by Bob Lupton
"Who sinned here?" the disciples asked Jesus as they approached a blind man sitting alongside a narrow Jerusalem street. A curbside beggar, blind from the moment he emerged from his mother's womb, was calling out to them for alms.
Unlike other beggars, who had lost their earning capacity due to some sickness or unfortunate accident, this man had been born stone blind. A tragedy like this doesn't just happen – it is caused. And obviously his blindness could not be his own fault. What hidden parental sin had been committed to bring this awful curse upon an innocent infant? Prenatal abuse? Venereal disease?
"Why did it happen, Jesus? Who is really to blame here?" It was an important issue they raised. If they could get to the root cause, then perhaps such tragedies could be prevented in the future. At the very least they could pin down the guilty culprit and identify this deformity for what it really was – God's judgment upon sin.
"Who sinned here?" we ask as a pale, stringy-haired teenager brings her premature infant, quivering from fetal alcohol syndrome, into the health clinic. How did things go so very wrong in this young mother’s life? The harm to her baby would likely be irreparable. Is it her fault for being too weak-willed to put the needs of her unborn baby above her own self-indulgence? Or should we blame her addicted, live-in lover who got her hooked on drugs and alcohol in the first place? Or maybe it’s society’s fault, too consumed with self-interest to notice the social pathology that ravages the poor. And where is the church amidst all this suffering? This issue of cause (or more precisely, blame) is large in our minds, too, Jesus.
But Jesus does not answer the disciples' question. Not in the way they expected. Bypassing the issue of blame altogether, he seized an opportune moment to reveal a secret of the Kingdom. Looking directly into the beggar's vacant eyes, He said, "This has happened so that the power of God may be seen at work in him." What an unusual twist! Blindness is an opportunity for new sight!
With no further explanation, the Teacher bent down, mixed a salve of available elements from the earth, smoothed it over the man's eyes, and gave him easy-to-follow instructions to wash it off in the nearby pool. The curious crowd that had collected to observe this unusual spectacle grew tense with excitement as they followed the blind man tapping his way to the pool.
The man who had never seen a Palestine sunrise stooped down and splashed handfuls of water onto his face. In an instant, sunlight streamed into his darkened eyes. And into his soul flooded the light of spiritual dawn. The man who was born blind threw aside his cane and cup and ran with wide-eyed amazement up and down the streets of the city, reveling in a vibrant panorama he had seen only in his imagination. It was a sight to behold!
"For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind," the Teacher disclosed to His disciples after the crowd had disbursed. It was one of those baffling, riddle-remarks that only those closest to Him would decipher. Yes, He would pronounce judgment, this He admitted, but not of the blaming sort.
His indictments would come in the form of sight-loss for the "enlightened ones" who are more concerned with affixing blame than with extending mercy. Even those who claim to have 20/20 eyesight would show themselves to be blind leaders of the blind. Like Helen Keller described it: "The greatest handicap is to have sight and no vision."
"But getting to the root of a problem can be important, can't it, Teacher?" we feel compelled to inquire. Discovering causes has enabled us to cure illnesses and save countless lives. We have nearly eradicated infant blindness, and we know how to contain communicable diseases. How can this knowledge be anything but good?
The Teacher answers by example. His touch. His personal attentiveness. He shows His followers that cure without care is not the Kingdom way. Knowledge, unless accompanied by love, is of limited worth in His economy. He invites us in a little closer so we can see for ourselves that the darkness of sightless eyes is not as intense as the despair of the soul of one who has been discarded.
We begin to understand that the withdrawal pains of an addicted mother are no more excruciating than the torment of feeling less than worthless. And by taking the risk of personally touching a discarded one, the miracle of sight can break into our own darkness.
Compassion illuminates our own vision. We see that healing goes far deeper than physical cure. We recognize that this could be an opportunity for tragedy to be transformed into celebration "so that the power of God may be seen at work in him" and in her.
And even more astonishing. By stopping to personally touch one of these “undesirables,” in some mystical way we touch the very heart of the living God. "I tell you the truth, whatever you have done for one of the least of these my brothers (and sisters), you have done unto me." Matt. 25:40