfect and incomplete, because we have not yet reached the end or the completion of God's purpose in creation.

I would not wish to insist upon the literal historical and physical facts being exactly as we have them in the text. It is unlikely, for example, that in recording the conversations of Jesus the precise words people spoke would have been remembered sixty or seventy years later when they were written down in John's gospel as we have it now. On the other hand, it is hard to avoid the impression that something quite startling to the people who witnessed it did happen in the healing of a blind man. There is a different account, either of a similar event or the same occasion, in Mark 8:22-26, which has some of the same details, including the use of saliva which was believed to have healing properties. One thing which strikes me is that the man in Mark's story said at first that he could see people but they looked like trees walking. It could be just blurred vision, but it might conceivably be an example of one of the things we know from research about the recovery of people born blind who have in rare operations been cured in modern times. Research on people who have recovered sight through surgery has found that those who were born blind had to learn to see. They could not immediately recognise shapes or even put detail together to make whole images at first. So we read in Mark:

I do not want to make too much of this, but it is an interesting clue even if it does not quite make sense if applied to the case of a man born blind who could not have known what trees looked like either. If there was such an event, recalled in different ways in different traditions, and what people observed of the man developed over a period of time as John suggests, then something like that detail of the man's experience of having to learn to see could well have been remembered without the actual details being clear. I would not dismiss the possibility out of hand. After all if Jesus was who we say he is, why not? But for the evangelist passing on the experience of people observing what Jesus did, the question was the other way around: if he could do such a thing, then who is he? That they began to believe that he was the Messiah suggests very strongly that they saw in what he did good reason to think that he might be.

But who is guilty?

Interestingly, we come back to the question of guilt at the end of the story as John tells it.

There is a general point here and a particular lesson for the Pharisees and all like them. The general truth is that if we do not see, in the sense that we do not know what we are doing, we are not morally responsible. To be guilty you must have made a moral choice. The particular point for the Pharisees is that, sitting in the seat of Moses, teaching the people, they were in a position to know the truth, but because they were capable of seeing who Jesus was but did not, they were guilty. They would not be guilty if they were not equipped to see, but if they were they sinned. If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, 'We see,' your sin remains. There are none so blind who as those who will not see. So we come back to the question with which John introduced the story, "who sinned?" "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned." Is blindness evidence of sin? The answer is Yes, but not in the way you think! And the answer is No, in the way that people are all to ready to think! But whatever you make of the many complex questions raised by this incident, what John is saying to us is that we have reason to give glory to God for the coming of the light into the darkness of this one man's life, and into the world for us all. Glory be to him.

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