Here we have a miracle story which worries many educated Church goers with good reason in that, at least as far as the modern mind is concerned, in the real world, nature is just not like that. Blind people may be helped by corneal transplants, or replacing cataract damaged lenses with plastic, or using lasers to fuse detached retinas – but curing blind people with a word, or by what must seem to non Christians to be mumbo jumbo actions, is outside our normal experience. No doubt some will respond with “Of course it happened. It is in the Bible. The Bible is inspired. Therefore it must have happened as written”. If you were put on the spot what would be your view? What do you believe happened?
I guess if we are just seeing it as a familiar Bible story it may not even matter to us whether this should be questioned as literal miracle, or alternately for that matter, whether any of the recorded Bible miracles needed to have happened in the physical sense.
But at least it reminds us that there is a question which may need sorting about our beliefs – and then of course, the consequent implied question. Once sorted, how should such beliefs affect how we live?
I remember attending a lecture on teacher behaviour. It seemed to me that the lecturer’s message applies to more than just teaching. At the initial level, he said, we all have a series of beliefs that we claim to support or reject. For example here are some typical beliefs a teacher might claim to subscribe to. For most teachers, they would probably agree it is important for a teacher that they be a good communicator. The teacher should be fair, and not prejudiced. And of course there was more of the same too. The teacher is professional – check. The teacher is a master of their subject, surely that should go without saying. The teacher is a team player…..I can’t think of a teacher who wouldn’t accept that as an ideal. These are all teacher appropriate beliefs. The only catch is that listing beliefs in this way is not particularly meaningful and reminds me a little of a congregation member rattling off the words of a written creed while actually thinking about Sunday dinner.
At the next level we have the beliefs which are so important that we try to make them affect our choices and what we do. Staying with the education scenario, a teacher, for example might say to himself, or herself, something like: in order to be fair I will only try to put test questions in the exam if I know the pupils have encountered the topics in class. Beliefs we are trying to follow are obviously going to have much more than a generalized list has to do with shaping our self image. But there is a catch. As with our faith, it is always possible there is a mismatch between what we imagine ourselves to be doing, and what we are doing in practice.
So then, as the lecturer said, there is a more important set of beliefs. For the teacher, these are the beliefs other people see the teacher as living by. To return to the previous example, the teacher may well see themselves as being fair in their testing. The pupils may be saying something like: Mr Brown or Miss White is not fair (whoops – unintended pun!) because they deliberately choose questions their favourite pupils have done projects on.
I can hear the echo of an example in today’s Gospel. The Pharisees got cross at Jesus for healing the blind man in a way that they did not understand. When he dismisses their assumptions, saying that those who now see will turn out to be blind, they finally lose patience with him. “Do you think we are blind?” they ask, no doubt expecting him to treat this as a rhetorical question. His reply paraphrased. “Your sin is there because you claim to see”. In other words they are in darkness because they think they are in light without having understood the Spirit of the law.
Can I suggest we have to be rather careful with today’s Gospel reading. History tells us that on hearing that Jesus called the Pharisees blind, many self claimed Christians in the next few hundred years used this as one of the scriptures that might be used to support persecution of the Jews. A more thoughtful reading suggests that there is a way that anyone (including us) can be blind not so much in a physical sense, but in the sense that they miss what John would have us know as the light of the world.
This should remind us that John’s focus in telling the story is not on Jesus as healer – but rather on Jesus as the dispeller of darkness in the wider sense – or – using the term that John repeats in a number of places – the light of the World.
As to our own ability to see, it then follows that what becomes most important to us in practice will reveal if we are in the metaphorical light or if we are in the dark.
If we look beyond today’s gospel to other places where Jesus finds emphasis in his teaching, we may have noticed that the “Pharisees” Jesus takes issue with are really stereotypes which move far beyond the confines of the Jewish faith. The stereotypes work just as well for us today. Jesus’ teaching may have emerged from the law, yet his real focus was always on taking his listeners away from a focus on the rules and turning instead to a care for their fellow beings.
Time after time through history we see that wherever the insistence is on following rules blindly instead of responding to the people in their need, it is then we lose sight of what our faith is supposed to be. Belief without charity is a parody of faith.
Early Church history may seem a strange topic to read, but it just happens that recently I have been checking up on some of the key early Church leaders who shaped the Church beliefs.
Let me tell you about St Cyril. St Cyril was bright, he could sway a group of bishops to come to his way of thinking – and he just happened to be very nasty with it. He was very good at sorting out creeds, what people should say for example about the Virgin Mary, about how Jesus was the God bearer – in fact according to St Cyril, Jesus was God in human form – and so on and so forth. Some of his statements still influence the belief sets of some Christians today. The only trouble was anyone who disagreed was fired or worse. After seeing how many people were fingered as heretics by St Cyril of Alexandria, when St Cyril finally died in the year 444 AD, one of his fellow Bishops wrote feelingly: “At last the villain has gone. I hope his gravestone is very heavy, for I fear that Cyril will vex the dead so much that they will try to send him back to us.”
And so we return to the miracle in today’s gospel, the healing of the blind man. Well as it happens that was only part of the story. In fact if you read the passage carefully you may have noticed that not only was the passage not simply about healing the blind man, the blind man was not entirely healed in that he could not see where Jesus was. In history we discover it is not only nasty people like St Cyril who were judgemental. In his day Jesus suggested that the “rules first” Pharisees who were being judgemental, were actually being blind.
Way back in Jesus day they were also saying the sorts of things that we still occasionally hear today. When a friend’s daughter fell sick with the debilitating disease I was concerned to hear a conservative Christian acquaintance explaining this was no doubt a consequence of sin somewhere in the family.
Over recent times I have heard instances of Church folk claiming that children born with disability are only born that way because the parents or their wider family have displeased God. Similarly the Japan Earthquake was explained by saying that most Japanese were not Christian, and the Christchurch Earthquake was because of the immorality of the people of Christchurch. In that context it is helpful to hear Jesus insisting there is no causal link between disability and sin.
I have also encountered the obverse where people will tell you that those faithful to God will prosper in terms of health and good fortune, and just as the blessed are good, those who are visited by disease and misfortune are bad. What is more, believers in the prosperity Gospel can find Bible verses to back up what seems outrageous when case studies are investigated. If the truth be known, I need to confess a weakness. I take secret pleasure in hearing when someone who spreads such a claim, later encounters a reversal in fortune.
The other thing about Jesus’ act of bringing light to the blind man is that in the last analysis the basics are quite simply. For all their wisdom and complex questioning the Pharisees didn’t get it. The Pharisees today might represent unfeeling Church leaders who try to bully and manipulate themselves through to a position of control. On the other hand, for the once blind man, the bullying and complexity of questions didn’t count. “I was blind and now I see”.
Someone had cared and helped. That was all that counted.
We too have to decide what sense we might make of this strange Jesus figure, the one who does strange acts and asks disturbing questions. Yet John also reminds us that the way those Pharisees responded to Jesus carried with it its own judgment. Rules first, or people first? This is a dilemma which can’t be answered with reciting a creed, even one partly shaped by clever St Cyril. Neither is our choice about how to accept or explain away a miracle. Our choice is one of darkness or light. Which will it be?