Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year A, March 30, 2014
"Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents,
that he was born blind?"
No matter how many times I have read today’s gospel,
I just can’t get past that first question:
Who is to blame?
Who bears the shame?
Every time I read that question, I think:
What a loaded question!
What an unkind question!
What an unhelpful question!
What a hurtful question!
There are so many presuppositions preloaded into the question:
For example that having impaired vision,
is somehow morally “bad”
and if you are a person who is blind,
there must be something wrong with you.
Or that blindness is the result of “sin,”
the consequence of violating God’s law,
and so God, being the great punisher in the sky,
is doling out impairments for sin:
blindness, deafness, being unable to walk.
Or that there is a norm against which to judge a person
or a person’s difference from other people:
In this case, the norm is being a “sighted” person,
and the violation of the norm is being a person who is blind.
In short, if you are not “normal” by whatever standard,
you or maybe your parents, must have sinned.
It might be easy to dismiss all the presuppositions in the question
as artifacts of the ancient world,
remnants of the “olden days” when people were superstitious.
But I think this kind of question has shown remarkable durability.
It seems like there are many “conditions” still
for which assigning blame
seems somehow warranted or necessary.
In the not-too-distant past,
we might have heard a question like:
Who sinned, this person or his partner, that he has HIV?
Who sinned, this person or his spouse, that he has lung cancer?
Who sinned, this person, or her family, that she is an alcoholic?
Who sinned, this young person or his neighbors,
that he is in jail at 15?
Who sinned, this child, or her mother,
that she is homeless and poor?
There are probably many others,
some too tender to risk asking out loud.
A way to capture them all may be to ask simply:
What did they do to deserve this?
What did you do to deserve this?
Maybe in the fearful silence of our hearts, we might also ask:
What did I do to deserve this?
What loaded questions these are!
What unkind questions!
What unhelpful questions!
What hurtful questions!
When I asked Claudia Joehl, a member of our parish who is blind,
about this gospel passage and its question, “Who sinned?”
she answered almost exactly as Jesus did:
“I don’t think that anyone sinned in the story,” she said,
“because being born blind just happens.”
Nobody sinned. These things just happen.
Indeed a lot of life really does just happen to us.
What a helpful answer,
what a comforting answer,
what an encouraging answer,
what a powerful theological answer.
With Jesus, no one is being punished,
no one “deserves” it,
and as a consequence
shame and blame have no place in the body that bears his name.
May I propose that for Lent this year
we “give up” these kinds of blaming questions?
May I propose even that we give them up for life?
It may be true that some of the problems
we have or other people have,
are made worse by the choices we make,
or by our bad habits, or those of our society.
And when a CTA train crashes into an escalator,
or a plane goes awry and is scattered across an ocean,
it is important to know how it happened.
But these other questions that look to blame,
that try to identify the sins of others,
that seek to assign a divine source of punishment,
these questions more often than not succeed
only in creating scapegoats,
more shame, more division, more “crucifixions,”
more ways to separate God’s people from one another.
I think in the Christian community
a far better kind of question might simply be:
How can we be helpful?
Maybe it could inspire other, deeper questions:
How can we lift from ourselves and others
the burdens of blame and shame?
How can we recognize each person
as a unique and beloved child of God,
rather than as a problem,
or as a difference that unsettles or provokes discomfort?
How can we disrupt the tyranny of “normal”
—normal children, normal lifestyles,
normal marriages, normal whatever—
the categories that so easily pit some against others?
How can we make being different in whatever way
less of a burden,
more of an opportunity to flourish in a unique way before God?
Imagine the community shaped by these kinds of questions:
a community of helpers,
a gathering where the only “normal” is that there isn’t one,
a body of Christ in which all the bodies in Christ,
bodies with blindness or deafness, bodies in pain,
bodies of many colors, of many mental abilities,
bodies that roll on wheels or lean on canes,
and bodies that run all around the church,
old bodies and young bodies, and all the bodies in between,
all of them, all of us, have our proper place.
That would be a body truly free to reveal the many works of God
through all the human differences God has made.