In plain sight

When I was at Mass for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, I was astonished at the dissent the Catholic Church was promoting within its ranks. At least, that was what I had to conclude from the Gospel (John 9). It was the story of the man born blind.

Rehash: Jesus meets a man blind from birth. Jesus anoints the man with mud and tells him to wash it off, whereupon he sees. When the Pharisees and the Jewish leadership find out, they are horrified.

Yeah, sure, the guy can see, whatever; what’s really important is that Jesus is doing this stuff on the Sabbath. That means he worked, and you can’t work on the Sabbath. Therefore Jesus can’t possibly be from God. God wouldn’t act through somebody who didn’t do what Moses said. Jesus’ mercy obliges the authorities to condemn him, not respect him.

But wait, says the former blind man. God wouldn’t fulfill sinful requests from sinners, right? Here, let him speak for himself: “It is unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything” (9:32-33).

This logic is almost a problem for the leaders and the Pharisees…almost. But see, they get a loophole. That’s the thing with legalism in any religion: it’s full of loopholes for powerful opportunists who know how to use them.

Here’s the loophole this time: sin was believed to afflict sinners and their descendants with concrete misfortunes, physical and otherwise. The misfortunes could be a lot of things. Could be poverty, could be leprosy, could be blindness.

So the man born blind was born in sin. That’s his essential reality, his source. He and the Sabbath-flouter must be two peas in a pod, brothers in crime, pulling off some kind of stunt. As a group of petulant scribes had said elsewhere, “By the prince of demons [Jesus] drives out demons” (Mark 3:22). So why listen to this punk? “You were born totally in sin, and you are trying to teach us?” (John 9:34). And they throw him out.

I felt myself about to bust out in a chuckle. I had to fold my arms and look down, supressing my reaction, filing away for future reference the rebellious little insight that went with it: namely, that this first-century Gospel sounded so much like the twenty-first-century Roman Catholic Church.

Don’t the Catholic hierarchy and the opponents of Jesus sound uncannily alike? Neither group readily accepts an insight that it doesn’t come up with by itself. Neither group likes the idea of God saying or doing something that hasn’t been said or done yet, never mind all that stuff about doing a new thing (Isaiah 43:19) and the new heavens and the new earth (Isaiah 65:17, Revelation 21:1).

God may only work through carefully approved channels, all of them under strict copyright. Grace through improper channels is null, void, a deception. And even when the efficacy of those improper channels is staring the authorities in the face, they will ignore it–or even just “throw the bums out”–if they have no other way to preserve business as usual.

The late Patty Crowley, a leader in the Christian Family Movement and a Call To Action member, was also a member of the papal birth control study commission in the 1960s. Marcelino Zalba, S.J., a priest who sat on the commission with her, argued that the prohibition on contraception had to remain intact no matter what the evidence. His reasoning: ”What then with the millions we have sent to hell, if these norms were not valid?” Crowley quipped, “Father Zalba, do you really believe God has carried out all your orders?”

Do the scribes and Pharisees, both ancient and new, really believe God is carrying out all their orders? That, and not just the blind man’s healing (or the spiritual enlightenment that resulted from it), is integral to John 9.

But “sight” is an awesome metaphor to consider here. Because somehow, some way, our resources for renewal (and for acting out) have always been right there, in plain sight, if you know what you’re looking at. These resources may even be read aloud on weekends by priests who really have no idea that their voice is the match, that the red book on the ambo is the fuse, or that the people standing placidly in front of them are the bomb.

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