The Nature of Sin
Somehow, probably in the Dark Ages, the church lost sight of the true nature of sin. As the church grew rapidly, especially in the West, there were no seminaries to train clergy, so the clergy for the most part weren’t well-educated. Most spiritual direction took place in the confessional dealing with a person’s struggle with their “sins.” In Ireland during the 800’s books were developed to help the clergy determine the proper penances for particular sins. The list of sins was comprehensive (cursing, adultery, stealing, etc., on and on). Each sin had its own penance.
The focus on individuals and their sins remained for centuries, and even persists in our own day, with penances becoming lighter, ie. Say three Our Fathers and three Hail Mary’s as we like to joke. With liturgical reform this is beginning to change. Most Christians now confess Forgive what we have done and what we have failed to do. This is good because it moves us from a “my sins are a private matter between me and my God” to a “my sins and failings have an effect on other people.”
We see this movement from persisting from ancient times: thinking of sin as an individual “defect,” moral (last weeks Woman at the well) or physical, to actions that effect society. Jesus’ encounter with the man born blind (a physical defect) brings this out. They all ask Jesus Who sinned, this man or his parents? They wanted to see if Jesus would mimic the answer of the culture he was born into where blindness was a defect, a sin that needed explanation and a cause. Jesus’ disciples and the Pharisees were programmed to think this way. In a way, we too still think this way, although we pat ourselves on the back because we no longer think of blindness and so ma other physical “defects” as rooted in sin.
In today’s Gospel the dialogue goes back and forth between Jesus and the Pharisees over the nature of sin. Someone must take the blame for the man’s blindness and his defect of nature. Is he or his parents responsible? The man says that he was always blind, but now he can see. This should be a wonderful thing, except Jesus did it on the Sabbath. The Pharisees say that no “work” is to be done on the Sabbath. God rested on the Sabbath. Jesus retorts that My Father is always working. Creation is not finished ever.
It seems an uphill battle for Jesus. Blindness is a great sin, but not physical blindness, rather spiritual blindness. The Pharisees, leaders who claim to see, who expel sinners, all those with defects, from the Temple, and alone judge who are worthy to belong, are the blind ones. In contrast, Jesus gathers sinners into community and doesn’t expel anyone. Understanding Jesus’ new Way is to move from darkness to light, from blindness to real sight. But, to be clear, It was/is easy for Jesus to heal a person from blindness, but very difficult to heal a whole culture from its blindness.
This story of the “Man born blind from birth” is a story that points out a cultural blindness which leads to real sin, the sin of expulsion, driving undesirables away, painting them as different, illegals, unwelcome sinners in our midst that should and must be banished. Jesus knows that our human society has been blind from its birth. Jesus, God’s own Son, allowed himself to be expelled from this world by the powerful leaders who claimed to “see,” but were blinder than bats.
We who are baptized followers of Jesus have the same struggles his first disciples had. We are members of a culture which exerts a powerful influence on us to expel people to protect our “interests.” Mostly out of fear, we feel more like excluding than including, protecting the “us” from the “them.” The church, part of this human culture, at times has shared and continues to share the same struggle. Jesus called sinners to gather with him and didn’t exclude them like the Pharisees. The Holy Spirit is slowly changing us, helping us repent, change our thinking, healing our blindness, and opening up our eyes to Jesus’ vision for the world. We need to prepare ourselves, for this will be a long drawn out process. Our hope is that, just as surely as we believe Jesus was raised from the dead, we will let our fears go and open to God’s love. Our belief in the Resurrection of Jesus does this!
A theology professor once told his students: If you want to see what it was like to live in the age of the great Cathedrals, look at the great hospitals today. The great Cathedrals were symbols of people’s love for God and the centrality of God in life. The great hospitals, even with all the good they do, are symbols of our cultures fear of death and the absolute necessity we require of delaying death as long as possible.
Jesus wants to lead us out of the fear of death into the love of God. Build a cathedral for God in your heart and let God’s love be there for all people (My house shall be a house of prayer for all people). Think “us” in terms of seeing all people as our brothers and sisters in God, our Father’s family. Scapegoating, pointing the finger, expelling, are the Capital sins of our time. On this Fourth Sunday of Lent we learn to live and love others in God and be truly free from sin.
Saint Alban Episcopal Mission (English, Anglican Communion) meets for mass every Sunday at 10:00 A.M. (see welcome letter at sidebar) at Casa Convento Concepcion, 4a Calle Oriente No. 41, Antigua, Guatemala.