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The Real Judgement

Lent 4, 3 April, 2011
Nicholas Browne, Lay minister at St Peter's, Eastern Hill

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

The prospect of this sermon has been quietly alarming me for the last fortnight. Not least because I am asked to preach on a key passage in the Gospel of John the week following Dr Dorothy Lee, who is not only one of Australia's most significant Johannine scholars, but also the person who taught me John's gospel during my theological study. I can only hope that I can be Nathan Buckley to her Mick Malthouse.

One of the things that study of the New Testament under Dr Lee and others has shown me is that the characteristic episodes of the gospels — the healing stories — are both more complex and more problematic than they first appear. For what do we make of them today? If today's gospel story is simply about the curing of a single incident of blindness two thousand years ago, how does it speak to my salvation? That I should expect and hope for miraculous physical healing? Well, perhaps. And I don't want to dismiss the possibility or the experience of those who have experienced it. But in the past fortnight my school farewelled a teenage boy who, despite our praying, died at 14 of cancer. In the face of that, what is the point of telling this story to those who loved him?

It has been suggested that poor writers plagiarise and good writers steal — so without making claims to excellence as a preacher, let me admit that my answer to this question draws extensively on the work of the English Catholic theologian, James Alison, and his book The Joy of Being Wrong in particular. Some of Alison's books are available in the Bookroom, and if you are late in selecting your Lenten reading, I can recommend them whole-heartedly. Alison bases much of his work on the philosophy of the French literary critic, René Girard. At the risk of over-simplification, Girard has three basic theses: firstly, the notion of 'mimetic desire' — that we borrow our desires from others. Far from being autonomous, our desire for a certain object is always provoked by the desire of another person — the model — for this same object. Now this might seem a long way from the healing of the blind man, but Girard goes on to suggest that mimetic desire is the root of what he calls the 'scapegoat mechanism' — people desire the same object and conflict results until, eventually, we no longer imitate each other's desires for an object, but each other's antagonism. We wanted the same object, but now we want to destroy the same enemy. What results is an outbreak of violence against an arbitrary victim — a scapegoat, a blood sacrifice — whose elimination appeases the violence, and leaves us calm and, temporarily, reconciled.

Girard's third major point — an assertion which caused scandal in the secular world of literary criticism — was that the Bible reveals the mechanism, and denounces it.

And so to this blind man and his encounter with Jesus. According to the religious ideas of the time, the blind man is disabled because of sin — either his or his ancestors'. The disciples seem to accept this explanation without question: "... who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" The religious authorities later reject his explanation of his healing: "You were born entirely in sin, and are you trying to teach us?" He is a convient scapegoat, excluded from full participation in the practical and religious activities of the community. Jesus' healing of him enables him to be integrated fully into the life of the people. But it is significant that the story does not end there. Indeed, this is only the beginning of the episode. He is brought back to the Pharisees, who question him with increasing anger and violence as they realise that his story challenges their religious preconceptions and authority, demonstrating Jesus' messianic status. But at the same time as they are becoming more angry, the blind man is becoming more and more aware of the nature of Jesus — whom, remember, he has not yet seen, as his sight was restored at the pool of Siloam — first he is just a man, then a prophet; finally, he is a man from God who is superior to Moses (having done a work, after all, that has never been known since the world began). At this point they abuse him and drive him out, again, from the community. When he again encounters Jesus, he is able to recognise him as Lord and worship him — in the process of his exclusion he has become open to the truth, at the same time as the Pharisees have collectively become more hardened against it.

The episode concludes with Jesus proclaiming, "I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind." This is his assessment of the story. Yet Jesus has not actively judged anyone — the only judgement in the story is that of the Pharisees. The judgement which excluded the formerly blind man turns out to be the judgement that the excluders are really blind. Alison sees this as part of what he calls the "ironic Johannine re-casting" of the concept of judgement, by which it is through his crucifixion that Jesus becomes the judge of his judges. "It is not", he writes, "that Jesus simply abolishes the notion of judgement, or is merely much more of a judge than the other judges: the sense in which Jesus is a judge is a subversion from within of the notion of judgement."

And it is not just the conventional idea of judgement that is subverted here, but the whole idea of sin itself. At the start, the disciples see sin as being inherent in the person of the excluded one. By the end of the story, Jesus has demonstrated that sin is not what excludes in the person of the excluded one, but the dynamic act of excluding in the persons of the excluders.

Alison goes on:

We can go further with this Johannine approach to sin. .... more is intended in this story than a merely casual description of a particular incident regarding sin. The question of the sin as being related to the origins of humankind is hinted at in Jesus' use of clay in his restoration, or fulfilment, of creation, as well as in the insistence that the man was blind from birth. The relation of this story to something original is understood by the former blind man himself, who reckons that never (ek tou aiônos) has such a healing taken place. In the light of John's irony this means much more than that a particularly spectacular miracle has taken place, such as has never taken place before. It also suggests that there has been present a blindness from the beginning of the world that only now is being cured for the first time. Furthermore, when Jesus speaks, at the end, about judgement it is clear that he is not concerned with a particular local incident, but about a discernment relating to the whole world (kosmos). Here we have a highly subtle teaching about the whole world being blind from birth, from the beginning, and about Jesus, the light of the world coming to bring sight to the world, being rejected precisely by those who, though blind, claimed to be able to see. All humans are blind, but where this blindness is compounded by active participation in the mechanisms of exclusion pretending to sight, this blindness is culpable.

So I want to suggest that the message for us here and now is not so much about the miraculous healing of a blind man, which is, after all, about one tenth of the story, but about the story of inclusion and exclusion which frames it. And the relevance is how it challenges the sin in our own individual and community lives. Think of all the scapegoats in our own society. Refugees, gay men and women, and, most recently, those who haven't managed to succeed in the cut-throat world of the de-regulated economy.

Most particularly, perhaps, it is a terrible warning to the church. And the other reason this sermon has been alarming me — it is what terrifies me about this story. Here I am in the pulpit in my long alb, making a claim to religious authority and discernment. Where am I in this story? What if I'm not the formerly blind man? What if I'm one of the Pharisees?

For it is when we catch ourselves claiming, like the Pharisees, moral insight and the capacity to exclude — when we take part in mechanisms of exclusion, but justify them as good, and from God; when we say to Jesus, "Surely we are not blind, are we?" — that Jesus replies, "If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, 'We see', your sin remains."

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


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