Wednesday, January 4, 2012 — The 11th day of Christmas , Year Two
Elizabeth Seton, Founder of the American Sisters of Charity, 1821
Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, p 941)
Psalms 85, 87 (morning) 89:1-29 (evening)
Joshua 3:14 – 4:7
John 9:1-12, 35-38
“No good deed goes unpunished,” according to the old maxim. Jesus heals a man born blind. You would think that all would rejoice. Instead, an argument ensues. The officials get involved. They’ve got institutions and rules and traditions to uphold. It is necessary that the blind man who now sees be excommunicated from the congregation. Jesus finds the exiled man, and extends both kindness and wisdom. Jesus tells them all, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.”
Reinhold Niebuhr was a theologian adept at seeing the ominous sub-text in our good intentions. Our pride, self-preoccupation and self-illusion is so prevalent, he said, that “even the best human actions have some sin.” His sermons invite us to the kind of self-analysis that will lead to repentance, and then he intends to inspire enough courage for us to take some kind of action to advance the cause of justice, even as we recognize the ambiguity of our own best actions.
Niebuhr sensed that our proclivity to perpetuate sin and injustice is even greater when we act as groups or institutions than it is when we act as individuals. We are less moral in groups and nations than we are as individuals.
Individual men may be moral in the sense that they are able to consider interests other than their own. …But all these achievements are more difficult, if not impossible, for human societies and social groups. In every human group there is less reason to guide and to check impulse, less capacity for self-transcendence, less ability to comprehend the needs of others and therefore more unrestrained egoism than the individuals, who compose the group, reveal in their personal relationships. (from Moral Man and Immoral Society, quoted by Richard Crouter, Reinhold Niebuhr: On Politics, Religion, and Christian Faith, Oxford, 2010; p. 48)
Like a diocesan committee, the Pharisees gather to investigate Jesus’ healing of the man born blind to determine whether it meets diocesan guidelines and policies. An individual cleric outside the institutional glare might have embraced the goodness, but the group has an institution to defend. And they do so, unjustly. As the American major said over the ruins of Ben Tre, Vietnam, “It became necessary to destroy the village in order to save it.”
“Surely we are not blind, are we?” chant the officials. Jesus answers, “…Now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.”
In the middle of his treatise The Irony of American History, Niebuhr offers this:
Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime, therefore we must be saved by hope. Nothing which is true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history; therefore we must be saved by faith. Nothing we do, however virtuous can be accomplished alone; therefore we are saved by love. No virtuous act is quite as virtuous from the standpoint of our friend or foe as it is from our standpoint. Therefore we must be saved by the final form of love which is forgiveness. (Ibid, p. 62)
The Psalmist speaks for us and for our nation again today:
Restore us then, O God our Savior; let your anger depart from us. Will you be displeased with us for ever; will you prolong your anger from age to age? Will you not give us life again, that your people may rejoice in you? Show us your mercy, O God, and grant us your salvation. (Psalm 85:4-7)