The fundamental reality of sin is division. In his encyclical on hope, Pope Benedict XVI writes:
[S]in is understood by the Fathers as the destruction of the unity of the human race, as fragmentation and division. Babel, the place where languages were confused, the place of separation, is seen to be an expression of what sin fundamentally is. Hence “redemption” appears as the reestablishment of unity…Spe Salvi, no. 14
This division is seen in the very first question of Jesus’ disciples in this week’s Gospel, about the man born blind: Who sinned? The entire passage is not an answer to that misguided question, but instead a redirection. As He did last week for the estranged Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus reaches out to heal the division – in this case, by overcoming the real source of the human separation, the man’s blindness. In response, the Pharisees (in a sense) become blind. They stubbornly refuse to see what has happened, instead preferring their pre-set narrative of the way the world is divided up. They exercise what they think is right judgment, but effect is that they become the ones subject to Jesus’ judgment, expressed in the foreboding words at the end of the Gospel, “But now you are saying ‘We see,’ so your sin remains.” They remain in the world of division.
Those who say “we see” have a pre-set narrative of the world, and when events happen, they stubbornly try to fit them into their own narrative. This is especially true in terms of right and wrong, sinners and non-sinners, and thus they exercise harsh judgment on others. The story – again, like the Samaritan woman struggling with her own life story and with some story about competing temples for worship – intends to show us Jesus as the one who upends these stories. But in favor of what? Does the narrative of Christ as the light simply become yet another pre-set narrative, another source of division? Does it just set up a different world divided up between the children of light and the children of darkness? Put another way, what is the positive alternative to human division? Is it the idea that there are no real sides?
In this strange time, we might glean two key lessons. One is that the characters (the Samaritan woman, the man born blind) are not themselves saints. But they are open. They are simply able to receive reality in ways that the Pharisees can’t. We see the man born blind very gradually in these readings come to recognize who Jesus is. He doesn’t do so immediately. But he persists, and he eventually comes to see – and his persistence is a matter of being open to revision. Being open to what is happening. Being able to rethink things as unexpected events occur. Pope Francis’s basic call to be “missionary disciples” is a call to exactly that openness: to go into the world not simply with a pre-set narrative, but with openness to the activity of God in all people.
And right now, we are all living that lesson of needing to be open, as we revise (daily? hourly?) our expectations about what to do. We are all doing that right now. Indeed, I suspect there will never be another time in our collective lives where we have to question what we thought was possible yesterday, and revise it in light of a new reality. It is disorienting and hard – and absolutely necessary. Those with pre-set narratives, ones that are unable to open up to the full reality, are the ones for whom “sin remains.”
Of course, this doesn’t mean there is no true story. The second lesson is, as Pope Benedict notes, in the end, yes, there are no sides for humanity. We are all in this together. The human race is a unity. We are being forced to recognize this in strange, weird ways, as each individual life has to change in response to a need that is collective, in which we are all subject to the same sort of “fight.” Sin is the resistance to recognizing this ultimate solidarity, this original and final will of God.
Ironically, we are practicing this solidarity through a time of separation (although we also do need to be attentive to the basic works of mercy and service to others more than ever!). Perhaps this separation will help us see more vividly how much our humanity thrives on connection. But let us also see that, all too often in our lives and our society, that connection rests on division, on an us-against-them story. We are often blind to this. Perhaps now our eyes can be opened to it.
Or else, our sin remains.