No Explanations

No Explanations

Fourth Sunday of Lent (Laetare Sunday). Fr David McLean challenges us not to be blinded by simplistic explanations.

In the gospel reading Jesus cures a blind man by rubbing spittle and dirt into his eyes, but the Pharisees are not happy about this. The Pharisees find it difficult to believe that the blind man has been cured. On the whole the Pharisees simply seem to be ungrateful and angry. They are neither impressed by the sign, nor pleased for the man who was blind that his sight has been restored.

I hope that we don’t share the same sentiments. If we were in the same situation I hope we would be pleased that a man who was once blind could now see. Why is it then that we see things so differently from the Pharisees? Why are we pleased by the man’s restored sight, while the Pharisees are angry?

The answers to these questions are to do with the Pharisees seeing the world in a very different way from us. From the gospel reading we can see what some of these differences are: The Pharisees say to the man, who has been blind from birth, “Are you trying to teach us, and you a sinner from birth?” Now that may make us think that the Pharisees somehow know something about this blind man that we do not; that they know that he has somehow or other been a sinner from birth.

However, the Pharisees know no more about the blind man than we do. All they know, and all we know, is that the man has been blind from birth. The difference between us and the Pharisees is that while all we conclude is that we have here a man who has been blind from birth, the Pharisees go on to conclude that the man has also been a sinner from birth.

Now, how on earth do the Pharisees reach that conclusion? What makes them think that because the man has been blind from birth, that he has also been a sinner from birth? The answer is quite simple. For the Pharisees any ailment was understood as a punishment from God for past sins.

In a similar way God would reward righteous people with worldly possessions and wealth. In other words the Pharisees believed in a doctrine of immediate divine retribution, that we are punished or rewarded in this world for our actions.

And so for the Pharisees in the gospel reading, if this man had been blind from birth, he must also have been a sinner from birth. His blindness must be a punishment for some sin. We might then understand why the Pharisees would be angry. They would object to the blind man’s sight being restored, and his past sins ignored.

Such a world-view makes matters simple and easy to understand. For the Pharisees and those like them there is no injustice in the world. Everybody is getting what he or she deserves. Even when young innocents suffer and die it must be because of something they have done.

We may see this as an amusing example of ancient ideas, but there are many who think along similar lines today. Today’s society is not too different from that of the Pharisees. We may not fall for divine retribution as in these most obvious of examples, but there are times when the issues are not so clear.

There are still those, for example, who like to see the HIV virus as divine punishment for homosexuals. But God no more intervenes in the world to punish homosexuals, than he does the blind or young children.

We often talk of people deserving better or worse. We think that the righteous who always face troubles deserve better, while we think that the bad who meet with good fortune deserve worse. But it may well be that a good person will suffer for all of his or her life, while the bad will always prosper. The fact that a good person suffers does not make him or her bad, and the fact that a bad person prospers does not make him or her good.

The idea of divine retribution where we are punished for past sins is an attempt by human beings to explain, or give reasons for the way the world is. It tries to explain why some are seen to suffer, while others don’t. However, at times we have to accept the world the way it is. We have to accept that there are no explanations to some things: that some are born blind, that some are beset with diseases, and that innocents suffer. It is not easy to accept, but it is a mistake to come up with easy explanations. There are no explanations to the inexplicable.

Readings: 1 Sam 16:1,6-7,10-13 | Eph 5:8-14 | John 9:1-41

fr. David M. McLean O.P. is a chaplain to the Royal Navy.