“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
It was a question you might expect the disciples to ask of their teacher. The conventional wisdom of that place, the theology of the day, taught that disabilities and illness were a consequence of sin. And so it was reasonable for the disciples to ask, whose sin? Was the man born blind because, as it is written in the book of Exodus in chapter 20, “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents,” or was he born blind, as might be inferred from the story of Esau and Jacob wrestling in the womb of Rebekah in the book of Genesis, was it because the man himself had sinned while in the womb? Who sinned? Who’s fault is it?
But Jesus responds, “you’re asking the wrong question! Neither this man nor his parents sinned. You’re looking for someone to blame. Look instead for what God can do. Look instead for how God’s works might be revealed in this man. We must work God’s works.
One man born blind. Two possible questions. One question is “whose fault is it?” The second question is “What can God do?”
These are orienting questions and it matters which one we choose to ask. One question looks backward. The other looks forward. One focuses on blame. The other on healing.
When you are faced with a difficult situation, which question do you choose?
The question we choose to ask will send us down a particular path. If we choose the question “whose fault is this?” we head down the path of blame and division. Our response to a broken situation is to try to figure out who is right and who is wrong.
That’s the response we get from the Pharisees in today’s gospel. When faced with something they clearly don’t understand, they respond as if life is a court of law, as if there is a trial going on. Whose fault is this? They call witnesses. They interrogate them. They want to pin-point what happened, who did what, figure out what rules were broken. They assign blame. When they don’t like what is said, they try to discredit and undermine the witness. And, finally they reach a verdict. The man who was born blind is determined to be at fault, and must bear the consequences. “You were born entirely in sins, and you are trying to teach us?” And they drive him out of the community.
When the orienting question in a broken situation is “who’s fault is it?” the results are, sadly enough, quite predictable. Conflict. Fear. Shaming. Division. Separation. Marginalization. We become blind to other possibilities.
Today, thankfully, we would never see a person who is blind and ask the question ‘who sinned, this man or his parents?’ Thanks in large part to Jesus’ unequivocal answer in this gospel, we no longer believe that disability and illness are a consequence of sin. This is one example of a bad theology that has been discredited, though occasionally it can still be found lurking in the shadows.
But we still have a tendency to ask ‘who’s fault is it?’
I was reminded this week of the continuing stigma around certain illnesses. Of the shame that parents of a child born with fetal alcohol syndrome live with. Of those suffering from mental illness who still hear the whispers about who is to blame.
Many of us know people who have separated and are getting a divorce. And the question gets asked, sometimes directly, sometimes sideways, sometimes loudly, sometimes in whispers, “who’s fault is it?” And there is conflict, fear, shaming, and marginalization. Friends are divided up. Invitations dry up.
Many of us know people who suffer from addictions. And again, the question gets asked, “who’s fault is it?” Is it family, is it society, is it their own fault? And there is fear, shaming, and marginalization.
Jesus, in today’s gospel, tells us that we’re asking the wrong question. When you see brokenness, when you see suffering, don’t ask who’s at fault. Instead ask “What can God do?”
What can God do? How might God’s works be revealed in this man who was born blind? How can we do God’s works? These too are orienting questions, questions that help us to see a different path. Let’s follow Jesus down this path.
Jesus sees a man blind from birth. His disciples ask “who sinned, who’s fault is this?” But Jesus says that’s the wrong question, instead look for how God’s works might be revealed, instead ask ‘what can God do?” And that’s a question that engages us, because as children of God, we must work the works of God. That means we head down a path of compassion and healing. Jesus goes to the man and gets to work. He makes mud with his saliva and spreads it on his eyes. When the man washes, his sight is restored. And then, later in the day, when Jesus hears that the man has been driven out of the community, he goes after him, searches for him and finds him.
Jesus shows what God can do. God comes to us, God is with us, God is for us. He looks upon our brokenness with compassion and brings healing. When we are blind, he gives us sight, and when we are lost, he searches for us and finds us, and lets us know once more that he will always be with us. And when we start from the question ‘what can God do?’ we embark on this same path. The result is no longer fear, division and separation. Instead there is healing, there is sight, there is belief, there is worship.
A few years ago a survey was done asking people to name their favourite part of the Bible. The number one response by a large margin was Psalm 23, the one we said together today. It is a psalm of trust, a psalm that can be used in times of trouble. “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.” This is an essential text for us, especially in troubled times. In the psalm, the poet expresses his trust in God. But what underlies that trust, what makes it possible for the poet to affirm that trust is a divine promise.
And the divine promise is this: “I am with you.”
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for you are with me.”
Notice that the psalm doesn’t say, you are with me and so I will never pass through the valley of the shadow of death. No, the psalm assumes that at some point in our lives we will indeed find ourselves in that valley, and it is at that very moment that we need to trust in the promise that God is with us.
Sadly, when we do find ourselves in dark valleys, there are some who will insist on asking whose fault it is. Who sinned, this man or his parents? The question’s underlying theological assumption is that God is with some of us, but against others, and maybe that’s why you’re in the valley. Maybe that’s why you’re getting divorced, maybe that’s why you’re an addict, maybe that’s why you were born blind.
And Jesus says no, that’s not the way it works, that’s not who God is, that’s not why suffering and illness and brokenness happen. You’re asking the wrong question.
Yes, bad stuff happens. Sometimes it just happens randomly. Fixating on the cause, fixating on who’s to blame will only take you down the path of fear, division and marginalization.
Instead know this. Even when you walk through the darkest places, through the valley of the shadow of death, do not be afraid. For God is with you. God is for you. What can God do? God can see you, God cares about you, God can heal you, God can help you see, God will search for you and find you when you are lost, God will redeem you, God will revive your soul.
God promises to be with us. Do you trust that promise?
Will we live as if this promise is real or not?
Because if we trust God, if we live as if this promise is real, we will be the people who when we encounter times of trouble, when we encounter brokenness, we will ask not ‘who’s fault is this?” but instead, ‘what can God do?’ How might the works of God be revealed?
Homily: Yr A Lent 4, March 26 2017, St. Albans
Readings: 1 Samuel 16.1-13; Ps 23; Ephesians 5.8-14; John 9.1-41
Image by Dorothy. Creative Commons.