Reflections on St John, Chapter 9
"Who sinned here?" the disciples asked Jesus as they as they approached a blind man sitting, cup in hand, on a narrow Jerusalem street. A curbside beggar who had been 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 capacity to earn a living 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 sin had been committed to bring this awful curse upon a baby? Perhaps it was his parents' wrong-doing, maybe venereal disease or some sort of prenatal abuse.
"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 they could discover the key to preventing tragedies like this 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 judgement upon sin.
"Who sinned here?" we ask, as a pale, stringy haired teenage girl brings her premature infant, quivering from fetal alcohol syndrome, into the health clinic. How did things go so very wrong so early in these young lives to cause such irreparable harm? Is it the fault of this young mother, 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, our materialistic culture too consumed with self-interest to notice the swelling epidemic of 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 in the way they expect. By-passing the issue of blame altogether, he seizes an opportune moment to reveal a secret of the Kingdom. Looking directly into the beggar's filmy eyes that have never gazed upon a Palestine sunrise, He says, "This has happened so that the power of God may be seen at work in him." What a strange and unexpected twist! Blindness is an opportunity for new sight! The atmosphere tensed with excitement as the Teacher bent down, mixed a salve of available elements of 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 jostled along behind the blind man as he tapped his way to the pool and stooped to cup up 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 panorama he had only dimly imagined. 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," He soberly informed His disciples after the crowd had gone. It was one of those troubling, riddle-type remarks that only those closest to Him would decipher. Yes, He would pronounce judgement, 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. Those who spend their time searching for someone to accuse rather than looking expectantly for divine opportunity, even though they have 20/20 eyesight, they will 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 certainly finding root causes can be important, can't it Teacher?" we feel compelled to inquire. Medical science has enabled us to prevent untold suffering 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 Master answers by His example. His touch. His personal attentiveness. He shows us that cure without care is not the Kingdom way. Knowledge and even self-sacrifice, unless accompanied by love, are of little worth in His economy. He invites us to slip 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 that is discarded. In coming close we begin to see that the withdrawal pains of an addicted mother are not more excruciating than the torment of feeling less than worthless. And if we take the risk of personally touching and being touched by a suffering one, the miracle of sight can break into our own darkness. When the clarity of compassion illuminates our vision, we can visualize healing that goes far deeper than physical cure. Through eyes of faith 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 amazing. When we stoop to personally touch one of these "undesirables" with hands-on care, we are touching the very heart of 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