“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, in order that he was born blind?”
Before we really talk about this story, I want to pause and say that it’s important to note that in this story, blindness is clearly seen as a deficiency. This man’s blindness is there to be healed.
We need to understand that in this context, there were really limited opportunities for anyone blind or otherwise disabled. For many, begging was the only option – a life, probably a short life, of poverty and dependence on the kindness of strangers. Today, many disabled folks would say that they’d prefer not to be seen as less-than, as people just waiting to be fixed.
We used to have a member of this congregation who was blind. His name was Jerry. And once when we had this story about the blind man, I asked him: Does it bother you when the Bible talks about being blind like it’s a terrible thing? And he said, No, it doesn’t bother me. Being blind is just part of who I am. I met my wife because I was blind. I spent my life helping other blind people learn how to care for themselves. Being blind isn’t a burden for me, so I don’t mind how people talk about it.
So, let’s just note that.
But then let’s turn back to the disciples’ question. Rabbi, who sinned?… It doesn’t really matter whether we’re talking about blindness, or dementia, or cancer, or infertility, or COVID-19. When we’re faced by something inexplicable – especially something that makes us frightened or sad – we look for a way to make sense of it, to understand why it’s happening.
The disciples think – as many did at the time – that this physical misfortune must be somebody’s fault. A punishment for bad behavior. Did this guy mess up? If he brought this on himself, we don’t have to care… Or did the parents mess up? They usually do…
Jesus stops this logic in its tracks: Nobody sinned. This man’s blindness isn’t a clue about his or his parents’ behavior, purity or worthiness. That’s not how things work.
Back in 2014, when I preached on this story, I walked through a lot of the ways people try to make sense of suffering, given our belief in a loving God. I’ve re-posted that sermon on our website and I invite you to read it, if you think that would be helpful. It’s pretty indebted to Francis Spufford’s chapter, from the book Unapologetic, about why bad stuff happens, because I think he does a good job of walking through the various explanations that we try on – the work they do, and their pitfalls.
But in that sermon, I end up – as Spufford ends up – kind of saying that the question – why did this bad thing happen? – is a question that we move past. As Jesus moves past it, in our Gospel story: he doesn’t explain how congenital blindness fits into the created order. He just heals this man, and wanders off.
Richard Swanson, a Biblical scholar to whom I often turn, wrote about this passage this week. And he, too, felt dissatisfied with how he’d handled it in previous years.
He says, it’s not enough to just say the disciples’ question is misguided.
Because while their framing is wrong – this man’s blindness is not due to anyone’s sin – their desire to understand isn’t wrong. Seeking causes is important. That’s how we’ve beaten the diseases we’ve beaten. That’s how we’ve dramatically reduced infant and child mortality within the past hundred years. How we beat back polio and measles and diphtheria.
Asking why is part of how God made us, and it’s important. It’s one of our superpowers, as a species – our curiosity, our intelligence, our capacity for collaboration in pooling knowledge and developing solutions.
Like many of our superpowers, we can take it in unhealthy and even hurtful directions. Like the folks who think this illness is a judgment on our nation or our world, a punishment for our collective sins. Like the folks spinning and circulating conspiracy theories, feeding our fear and mistrust of one another, when what we need most to survive this time is our connectedness.
There is no tidy answer to the question of why there are things in Nature that can hurt us – earthquakes, hurricanes, broken genes, viruses. The best I can offer is a combination of a couple of ideas. First, Creation isn’t about us. The Scriptural tradition has known this for a long time; the strange, fierce nature poetry of the Book of Job says as much. The earth is not a garden to feed, tend, and protect us. We are not the center, the purpose, of it all.
And second – a related but separate point – Creation, like humanity, is free, and dynamic, and alive. God isn’t controlling every tweak of viral DNA or creak of the tectonic plates, any more than God controls our every choice and action. God’s action as Creator is to make, and then to give us to ourselves – humans and oceans, bacteria and birds alike…
That’s the best I can do, for the question of why a harmful virus can emerge.
We’ll all have to ask God about it, when we get the chance. But there’s another great big category of Why that we can actively wonder about and grapple with.
Swanson writes that in the face of our current crisis, “I do find myself asking “Who sinned…?” Just like the disciples, just like all people, I am driven to understand this situation and I want to understand how this novel virus works and how we can counteract it. And I want to know what we have done that has allowed it to spread so fast and so far.”
We can see the value of our human desire to ask Why, in the many good things that are happening right now. The virus’s DNA was sequenced really quickly. Scientists and medical professionals are exploring treatments to slow and mitigate the illness. And they’re working as fast as they can on potential vaccines – but vaccines take time to develop. Still, it gives me hope to know that literally, many of the smartest people in the world are working – working together – on beating the novel coronavirus right now. And we do have a head start; it’s not some alien, brand-new bug; we have dealt with other coronaviruses; there’s a lot they already know about this guy. Human curiosity, human intelligence, human collaboration will beat this bug. Eventually.
But – and – some of the reasons it is so disruptive right now, why it has made many sick and will make many more sick, have to do with human actions too.
I suspect there’s lots of blame to spread around, but certainly the slow pace of making widespread testing available in our country – something that could have been otherwise – is part of the landscape we’re living with now. We have to investigate all those causes too, eventually – to ask Why, and seek answers – so that we know how to respond better as a nation and world, next time.
Our human impulse to question, to seek understanding, is driving us in addressing the human aspects of this moment, as well as the medical aspects. So many of us are asking: What can we do to make the best of the situation we have? What choices and sacrifices can we make that will lead towards the least worst outcomes for everyone? What can we do to help those most affected – whether by illness or by the financial and logistical shocks of this situation? What can we do – down the road – to make sure this never happens again?
Swanson writes that the disciples’ question – “Who sinned?” – may be misguided, but the questions “of what we did wrong, of how we can design and maintain systems that will improve our response next time, those questions are basic to human nature. That is what we do. That is our real strength.”
There are no clear and satisfying answers to the things we’re all wondering right now. But I’m finding hope and grace in these strange hard days nonetheless.
In watching health care providers and scientists and public health professionals and political, civic, business and organizational leaders doing their absolute best to limit and mitigate the impact of this virus. In watching our collective readiness to do what we must, suffer what we must – and let’s not kid ourselves; this shelter-in-place life involves some suffering for ALL of us – for the good of those most at risk and our community as a whole. In seeing how much we are looking out for one another, checking in with one another, sharing with one another.
I’m not trying to sugarcoat. Things are not OK and will not be OK for a while. But the resilience, generosity, courage and grace I’m seeing day by day is sustaining me, and helping me remember that even in struggle, sickness, confusion, and loneliness, God sticks with us, and God made us to stick with each other.
Read Swanson’s full commentary here: https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com