5. Caught in the Web of Lies
In the year 30 AD when Jesus died, the Jewish Sanhedrin did not have the right to impose capital punishment; or. if it had. it was only in a limited set of cases. To put Jesus to death the Jewish authorities had to accuse him before the Roman Governor. "We are not allowed to put anyone to death" (Jn18,31). John narrates to what length they were prepared to go in order to achieve their objective. When they failed to prove that Jesus was a criminal - Pilate repeatedly asserted, "I find no case against this man" (Jn18,38; 19,6), they pressed political allegations: "If you free this man, you are no friend of Caesar. Any man who pretends to be a king becomes the Emperor's rival" (Jn19,12). They were not moved when Pilate had Jesus scourged and mocked (Jn19,1-6). They saw to it that Barabbas, not Jesus was released on the occasion of the festival (Jn18,39-40). They cried: "Crucify him! crucify him!" (Jn19,6.15) and were prepared even to say, "We have no king but the Emperor" (Jn19,15). They wanted to see blood. They wanted to see Jesus dead.
But when the trial began, these same people manifested a religious scruple. "They did not enter the Governor's house. They wished to avoid ritual impurity in order to be able to eat the passover supper" (Jn18,28). The ritual uncleanness incurred by entering the house of a gentile would have forced them to delay the passover with a month. For to eat the passover with such a defilement unremoved, would have been a great sin! Being the law abiding and holy people they were, they wanted to keep themselves pure and unblemished! That putting an innocent man to death was a far more serious "defilement" never seemed to enter their minds.
Psychologically, the contradiction is not impossible or farfetched. Some of the scribes and pharisees must have convinced themselves that killing Jesus was their duty (compare Jn16,2). Had Jesus not broken the Sabbath and called God his father? They might even have persuaded themselves that Jesus was a real political threat and could therefore legitimately be eliminated on that ground (Jn11,49-50). Killing Jesus and keeping themselves ritually clean may well have seemed entirely consistent to them; both sprang from fidelity to the law! Like the bigots and fanatics of all ages, they were convinced they were right in what they were doing.
John here focusses on one real cause of darkness and human sin. It lies in the tragedy of people gradually blinding themselves, allowing themselves to be trapped in lies and falsehoods, in their hardening their hearts against admitting guilt and true conversion. The fanatic scribe and the self-seeking materialist have in common that both protect their sinful positions behind carefully constructed psychological defences. This is what the present chapter will be all about.
Seeing They Don't See
Did the historical Jesus himself speak about the spiritual blindness which is so prominent a theme in John's Gospel? I believe he did. He may not have given it the central place it was to acquire in John's theology. But he undoubtedly made statements that gave John the right to do so.
Jesus is reported to have cured blind people. The evangelists clearly see a link between the regaining of eyesight and the gift of faith, as can be seen from the story of the man who was cured gradually (Mk 8,22-26) and Bartimaus (Mk 10,46-52). Did Jesus himself see the symbolism? It is hard to believe he did not. He saw in his healing of blindness a fulfilment of Isaian prophesies (Mt 11,2-6); see Is 35,3-6) and Isaiah clearly laid a connection between blindness and sin. "We grope about like blind people. We stumble in the middle of the day, as if it were night, as if we were in the dark world of the dead .... Lord, our crimes against you abound. Our sins accuse us. We are well aware of them all" (Is 59,10.12). In what seems a very authentic quotation Jesus interprets the lack of understanding he meets as the blindness spoken of in Isaiah: "You have been given to know the secret of the kingdom of God. But the others, who are on the outside, hear of things by means of parables, so that, 'They may look and look, yet may not see; they may listen and listen, yet not understand. For if they did, they might turn to God, and he would forgive them"' (Mk 4,11-12; Is 6,9-10) (1)
Other sayings of Jesus have been recorded that reveal the same awareness. There is the enigmatic passage about the blind guides leading the blind. The phrase is applied to the pharisees by Matthew (Mt 15,14), but Luke may preserve the more original context (Lk 6,37-42). We should not presume to take a mote out of our brother's eye while having a beam in our own! Since we are blind ourselves, how can we dare to give guidance to others? It is easy to see that this principle applies first and foremost to teachers, especially to those supposed to teach the law. Denouncing pharisaic hypocrisy, Jesus is said to have exclaimed: "How terrible for YOU. blind ~guides!....blind fools! ....blind pharisees!.... How blind you are!" (Mt 23,184.108.40.206,26). Since such legal disputes are rooted in actual events of Jesus' ministry, we can be reasonably sure the accusation of blindness was Jesus' own.
For Jesus then, blindness held spiritual symbolism. Sinful people should recognise they are groping in the dark like the blind. Teachers should be humble and recognise their own shortcomings before trying to correct others. Teachers of the law, in particular, should recognise that their interpretations were often hypocritical and untrue. At all times we should be prepared to listen to God's message, so that he may help us see and hear and turn our hearts to him.
The Anatomy of Sin
Whereas violence and murder are the external symptoms of the world's sin, for John its root cause lies in people's unwillingness to believe. In particular he singles out the unbelief of the Jewish leaders as a model and paradigm of man's sinful attitude.(2) In his Johannine speeches Jesus often reproves the Jews for their unbelief (Jn5,38; 8,45-46; 10,25-26; 10,37-38; 16,9). The Evangelist concludes the narrative section of the Gospel with the general observation that Jesus had not succeeded to make the Jewish leaders accept his message. He interprets this failure in the light of the Isaian oracle Jesus himself had used; but now with the connotation that it could only happen because God allowed it to be so. "Even though Jesus had performed so many signs before them, they refused to believe in him....The reason they could not believe was that, as Isaiah said elsewhere, 'He has blinded their eyes and closed their minds. Otherwise they might see with their eyes and perceive with their minds and so be converted, and I would heal them'"" (Jn12, 37.39-40.
But John did more than state the fact of unbelief. In a remarkable psychological analysis, he unfolds the various processes at work in the hardening of a persons heart. I am referring here to chapter nine in the Gospel which the reader would do well to read first in its entirety, before proceeding with my further observations. Though chapter nine bears the imprint of editorial work by the Evangelist, probably during a time when Christian Jews were actively persecuted by their brethren, perhaps even definitively banned from the synagogue,(3) the chapter has retained its purpose.
Passing by other meanings, I would like to concentrate on the contrasting picture drawn of the illiterate beggar and the well-educated scribes. Confronted with the question who Jesus is, the beggar humbly admits that he doesnt know (Jn 9, 12.25.36). But being open-minded, he gradually discovers the full truth. First he knows Jesus only as the man called Jesus (Jn 9, 11). He then suspects he must be a prophet (Jn 9, 17) and argues to Jesus having authority from God (Jn 9, 33). Finally he accepts Jesus as the Redeemer, the Son of Man, (9, 37). Thus he was not only cured of his physical blindness but lost his spiritual blindness too. The Pharisees on the other hand persist in their unbelief in spite of Jesus manifest sign. John analyses their motivations.
When the Pharisees learn that the man born blind has been healed by Jesus, they take note of the fact that the cure happened on a Sabbath (9, 14). This was a genuine problem for them since they interpreted the Sabbath laws according to their own traditions. Judged by these, Jesus had transgressed the Sabbath commandment on three counts. He healed on the Sabbath though it was not urgent and he could have done it on another day; he kneaded clay and kneading was one of the thirty-nine forbidden actions; he anointed the beggars eyes, a forbidden medical attention on the Sabbath. Some immediately arrived at the conclusion, This man is not from God because he does not keep the Sabbath!But others objected, How can a man perform such signs and still be a sinner? (Jn 9, 16). At this point the problem was genuine, requiring further investigation.
Instead of being prepared to study the implications with an open mind however, their first reaction now was that they refused to believe that he really had been born blind (Jn 9,18). In psychology this reaction is known as repression. Inner conflict is solved by denying the problem. Unpleasant realities are pushed aside. The facts are deliberately forgotten or watered down. Repression is a defence mechanism that often plays a part in neurosis, frustration, latent hostility and other abnormal states of mind. It can also be adopted as a semi-conscious policy to escape what one experiences as a threat or a challenge. Thus we may avoid meeting a person we really should give help. We may switch off a TV programme on Third World poverty because it upsets our conscience. We may neglect spiritual duties because we are afraid that they may lead us to further commitments.
However, for the pharisees in our story, escape was not that easy. The threats were undeniable. This man had been born blind and could see now.
The Logics of Subterfuge
The champions of the law resorted to another defence mechanism: rationalisation! "We know that the man who cured you is a sinner" (9,24). "If we can't deny the problem, we can at least argue our way out. Since our position cannot be wrong, there must be a mistake on the other side. If Jesus is a sinner, his message cannot be true and we need not pay attention to any sign he performs". The human mind is clever in formulating rationalisations. Usually they are a mixture of truth and falsehood. They may range from excuses such as: "Everybody'else does the same"; "I am forced to do what I do now. I am not really free"; "I don't need to decide this question today; tomorrow will be early enough"; to more subtle reasonings on a par with one's level of education. The skilful use of language itself can hide ugly realities we are not prepared to face. The Nazis spoke of "the final solution of the Jewish problem" when they meant their utter massacre. The crime of wantonly killing unborn life may be concealed under the innocuous medical term "discontinuing a pregnancy".
Again the pharisees were thwarted. For the former blind man argued forcefully and convincingly that Jesus could not be a sinner if he was allowed by God to perform such an impressive sign. They now turn to a last and desperate ploy. Psychologists know it as projection. Instead of facing the question oneself, one attacks the person who puts the challenge. One's own guilt is thus projected onto another person. With what is possibly an insinuation as if Jesus was illegitimate, they state, "We don't even know where he comes from" (Jn 9,1(4) They also turn against the beggar, blaming his former blindness on his family's sins. "You were born and bred in sin, and now you are lecturing us?" They then proceed to expel him from the synagogue (Jn 9,34). The disgust about one's own ability to admit that one is wrong, is changed into a condemnation of the other person. Western militarists will thus blame the Russians for escalating the nuclear threat while being equally aggressive themselves. A man not in control over his own sexuality may blame women for being provocative and indecent. A deep sense of insecurity may bring a parent to see indecision in everything a child does. Strong projection can produce vehement aggression. The former blind man was excommunicated. Jesus would be eliminated in an even more cruel fashion. The conscience of the pharisees would not be able to tolerate such open opposition in their midst. He had to go. The rejection of a sign would end up by their crying, "Crucify him! Crucify him!".
The Question of Guilt
We pick up our complexes from early childhood and psychological processes work mainly in the subconscious. May we therefore still speak of sin? John's Gospel tackles this question explicitly. Reviewing the trial of the man born blind, Jesus concluded he had come into the world so that those who did not see might be able to see, and those who did see might become blind. Some of the pharisees overheard him saying this. They remarked, "Surely you don't call us blind too?" To this Jesus replied, "If only you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin. But now that you claim to see your guilt remains" (Jn 9,39-41).
Psychological studies confirm that there is an element of real guilt and an awareness of guilt, in spite of successful defence mechanisms (5) In other words, much of our blindness is voluntary. "For everyone who does evil deeds hates the light, and does not come near the light for fear his deeds will be exposed" (3,20). There is an element of wilfulness in turning away from the truth, in allowing ourselves to be deceived by our own lies.
On no account should we allow our life to be dominated by unnecessary feelings of guilt. God understands us and he is a God of love. But neither should we allow our consciences to be blunted. God treats us as mature persons. He grants us a great deal of autonomy (see chapter 15). In return he expects from us real responsibility and sensitivity. By losing our sense of right and wrong, our ability to admit guilt where there is guilt, we deny God's trust in us.
How to be cured of our blindness? The essence, as the Gospel shows, is that we should be ready to admit that we are blind: that we do not know; that we need to learn; that we may have to change our ways. The man born blind is a real example in this. To the question, "Are you prepared to believe in the Son of Man?", he replied, "Who is he, Sir, that I may believe in him?" 9,35-36). But even simpler approaches may suffice. The two disciples of John the Baptist say no more than,"Rabbi, where are you staying?" (Jn1,38). Nicodemus came to Jesus at night and plied him with questions. "How can an adult person be born again?" "How can things like you say happen?" (Jn 3,4.9). Desire to know the truth will bring on acceptance of Jesus as the teacher. "Lord, to whom would be go? It is you who have the words of eternal life" (Jn 6,68).
For Reflection. Blind Men in Jerusalem
The beggar sitting outside the Temple lived in complete darkness. He had been so from his birth. He totally depended on other people; for preparing his food, for taking him to this place and back, for every little need. He knew his darkness and dependence. The scribes in the Temple, on the other hand, were confident about their own abilities. They did not need other people's help. They were convinced they understood God's will. They considered themselves people living in the light (please read Jn 9,1-41).
Am I a person who is very sure of himself? Can I listen to other people? Do I have such strong views that I find it difficult to change them? Do I become angry if people disagree with me?
Am I aware of the different mechanisms I use to hide my own defects? What are my favourite excuses? To what extent do I deceive myself or others?
Do I honestly admit my faults? Can I remember instances in the past when I was wrong and when I openly admitted this? What were my feelings at the time?
Is there any real sin in my life now?
Imagining ourselves to be like the man born blind, let us sense an immense longing for the gift of sight. Let us humbly talk to Christ about our own blindnesses and ask him to heal us in the way he knows best.
1. The meaning of this oracle is obviously not that God does not want the people to convert, but just the opposite. In exasperation God complains about their blindness. Cf J. WIJNGAARDS, Handbook to the Gospels, Servant Publications, Ann Arbor 1982, pp.182-183.
2. In John's Gospel those who reject Jesus are often simply labelled as "the Jews". Unfortunately this way of speaking has aggravated and supported the antisemitism of Christians in later centuries. R. FULLER, "The 'Jews' in the Fourth Gospel", Dialog 16 (1977) 31-37. J. E. LEIBIG, "John and 'the Jews': Theological Antisemitism in the Fourth Gospel", Journal of Ecumenical Studies 20 (1983) 209-234. But John also used "the Jews" in a neutral sense. He did not imply a condemnation of the whole Jewish people that would justify any antisemitism. S. WILSON, "Anti-Judaism in the Fourth Gospel? Some considerations," Irish Biblical Studies 1 (1979) 28-50; U. C. von WAHLDE '"The Johannine 'Jews': A critical Survey", New Testament Studies 28 (1982) 33-60.
3. In Jabne under Rabban Gamaliel (80-115 AD) the "Eighteen Benedictions" were reworded in such a way that no Christian Jew could publicly pronounce them. The twelfth benediction now read: "Let the Nazarenes and heretics be destroyed in a moment and let them be blotted out of the Book of Life and not be inscribed together with the righteous". J. L. MARTYN, History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel, Abingdon, Nashville i969, p.58.
4. A similar accusation may be implied in 7,41. Jewish attacks on the legitimacy of Jesus' birth are also known from Origen (Against Celsus I 28) and the Acts of Pilate (II 3). Cf. BROWN Gospel according to John1..357.
5. G. W. ALLPORT, The Nature of Prejudice, Doubleday, New York 1959, pp.310-312. The whole book is an excellent study of how attitudes harden into fixed mental states. For a sensitive discussion of guilt in defence mechanisms, see A. ULEYN, Pastorale Psychologie en Schuldervaring, Desclee de Brouwer, Brugge 1964. Reactions against change are well analysed and documented by W. PERRY, Forms of Intellectual and Ethical Development in the College Years, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, New York 1968. He distinguishes "temporizing", delay tactics by the individual who hesitates to take the next step; "escape", attempts of the individual to deny responsibility by a passive attitude or by an opportunistic seeking of alternatives; and "retreat" the regression of an individual who entrenches in dualistic, absolutistic early structures.
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