I quote: “Fred Phelps was a colossal jerk, the kind of person no one wanted to be around.” This is how Time Magazine begins an obituary of the Kentucky preacher who died last week, after becoming famous for his homophobic bigotry and rants. He once referred to Canada, which had then recently awarded equal benefits to same-sex spouses, as Satanic, which we should have taken as meaning just the opposite, given the source. Phelps, however, was a master at ranting – at saying such hateful things that we couldn’t stop watching him, if only because it gave us a hit of energetic outrage. He didn’t do religion any favours, that’s for sure. He was someone who had chosen to read the Bible and interpret it hatefully. This week in The Globe and Mail, a column explored the same notion of interpretation, this time about the Koran. The headline was: “Does the Koran allow wife-beating? Only if Muslims want it to.” The author, Ayesha Chaudhry, argued that a certain passage in the Koran, used to defend domestic violence, has also been interpreted by many scholars as a more peaceful, conscious way of settling marital disputes. The idea of uncertainty in Scripture has made many people uneasy: Is this moral relativism? Does it weaken the word of God?
But here in our Gospel this morning, we have another example of Jesus’s deciding on a course of action using what philosophers have called “situation ethics.” This is the idea, that right and wrong can be flexible, that each case deserves a unique solution. In our example, Jesus heals the blind man on the Sabbath, the revered day of rest, which was back then devoutly followed. Certainly there was no Sunday shopping. And healing the blind man on this day counted as breaking the commandment to keep the Sabbath holy. Jesus had, in fact, bent the rules rather than ignore someone in need.
Of course, that didn’t make the Pharisees very happy. They were, after all, all too keen to discredit Jesus, and so they leapt to attack him for his actions. How could the Son of God break a commandment? But in fact, Jesus was always “breaking rules,” speaking to people he wasn’t supposed to, lifting up those that society had determined were unworthy. Jesus, I believe, would have seen there is no place for a rule that prevents a person from responding to someone in great need, and no interpretation that should foster hate and judgment.
This is where so many interpretations, particularly of the old Testament, go awry. The Bible, as we see, is not two books, existing separate from each other, but one complete story of how to live, an instruction for faith. We cannot read the Old Testament without taking the New Testament into consideration; when we focus on one passage that promotes bigotry or intolerance – as people like Phelps have done throughout the ages – we are not seeing the whole package of teachings that are laid out before us. It is impossible to reconcile that hatred against the gospel, which is a lesson, to a degree, in situation ethics.
I say “to a degree” because purists of that belief would say that if ethics – that is, how we should act – change by the situation then no right or wrong actually exists. That is certainly not the lesson of the gospel. Nor is it moral relativism, which suggests values – our beliefs – can shift like the wind to suit our own needs. When it comes to belief and action, the gospel is flexible to a point, allowing us autonomy to a degree. Ideally, we would keep the Sabbath Holy, a time to focus and contemplate, but sometimes, in important moments, we should not. Essentially, the lesson of the gospel is to act as best we can for the good of others and in so doing be good to ourselves. And to believe in those values that promote that kind of behaviour.
That is how the story of the blind man serves as a metaphor for us. (It is also not insignificant, by the way, that Jesus rejects the contention of the disciples that the blind man had sinned, or his family had sinned, and that’s why he was blind. Jesus says he was made blind so God’s love could be revealed – and this, too, has been interpreted to suggest that God made someone suffer to make God look good. But again, we are choosing that to be the answer. Does that fit the God revealed by the gospel? I believe Jesus was saying that if someone else suffers, we have a chance to reveal God through our actions and kindness. In that sense, the man’s blindness is not something that God did; how we react to the man despite his disabilities is what reveals God. And apparently, the blind man was not treated very kindly – for it’s clear he was a humble beggar, virtually abandoned by society.
At the end of our gospel, Jesus tells the Pharisees: “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” (v.41). Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”
The sin for Fred Phelps was that he believed his sight was so clear around the issues of sexuality that he thought he was God. That was his blindness. It is ours as well. Perhaps not around the same issue, but certainly when it comes to those judgments that we have made about ourselves and others. In those moments, we so believe we are right that we cannot see as clearly as we ought to. Our false sense of clarity leads to blindness.
Jesus invites us to see the world through the lens of the gospel. The gospel is a wide lens of love and grace that sees the whole picture. True sight has been given to each one of us. It takes work. Like the Samaritan woman from last week, we are called to look honestly at ourselves. That’s not easy. Like Jesus’s actions on the Sabbath, we are called to step outside the norm for the sake of the other. So it is in understanding we are often blind that we truly find our way. And it is through the lessons of the gospel that we come to see. Amen.