Willful ignorance

There’s such a thing as legitimate ignorance. Nobody knows everything, and some things are simply beyond human understanding. These aren’t moral faults.

But there’s also a willful kind of ignorance, the kind that is at root an expression of arrogance.

At the end of the story of the man born blind, Jesus revealed himself as the Son of Man, and the formerly blind man believed (John 9:37-38). Then Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind” (vs. 39, NRSV). That doesn’t mean that Jesus understood his mission to fundamentally be one of judgment right then and there. But light has a way of illuminating some corners even while deepening the darkness in others.

It’s not clear from John’s description whether Jesus said this in immediate response to the man’s confession of faith, or sometime later. John says that some Pharisees overhear him saying it, so I think it likely that this is a separate scene. What matters, though, is the ensuing conversation:

Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains. (John 9:40-41)

The Pharisees’ question seems natural enough. Jesus had not been a direct participant in the verbal scuffle between them and the blind man, so this may have been the first they’ve heard from him on the subject. They respond to his words defensively: “Surely you don’t mean us!”

We might expect Jesus to say, “Yes, you.” That would complete the irony. The man born blind is the one who sees the truth, while the ones who think they see are spiritually blind.

But that’s not what Jesus says. Not exactly.

Here, blindness seems similar to what I called “legitimate ignorance” at the beginning of this post. That kind of ignorance is excusable, and the Pharisees are not blind in that sense.

They are, however, willfully ignorant. They insist that they can see; they pride themselves on their spiritual pedigree and knowledge. But they miss the plain truth that even the untutored and supposedly sinful blind man is able to see: who Jesus is, and where he is from. And the more they are challenged on that score, the more defensive and abusive they become. They’ll do or say anything to maintain the illusion of knowledge and sight.

There’s a cautionary tale in here for any of us who consider ourselves at least somewhat knowledgeable in spiritual matters. The Pharisees don’t stand condemned for legitimate ignorance. The problem isn’t that they don’t know who Jesus is; the problem is that they should know who Jesus is, because of what they claim to already know about God and Moses. But there’s something self-serving about the quality of their belief that stands in the way of their being able to see what God is doing.

Hopefully, that’s not true of us.

Is it?

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