Lent 4 | Who sinned? | 30 March 2014


Audio picks up after the initial story

Text: John 9:1-41


This is a story passed on to me a while back by Nate Toland, told by Peter Rollins, who’s from Northern Ireland, and he told it as if it were a story that actually happened, so that’s how I’ll tell it.

In Ireland they hold these public competitions which people find quite entertaining and a few years ago they held a competition for who could build the largest sheep pen. There were three competitors: an architect, an engineer, and an old farmer. They were each given the same amount of lumber and they had the same amount of time, to build their sheep pen.

So the architect went first and being an architect he knew how to build the fencing so it maximized efficiency and strength and he worked away at it, and when his time was up the judges came and looked it over and tested it out and it was able to hold 100 sheep. Well done.

And the engineer went next and she had the idea that if she could cut each of the boards down the middle lengthwise, if she could rip each piece of lumber, that she’d have twice as much lumber to work with and it would still be strong enough to hold up. So that’s what she did. And when you do that, if you think about it, it actually allows you to build something with four times the square footage, so after making her cuts she worked away at building the fence and when her time was up the judges came and tested it out and it held 400 sheep. Very well done.

Well the old farmer was last, and he worked slowly but he finished rather quickly. The judges came and saw that he had built this fence around himself and there were still lots of pieces of lumber lying around. The judges said “We didn’t expect you to beat the architect or the engineer, but that is one of the smallest sheep pens you could have built.” And the farmer said, “Actually, I’m quite sure my sheep pen could hold every sheep in the world. And the judges said, “Are you kidding, you can barely fit inside of it yourself. How are you even going to get outside of that thing?” And the farmer said, “No, I am on the outside. You’re the ones on the inside of my sheep pen.”

Audio begins here:

When’s the last time you heard a good sermon about sin?

Or, if I would rephrase that: When’s the last time you heard a sermon about sin, good or bad? My guess is that sin is less of a main topic of sermons and church conversation than it was several generations ago. At least in certain parts of the church. And maybe the people in these certain parts of the church are here for that very reason. The church hasn’t always done a good job of talking about sin in a way that is actually helpful in shedding light on our human predicament, much less freeing us from the grips of sin. And so, as is sometimes the case, when we don’t do something very well, we think that perhaps if we just say it louder and more often that we can somehow remedy the situation. Or, we give it a rest for a generation or two and just don’t talk about it and assume that we all know what sin is and so there’s really no need to go into any kind of depth with it.

At the risk of stirring up any manner of negative emotions associated with the topic, we’re going to dive right in to a sermon about sin. Whether it’s a good one or a bad one will be yours to decide. We can think of it as our Lenten obligation to at least give sin an opportunity to be talked about. All we are saying is give sin a chance.

One of the ways that groups of people have tried to organize our lives – political, religious – is around something that would seem the opposite of sin – goodness, or righteousness. We tend to get our sense of goodness by being a part of a group that defines goodness for us. Originally, this group was the tribe, which developed certain practices, and certain taboos about what it meant to belong, to uphold the integrity of the tribe – the group being inherently good, the only way of survival. To step outside of these practices would be to threaten the safety and purity of the group. That worked relatively well for a long time.

And, as groups tend to function, one of the greatest unifying factors for a group is a threat from the outside. Nothing unifies a group more than a common enemy. If we think we’ve outgrown this tendency, consider the role that communism, and more recently terrorism, has played in unifying our nation. It also sheds some light on why immigrants, whose threat to our national security is marginal at best, somehow got lumped together with the war on terrorism. When a tribe, or nation feels threatened, all outsiders are perceived as enemies. And the more threatened a group is, the more the group becomes convinced of its own goodness, of the righteousness of its cause – the more dire the need to defeat and put an end to the outside threat, to restore the purity and safety of the group.

But of course it never works. The group is just externalizing its own issues and never really doing the hard work of searching its own soul. So it always needs a new enemy to hold itself together.

Well, we get a sense for how this works. It happens in inter-personal and political relationships. It is a particular way of seeing the world which deeply affects values and priorities. So let’s take a look at John chapter nine to see how all of this might be playing itself out there.

A casual read through this story would make it seem that it is similar to many other healing miracle stories in the gospels. There’s a blind man, who Jesus heals, and it happens to be the Sabbath day. The religious leaders, the Pharisees, get wind of this and are scandalized by a healing on the Sabbath, which, by law, was to be a day of rest. The story ends with a confrontation between Jesus and the Pharisees with Jesus siding with the blind man over the Pharisees. A pretty familiar outline that shows up in various ways in different stories in the gospels. Almost a boiler plate kind of gospel story.

But there are some unique things about this story that make it quite a bit more than just another instance of a blind man getting healed.

The first clue that this is the case has to do with the way the story is framed. If we look at the opening lines, we notice what is at stake. “As Jesus walked along, he saw a man who was blind from birth. 2 Jesus’ disciples asked, ‘Rabbi, who sinned so that he was born blind, this man or his parents?’ 3 Jesus answered, ‘Neither he nor his parents. This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him.’ Now if we look at the closing lines of the story, when Jesus is talking with the Pharisees, we read this: v. 40, “Some Pharisees who were with him heard what he said and asked, ‘Surely we aren’t blind, are we?’ 41 Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you wouldn’t have any sin, but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.’” So the entire story is framed by the question of sin. And we can already see that the story is playing with this relationship between sight and sin. Who is in sin? Those who can’t see but really can? Those who think they can see, but are actually blind?

I am drawing on Catholic theologian James Alison’s interpretation of this passage and he refers to this whole story as nothing less than a revolution in the understanding of sin – a provocative idea. (“The man born blind from birth and the Creator’s subversion of sin,” in Faith Beyond Resentment)

Let’s go back to the beginning and look at this question that the disciples ask Jesus about the man born blind from birth: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents?” Both of the options that the disciples give Jesus are attempts to moralize a physical abnormality in this man. There was some precedent for doing that. In Exodus 20:5-6, during the giving of the ten commandments, it is recorded, “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.” Let’s be honest and admit that we don’t really believe this anymore, that this is God’s doing, but there is plenty of truth in sins of parents getting passed down to the next generation. Any social worker or psychologist can tell you how the pain of abuse or addictions can get passed down to the third and fourth generation, or we can consider the power of generational poverty and how hard it is to escape that cycle. It’s at least all too often a sociological fact, even if we no longer hold it to be a theological fact.

The prophet Ezekiel was already trying to mitigate this teaching. He says, in chapter 18, verses 1-4, “The word of the Lord came to me: “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge”? As I live, says the Lord God, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Know that all lives are mine; the life of the parents as well as the life of the child is mine: it is only the person who sins that shall die.” So Ezekiel challenges this notion of children inheriting the sins of their parents. Each person is responsible for their own life.

Groups have a need to maintain their own sense of goodness, and we can see how the disciples would have still been caught up in this attempt to moralize blindness or other ailments. Being blind would have been considered a physical defect that excluded this man from the priesthood and would have limited his abilities to participate fully in the ritual life of the group, which is so often a group’s way of re-affirming its own goodness. A ritual defect would have also been a moral defect. He would have been one of those outsiders, which is so often synonymous with sinner. If he would be included in the group then all of a sudden the group would be defective and could no longer think of itself as entirely whole.

Jesus rejects any attempt to moralize this man’s condition. His “sin” of blindness isn’t a sin at all. Being outside the purity of the group has nothing to do with sin. Jesus’ answer anticipates the words of the popular theologian of our day, Lady Gaga. “He was born this way. He’s on the right track, baby.”

So that’s one shift in the understanding of sin, but it’s not the big one that turns the whole thing inside out.

Verse 6: “After he said this, he spit on the ground, made mud with the saliva, and smeared the mud on the man’s eyes. Jesus said to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam.’ So the man went away and washed. When he returned, he could see.” More than just a gesture of folk healing, one could interpret this use of mud, of ground, adamah, in Hebrew, as an allusion back to the creation story, when Adam is formed from the adamah; the human from the humus. This man has not yet been fully created, and Jesus is completing the act of creation. This supplemental adamah, brings sight to this man who had been blind from birth.

When it is discovered that this man can now see, he is brought to the Pharisees, which is when we are told that this happened to be the Sabbath. The reference to Sabbath also harkens back to the creation story. In Genesis God creates the world in six days and rests from on the seventh day. Because God rested, we also rest on that day in imitation of God. As an observant Jew, Jesus would have loved and honored the Sabbath, but in the gospel of John he is actively redefining the purpose and meaning of Sabbath. Like other practices, Sabbath can become yet another one of those ways of dividing the world into the good people and the sinners. Those who observe Sabbath in a certain kind of way and those who don’t. A group affirms its own goodness by practicing together Sabbath rest from work. Jesus heals, does work on the Sabbath, and so they can’t believe that he is from God, and can’t believe that this blind man’s healing is an act of God. Jesus had said in verse 4 “While it’s daytime, we must do the works of him who sent me.” Earlier, in chapter five, verse 17, Jesus said something on a Sabbath day even more challenging: “My Father is still working, and I also am working.” God is still working. So creation is still happening. It’s not yet complete.

Sabbath might be taken to be a way of declaring that creation has been completed, and we’re all stuck in the ways we have supposedly “been created,” with fairly neat categories of who is pure and good and righteous; or, Sabbath can be a way of saying that time, Sabbath time, is the ongoing work of God bringing creation to completion, in which case our categories of goodness and belonging are much less rigid and much more open to growth, and change, and transformation.

In this story in John 9, the religious leaders cannot accept that an outsider has inexplicably been let in on the goodness of the group by someone acting in ways not approved by the group. They happen to be Jews in this case but it could apply to any group. He can see! but they can’t accept that he was the one who had been “created” blind. And so, as groups tend to do when they’re losing an argument, they devolve into namecalling, and excommunication. In verse 34, their final comeback to the formerly blind man is, “’You were born completely in sin! How is it that you dare to teach us?’” Then they expelled him.” He is banished from the group, which has no way of including this outsider into their righteous belonging that they’ve created for themselves.

My summary of verses 35-41 which end the story, is this: Jesus hears that they had driven the man out, and he asks the formerly blind man, “Do you believe in the Human One, the Son of Man? Jesus tells the man that he is the Human One, humanity fully alive, and the man says that he does indeed believe. Jesus says, “I came into this world for discernment, so that those who do not see may see, and those who think they can see, can be shown to be blind.” The Pharisees hear this and ask if they, then are blind. Jesus answers that if they were to admit that they couldn’t see, they wouldn’t be in sin. But since they believe they can see, and yet act in the manner they do, they remain in sin.

The Pharisees in this story are caught up in a pattern of goodness maintenance that they are completely blind to. They are blind that their own sense of righteousness always depends on having people on the outside over and against to define themselves. They are righteous because of the supposed sinfulness of the outsiders.

And this is where Jesus presents the revolution in the understanding of sin. This is where the sheep pen gets inverted and completely redefined. It is not the outsiders who are in sin, but it is this very pattern of keeping outsiders out that is itself sin. It’s the very mindset that builds fences to keep the good in and the bad out. When one is freed from this, or starts to see that pattern for what it is, one is on their way out of sin. No longer needing the badness of others to define one’s own goodness. One is simply a human being, still in the process of being created, just like everyone else. Goodness resting entirely in the free gift of life that comes from Creator Spirit. This is the kind of abundant life that Jesus came to give. Let me say that one line one more time: One is simply a human being, still in the process of being created, just like everyone else.

The easiest thing for us to do in this story is to side with the blind man and condemn the Pharisees for their shortsightedness. But, in doing so, we may notice, we’d still be caught up in the same trap. Trying to convince ourselves of our own goodness by casting out those who don’t get it. So, another step along this path, is actually finding some kind of sympathy with the Pharisees, who, like us, continue to be caught up in blindness. We’re proud that our sheep pen is bigger than other people’s pens, the engineer beating the architect by being a little more open minded. There is still a conversion to undergo in which the whole thing gets inverted, and we find ourselves and everyone else on the inside of something massive. Something that claims us and perceives us into a whole new way of being in the world.

The temptation of being able to see, is that we think we perceive the world at it is. We see the light reflected off the surface of a thing and we think that we have understood the whole of it.

So this inversion doesn’t really make sin go away. It’s just this great equalizer that recognizes that we actually all have our blindnesses and we’re all in this together and Christ is there with us, not sorting out the goodies from the baddies, but teaching us all how to see.

The Lord is our shepherd. We shall not be in want. We shall not fear. The Shepherd restores our souls and prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies. Our cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall pursue us all the days of our lives, and we shall all dwell in the Lord’s house, in God’s expansive sheep pen, forever.