God doesn’t see as we see

Homily for March 26, 2017 (4th Sunday of Lent)
1 Samuel 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

Psychologists and social scientists call it confirmation bias:  the tendency that we have to interpret new evidence—or disregard it—in ways that support our existing beliefs and even our prejudices.  Football fans on the losing side are prone to remember the one or two bad calls by the referees as evidence that the refs or even the entire league is against their team.  After all, it couldn’t possibly be the three interceptions that their quarterback threw, the five sacks that their offensive line allowed, or the 40 points that their defense surrendered!

Confirmation bias shows up in other areas of our lives, too.  It’s part of what supports many of the social and political divisions in our country.  For example, many people gravitate to online chatrooms, Twitter feeds and news sources that tend to confirm what they believe or want to believe about President Trump and his policies, and they tend to disregard or ignore evidence to the contrary.

Although the term may be new for many of us, confirmation bias has been part of the human experience for a long time.  We see it on display in today’s reading from the Gospel of John, which was likely written sometime around the end of the 1st Century.  At least a couple of generations had passed since Jesus’ death and resurrection, and the church was still in its early stages of growth.  Part of that development involved the growing distinction and ultimately the split between those Jews who saw Jesus as the Messiah and those who did not.   One result of this growing division occurred around the year 85 CE, when followers of Jesus were pronounced minim or heretics and were essentially excommunicated from the synagogue.  Another consequence was the sometimes polemical tone against “the Jews” in the Gospel of John and what would later metastasize into centuries of antisemitism that afflicted the church.

The religious leaders who confronted the man born blind after he was healed by Jesus were afflicted with confirmation bias, which can be especially strong in our spiritual lives because they involve our deepest beliefs. “We know that this man is a sinner,” they told the man born blind, noting that Jesus had healed (and thus done work) on the Sabbath.  Recall that in John’s Gospel Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders are on collision course almost from the get-go (c.f. the cleansing of the temple in Ch. 2).  So they were ready to pounce on Jesus’ healing on the Sabbath as evidence that he couldn’t be from God.  They were just as ready to ignore the fact that he had done something good in healing!  When the man born blind pointed out that contrary evidence to them, they discredited him as “steeped in sin” and threw him out.

When the disciples saw the man born blind, they expected Jesus to confirm the popular belief that it must be because of his sins or those of his parents.  Jesus, however, invited them to look at the situation in a different way:  “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.”  Jesus brought those works to light in healing him.

The prophet Samuel pointed out in our first reading that God doesn’t see as we see.  No, God’s vision is infinitely broader and deeper.  As disciples of Christ, we are called to develop a more godly kind of vision and to use it to build communities rather than divide them, to bring in from the margins those who are hurting and alienated, and to heal all blindness, especially the kind that can afflict our own hearts and minds.   +