I am the light of the world – Fourth Sunday in Lent 2011

When I was younger I used to think that religion should be logical; that a lot of unbelievable nonsense could be weeded out if only we thought straight. Whatever truth may still be in that, the fact is that the combination of good intentions and clear thinking can lead religious people into some very nasty places. In our Gospel today, the disciples meet a man blind from birth, and ask Jesus, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, for him to be born blind?” Let’s look at the thinking behind the question. We take it for granted that God is just, fair; he does justice. To be born blind is a terrible affliction. God simply would not inflict it without  a good reason, so it must be a punishment for some sin, either by the man or his parents. It’s a logical deduction, and proceeds from a very proper concern for God’s justice. Unfortunately it is no help to the blind man, whose harsh lot is made a little heavier by the added stigma of having brought his misfortunes on himself. Religion here has simply made the man’s world a bit darker.

The truth is, we don’t know enough about how anything comes about, to make dogmatic assertions about who is to blame. Jesus certainly doesn’t bother to try. He merely affirms God’s nature and role as one who brings light into a dark world, and proceeds to make this real for the blind man. he puts a paste of mud and spittle on the man’s eyes, and sends him to wash in the pool Siloam, and he comes back seeing. As usual, John is telling a story on several levels. For he points out that Siloam means “Sent”; and he is constantly speaking of Jesus as the one who been sent by God. In other words, when we wash in Jesus “the Sent One” we gain insight, we become spiritually perceptive – we get to see what God is really like. “He who has seen me has seen the Father”, says Jesus. We are to recognize God, not as the remorseless agent of inflexible laws of crime and punishment, but as the compassionate agent who brings light and life, the one who saves the world rather than condemning it.

And yet there is judgement in this Gospel, a judgement on the spiritually blind, on those who claim to see and who ought to see but who in fact have refused to see.

The religious authorities are portayed as being more interested in maintaining the institution than in caring for people. The blind man is an object lesson (apparently) in God’s just punishment of sin. The fact that it is on the sabbath that the healing takes place proves that Jesus is a sinner; for keeping the sabbath should be more important than healing the sick. There is an irony here. The first ritual act of the Sabbath is the lighting of the candles that welcome the day of light and joy; the person who lights them is meant to enjoy and use the light before reciting the blessing. What more appropriate Sabbath action than to make a man capable of seeing that blessed light? But institution has taken precedence over people; theory over reality. And this is a form of spiritual blindness.

The particular insight that the blind man gains is that Jesus can only be sent by God; there is no other explanation for this good thing he has done. A man of no education, despised by the religious authorities, he can nonetheless recognise goodness when he sees it, and he has his own logic: We know that God does not help sinners, so this man cannot be a sinner; no-one could do this except God empowered him. The religious authorities, envious no doubt of Jesus, unwilling that God should work outside the cage they have made for him, refuse to acknowledge the goodness of God. And in doing so, they condemn themselves. They are disciples of Moses, they say; so they should at least have learned about honesty and the compassionate nature of God. But they don’t want to see, and so bring Jesus’ words of condemnation on themselves. Refusing to acknowledge a godly deed, choosing instead to intimidate and finally exclude the newly-enlightened, they have in reality turned their back on the light.

John may have been thinking about the Jews who refused the claims of Christ; we might be thinking about people who reject the Christian faith. But we still don’t know enough about how things come about to condemn and blame others. All we can properly ask is: Do we put institution before people? theory before reality? Do we refuse to see God’s goodness in unlikely places? Do we really let ourselves see and believe the astounding greatness of God’s compassion and love? As the old Litany has it,

From blindness of heart, good Lord, deliver us.

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