If you’re not familiar with the series of books titled “Where’s Waldo”?, your children or grandchildren can probably explain the details to you. The books feature an eponymous character who dresses like a Dr. Seuss creation but seems to have a more active social life than the creatures in Dr. Seuss stories. The “Where’s Waldo?” books intend to teach children to search for a specific item or items scattered among large amounts of information. As we live in a society laden with information, this is a valuable skill.
Today’s Gospel reading is a story similar to the “Where’s Waldo?” stories. The story of the man born blind asks its readers, “Where’s the sinner?” This question addresses another primary social issue: the ease with which we assign blame.
The story begins with Jesus’ disciples asking a question based on the common assumption that tragedy, suffering, and deprivation must necessarily be the result of someone’s immoral or self-destructive choices. Jesus and his disciples crossed paths with a man born blind and the disciples asked, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (Jn 9:2)
The disciples’ judgment about the man’s blindness was not unique to their culture or historical era. The same sort of reasoning is popular today. A person attending a funeral I did twenty or so years ago, remarked about the deceased that, “He must have been a very angry person to have died of cancer at such a young age.” I don’t think the family of the deceased found this comment helpful.
In this Gospel reading, the first candidates proposed for blame were the blind man and his parents. They were identified as sinners because of the man’s blindness. Jesus said neither the man nor his parents sinned but, rather, the man’s affliction was an opportunity for God’s works to be seen. I’ll have more to say about God’s works later but, for now, we have to look further for an answer to the question, “Where’s the sinner?”
Because this story is one of the miraculous “signs” in John’s Gospel that explain Baptism, the Gospel tells us that Jesus made clay, smeared it on the man’s eyes, and told him to wash in one of the several manmade water reservoirs in the outer districts of Jerusalem. The clay is a reference to God’s action of creating human beings out of the clay of the earth. (Gn 2:7) The pool of Siloam is a reference to the re-creation of human nature by means of Baptism. The point of the story is plain to see: Baptism fills a person with Divine Light and makes the person able to see God at work bringing about the redemption of the world. This miraculous sign also moves the story forward so the reader can encounter the next person who is proposed for sinful blame.
Some of the Pharisees from Jerusalem learned that Jesus had performed this miracle on a Sabbath. They saw an opportunity to exact vengeance on Jesus for embarrassing them earlier by suggesting that only those among their number who were without sin would be competent to stone the woman caught in adultery. (Jn 8:7) Consequently, they identified him as the sinner. (Jn 9:24)
There was, however, an obvious flaw in their argument; sinners are extremely unlikely to be able to command Divine power for healing. (Jn 9:31) This observation was as well received as the comment about the deceased cancer patient’s illness and death. Angry because the flaw in their logic had been exposed, the Pharisees fell back on the default choice for blame; they concluded that the blindness was the blind man’s own fault. (Jn 9:34)
In frustration, the Pharisees abandoned their attack on Jesus, and the story comes to a rapid conclusion. Jesus identified where sin is truly to be found. He said to the Pharisees, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains.” (Jn. 9:41) This might not sound very helpful, either. Is Jesus blaming the Pharisees for the blind man’s birth defect? Is he blaming them for trying to identify the locus of sin in the world? Is he just trying to obscure the fact that he doesn’t know who to blame for sin?
Jesus was, in fact, describing the “works of God” he mentioned at the beginning of this story. In the work of creation, God transformed the world from a barren wasteland into a lush garden. In the work of redemption, God transforms sinners into believers. God’s obvious preference is to assign mercy rather than blame but, to receive mercy, one must experience a profound transformation of the sort experienced by the man born blind.
There are many opportunities to learn the skills required to succeed in our society. The children’s book I mentioned at the beginning of this homily is an example of a timely, necessary skill for success in a highly technological society. By contrast, there are fewer places to learn the skills necessary to be successful in relationships; religion is primary among those few places. Like Adam, the man born blind began from clay, but like Christians, he was completed with washing in water. He was transformed from being estranged to becoming reconciled; this is the work of God, and it is addressed to those who acknowledge their sinfulness.
God desires that all of us might experience the transformation effected by the outpouring of God’s mercy but, if it doesn’t happen, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Furthermore, God gives us a way of recognizing this transformation in our lives. The evidence of this transformation is our imitation of God’s preference for mercy over blame.
So, “Where’s the sinner?” I think Jesus would have each of us answer that we are the sinners who desire redemption.