Man, that is a nasty looking word. I could barely type it before loads of baggage started tumbling out from my past. We often think of sin as performing morally evil actions, such as lying or taking that extra cookie from the jar without our grandmother noticing (though I just learned the other day that she knew all along!) If only we could keep from doing the wrong things, we could avoid sinning. Not too tough, I had thought.
Wait… was that pride? Dammit. I guess nobody is perfect.
The late French literary critic, Rene Girard, and a disciple of his, of sorts, in the English theologian James Alison have helped me find a new definition of sin and atonement. All credit for the following thoughts are given to these two brilliant minds.
Let’s take a look at the man born blind in John 9. Jesus explains, somewhat cryptically, that this man was born blind so that the works of God might be displayed in him. What in the world did Jesus mean here? We will find out soon enough.
Jesus heals the guy with some dirty water and a seemingly arbitrary assignment. We might be tempted to focus on Jesus’ healing power, and we should remember that God does have the power to heal, but we must not stop here. This is where it starts to get interesting. In verse 16 we find the Pharisees unable to come to a consensus on what had happened to this man.
No big deal, right? One group can go down the street and worship at the other temple, and the other group can just stay at this temple. Problem solved, right?
But there isn’t another temple. We need to understand that a division among the leaders of the religious group posed a major threat to the social order they were working so hard to sustain. We could not overstate the severity of this situation.
The first solution is to discredit the entire ordeal by discovering that the man was not really born blind. If they can prove this small detail then there would have been no sign and they could all go back to belonging to the same, agreeable groups. But the man’s parents are having none of this! The shrewd parents send the group back to their freshly-seeing son.
Their next attempt is to discredit the power by which the sign was preformed. Here we see perhaps the most heinous offense, as the Pharisees try to get the man formerly known as the blind beggar to agree that he was, in fact, healed by evil. So, if the man would just agree that his good fortune happened at the expense of consorting with demons or sinners or something equally abhorrent, then he could still hang out with the temple kids. I hear they had a pool, too.
The man is not willing to play along. He knows that what he has received is nothing short of a gift from God and begins to speak elaborately in Jesus’ defense.
So instead of agreeing to disagree, they decide that the healed man, himself, is evil and has been since he was born. And then they kick him out. Afterwards, Jesus confronts both parties. He affirms the formerly-blind man’s faith and condemns the Pharisee’s inability to realize that they are blind. What a reversal!
What we see here is a certain group unwilling to risk losing power in order to make room for someone they have always seen as fundamentally inferior. The man’s blindness was grounds aplenty for his exclusion from their sacred community. And this exclusion was justified by the belief that he must have been blind because of some atrocious sin he or one of his ancestors had committed.
That might seem like a bit of a stretch for some of you. You might accuse me of watering down the message here to a simple inclusionary sob story.
But it is not that simple.
When Jesus removes the reason for exclusion from the equation, the man is still unwelcome. Jesus solves the problem creatively, but the Pharisees blindly adhere to their old limitations. So we see that the real issue is not someone’s moral standing (an inaccurate understanding of sin.) Instead it is the continuation of exclusion. James Alison sums this up succinctly when he writes that “Sin ceases to be a defect which excludes, and comes to be participation in the mechanism of exclusion.”
Whom do we exclude from God’s community?
God, please help us see beyond our pretenses and prejudices to Your vision of community.