Save Your Judgment
I don’t know about you, but when I listened to this long story in John, I didn’t get too caught up in the back and forth about whether the man who now sees is the same man who was blind, despite all its interesting and dramatic detail. Instead, I am struck by, and stopped short by, the words of Jesus near the end: “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Anyone else? Can I get a sad amen?
Ugh—really? This sounds like we are heading right for the judging God of the finger-wagging Christians. No offense J.E., but the “sinners in the hands of an angry God” Christians. Some of us will hear this passage and be taken right back to the trauma of being told, maybe by members of our own family,
that our eternal destiny does not look bright because we aren’t straight enough or don’t believe right or are too tolerant-minded or ask too many questions. “I’m just sincerely concerned about where your soul is going to be for the rest of eternity,” someone once said to us. My older, sarcastic self now wants to respond, “Wherever that is, will you be somewhere far away?”
It is hard to listen afresh to this text amid all the judgment noise from ‘those Christians.’ But we are already learning to trust that it is possible to listen afresh. A few weeks ago Sarah took the most evangelical text ever, John 3:16, and showed that it does not have to mean that we must be certain about faith or perish. I want to try to do something similar for this passage. Here’s the gist of the good news: I don’t think this text plays into the hands of judgmental Christians. It might just play directly against them.
So how do we hear this text afresh? First of all, the word “judgment” sets us off. Because of judgmental Christians, we assume the word has no meaning for us. We believe God is loving; they believe God is judging. Let’s try another translation. In Bible study, Jeanne suggested the word “discernment;” try “I came into this world for discernment.” “Deliberation” is another possibility. Judgment in the sense of deliberation or discernment is not the opposite of love. Anyone who has ever loved a child in trouble or a friend who has lost their way, knows that you can’t really love someone without discerning what is best for them, or drawing boundaries for them or yourself, or saying no to them, or discerning that you are not sure what is best for them and you cannot help them right now. Love and discernment, love and “judgment” in a certain sense, are inseparable. And let’s not forget that the word “judgment” in the Bible does not only mean condemning; it also means upholding the righteous or oppressed—as here, the man born blind is lifted up and supported, because Jesus “came into the world for judgment, so that those who do not see may see.” Already, I hope, we can start to see that the word “judgment” in this passage does not confirm our worst nightmares.
Now let’s look briefly at the whole story and see on whom Jesus is bringing judgment and why. So Jesus is walking along with his disciples go, “Hey Rabbi, check out this blind guy. Uh oh, somebody sinned. Was it him or his parents? Heh.” And you can hear Jesus’ exasperated, “What?” Because he knows where they came up with these misguided choices. It was from the religious prejudices of their day, rooted in older scriptures, but still with us today, prejudices that make us want to believe that suffering is deserved. So Jesus corrects them (judges them, we might say), “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” Suffering is not a punishment from God—this passage makes that perfectly clear. Suffering is an opportunity to show forth God’s love and compassion. And suffering is also an opportunity to reflect on, to discern, who we think God is and what those ideas are based on.
So Jesus heals the man. Word spreads, and soon some religious leaders take this wonderful miracle as an opportunity not to glorify God, but to judge and condemn Jesus: “This man is not from God, for he does not observe the Sabbath.” But they are actually divided among themselves, because the healing is unquestionably amazing. Nonetheless, like scholars impatiently rushing to a conclusion, and echoing Nicodemus who also said “we know,” they later say to the blind man, “We know that this man is a sinner.” But he pushes back against them. So they turn their drive to judge on him: “You were born entirely in sins. Who are you to try to teach us?” In arrogant anger they regurgitate the bad idea that the disciples began the story with, and which Jesus decisively rejected. We know that your suffering was somehow a punishment from God, and you’ll always be a sinner to us. And they drive him out.
Jesus goes to find the man, who confesses his belief in Jesus based solely on the compassion and amazing work that Jesus visited upon him. And then Jesus pronounces those words we started with: “I came into this world for judgment….” And you think he is still speaking to the formerly blind man, but it turns out he’s talking to the Pharisees who, quite surprisingly, were near enough to hear Jesus. We’ll come back to that little oddity.
The point is that the people being judged here are the arrogant religious authorities, those people who have usurped God’s power and authority for themselves. Besides upholding the integrity of the once-blind man, Jesus is judging the exact type of judgmental religious authority that many of us rightly react against. Those who say, “We see, we know. We are not blind, we know we don’t sin. So we possess the power of God to judge those who do.” When Jesus concludes by saying, “Now that [you authorities] say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” It sounds like he is saying that the real sin is to deny any limitation in my ability to judge in God’s place.
This reversal of seeing and blindness is consistent with Jesus’ whole ministry—can you hear echoes here of “the last shall be first and the first shall be last?”—and with the Old Testament. Jesus brings in those who have been driven out, but he also calls out those who grasp at dominating power, especially in the name of God.
Let’s be clear: imperial Rome is the brutal and corrupt power that crucifies Jesus. But only God’s people can commit sin in the name of God. That’s why “Holy be thy name” comes first in Jesus’ prayer. The love that upholds the poor, the excluded, the outcast—that same love is also a sword of judgment against those whose oppressive actions corrupt God’s holy name. So it is that John portrays Jesus’ judgment as turned on the Pharisees precisely for being religiously judgmental. It does not seem much of a stretch for us to likewise turn that judgment against the Christians who have arrogated the power of judgment to themselves.
Because they make me angry, and some of you have more right to that anger than I do. And anger is not necessarily wrong. But we should be cautious with anger. So now, let’s look again at this text with some caution:
We noticed how all of the sudden the Pharisees turn out to be nearby and hear Jesus’ judgment against them. That seems quite unrealistic. If they had been listening the whole time, you think they would have said, “You again! How dare you worship that man!” That gives us a hint that this story is not a report about what happened, but a story carefully constructed by John to deliver a message against the Pharisees, like he elsewhere has Jesus condemn “the Jews” (although everyone in these stories is Jewish).
I hear a lot of anger against the Pharisees and “the Jews” in John. The reason for it is tucked away into verse 22 of our passage: “for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.” Well, no, the authorities were not that on the ball. But by the time John wrote this gospel fifty or more years after Jesus, there had been a terrible falling out in some Jewish synagogues, so that Jews who believed Jesus was the messiah were thrown out of their synagogues. That meant being effectively cut off from their central source of belonging and support, and excluded from their extended family. It was a tragic, inter-familial division that John experiences as a matter of good vs. evil, because he, of course, believes in Jesus, and his people were being driven out against their will, even by force.
So I do not think that the Pharisees in this story have much of anything to do with the actual Pharisees Jesus knew. I think John, whether he realizes it or not, is using “Pharisee” and “the Jews” as a type, a literary caricature, to make a potentially useful point about the dangers of religious authority, and how terribly wrong it can go. What should make us cautious, however, is that John’s anger against the Pharisees and the Jews is picked up centuries later by Christians who are persecuting Jews. Judgment can indeed be separated from love and become deadly.
I leave it as a challenge to us to discern together: how do we judge the judger without becoming just as bad? How do we ‘hate the sin but love the sinner’ when the sin in question is hating sin, if you follow me? The answer may look different for each of us, depending on our gifts, on the wounds we carry, and on whether we are protesting the words of Franklin Graham or trying to respond to hurtful words from a friend or family member. In Bible Study we discussed how we show love to someone who is wrongly judging in God’s name. Someone said that loving a religious bigot means not breaking the relationship, but continuing to reach out. Someone else added, “While drawing appropriate boundaries”—there’s the discernment part. We have to remember Jesus loves us and stands up for us. But in situations where we are not personally being wounded or threatened by a religious bigot, we may be able to take up a more vulnerable stance, even going father than John was willing to go. On the way to registering our protest against their presumptuous and hurtful judgment, we may express what we admire and emulate in our opponent’s faith. Lent is a good time not to be too sure of ourselves, not to presume that we see. And maybe those gentler eyes, discerning but also loving, will shine the light of Christ into the sadness and pain of estrangement.
Because Jesus is the love of God incarnate, he is also the one to judge the world. We are not to imitate him here. The model for us in this story is not Jesus but the man who was healed. Notice that he doesn’t judge anyone. He simply worships.