“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Whose fault is it? Cause and effect. That’s an assumption we live by. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, Newton taught us. So, we look at the effect and the look for the cause, the person responsible.
I had a seminary professor who took this very seriously. Another classmate, who had known him before coming to seminary, told me that this professor, meeting the parents of a disabled child, told them that if they would tell him their life’s stories, he would tell them their sin that had resulted in having a handicapped child. I knew, more directly, the story of one of the female seminarians. In a required consultation he told her that if she would tell him her story, he could tell her where her experience was wrong, i.e. sinful, leading her to think that seminary was an appropriate choice. Our society tends to blame the poor for being poor, the sick for being sick. Their weakness must be a sign of their sin, of their unworthiness to have a better life. It’s simple cause and effect.
"Who sinned, this man or his parents?" It’s kind of interesting that they asked the question. In many ways it dismisses the man. There is no indication that they had any concern for him. He was a case study. If fault belongs to the man or even to his parents, the disciples didn’t see any need to be responsible for his suffering. The simple blame game means that we can excuse ourselves from “seeing” the person or the people who are struggling. “The poor don’t want health insurance” one legislator declared recently. You can hear his assumption that they deserve to be poor.
Jesus doesn’t play the blame game. Instead, he looked at the person, at the blind man, and saw him. He saw his need. It didn’t matter how the man got where he was. Jesus offered him what he needed, healing.
It is a fascinating healing story. It’s very earthy. “[Jesus] spat on the ground, made mud with the saliva, and spread the mud on the man’s eyes.” Laying on of hands – and praying – we might be able to understand. That’s pretty sanitary. But, making mud out of dirt and saliva and putting that mud on someone’s eyes? Even those who go to spas to have mud wraps have their eyes left alone! This is messy! Even sort of gross! We expect God to clean up the world’ messiness – not create it or step into it! We like the neat answers, the easy answers, the logical ones that we can quickly understand –and use as our framework for negotiating messy, chaotic, life.
It may be that Jesus’ way of healing is in itself a message: we cannot quickly determine cause and effect. Our simplistic categories lead too often to easy dismissals of others. There was a great cartoon on Facebook a few weeks ago that explored what it means to be privileged in our society. The cartoon followed the story of two children, born into very different circumstances. One was a white child of parents with resources. The other was a child of color born to loving parents who struggled, daily, to make a life for their child. The child of privilege received regular medical care and good schooling. The child of poverty did not always get proper medical care. Schools weren’t good. And, ultimately, that child had to drop out of school in order to care for a sick parent. The child of privilege, a white male, had doors opened for him, over and over again. The child of color, female, experienced discrimination in many ways. She was constantly dismissed, with doors shut or slammed in her face. Such children are caught in the world’s messiness – through no fault of their own, and often through no fault of their parents. There was a letter to the editor this week in which someone said that the problem with education today is that parents aren’t doing their jobs. The writer reflects our tendency to attach blame – parents or teachers. I know it’s hard for teachers today. But do we also ask how hard it is for parents without privilege? Maybe those children don’t see parents because they’re working multiple jobs to put food on the table. There’s little money for extras, for those things that can enhance a child’s life and his or her ability and opportunities to learn. Blaming excuses us from seeing those who are hurting. Jesus didn’t blame. He saw the person and offered healing.
It would be tempting to limit our hearing of this story to the actual healing, the physical healing. But, the story goes so much further. The messiness doesn’t end when the man received his sight. In fact, we might say that the messiness was just beginning. First, the people who had known him, or known of him, had a hard time accepting the change in him. Some couldn’t even recognize him outside of the role of beggar. So they took him to the Pharisees.
Instead of rejoicing that this man had been healed, the Pharisees engaged in theological debate. “This man is not from God for he does not observe the Sabbath!” “How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?” And, we’re told, they were divided! It became a mess. And into that mess they dragged the man’s parents. “Is this your son who you say was born blind? How then, does he now see?” Instead being able to celebrate the change in their son, they had to tiptoe around the wrath of the Pharisees and distance themselves from their own child. “Ask him. He is of age. He will speak for himself.”
As the story unfolds, the man who was physically healed demonstrates a continuation of his healing as he begins to understand more fully who it was who had healed him. And not only did he understand, he shared, declared that understanding. “Here is an astonishing thing. You don’t know where he comes from and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to a sinner, but he does listen to one who worships him and does his will….If this man were not from God, he could do nothing!”
Wouldn’t it be nice if Jesus’ gift of healing set everything right, cleaned up the mess of having a beggar on the streets. Instead, Jesus’ healing seems to deepen the mess, catching others in the muck. It’s hard to trace a simple cause and effect in this. Instead, we have a cascading chain reaction. It does little good to look back and blame someone –which the Pharisees tried to do. Instead, Jesus’ physical healing of the man invites all those who encountered it to consider God’s work being done in their midst.
Our president commented a few weeks ago, “Who knew health care was (or is) so complicated?” Well, we could debate whether or not people knew, but he was acknowledging a truth about healthcare and so many other human systems. It’s complicated. You tweak one part – and create a chain reaction that moves out and oftentimes causes unintended consequences. We’ve been bombarded with sound bites that reduce the mess to simple cause and effect – and we sideline and dismiss people in the process. One of the most horrible examples I’ve come across is the story of the congressman in Oklahoma who has declared that rape and incest are God’s will. God is in charge of all things, therefore, the women who have experienced such horrors must accept that the horror was God’s intent and God’s will. Perhaps he sees it as punishment for some unknown sin.
We’ve taken Newton’s law, for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, and reduced it to the simplistic. Modern physics tells us of the butterfly effect – a butterfly moving in Africa can have an effect on our weather here. On a smaller scale, we might think of a stone dropping in water – and the ripples that emanate. Those ripples will encounter obstacles and, perhaps, other ripples. Soon, it is almost impossible to trace the pattern back to the beginning. It’s complicated.
It may be that our desire to be able to lay the blame is a desire to be in control, to have mastery over this world. If we can simplify cause and effect, we can blame the victims and excuse ourselves from responsibility. The Pharisees were uncomfortable with a man who came in and worked outside of their assumptions – even when that work bore good fruit. The parents lived in fear of the mess their son’s healing had caused. They did not see any way they could risk being cast out of the synagogue, cast out of the fabric of their society.
Jesus made mud – both of the dirt which he put on the man’s eyes and of the safe constructs of the society which had marginalized the blind man and which was more interested in keeping him marginalized than in his wholeness.
One of the things I love about the first creation story in Genesis is that it does not speak of God creating out of nothingness – or neatness – but out of the chaos. So, the chaos of the world and the messiness of the world are not signs of God’s absence. Instead, the chaos is a place where God is at work – bringing the healing that we need – not only physical healing, but the healing of our systems and perceptions, even the healing of our faith. It’s so easy to get side-tracked by questions for which there are no answers, certainly no easy answers. And as we struggle and debate and fight and argue we miss God’s call to see those who need good news, not blame. God’s work doesn’t ask us to find the easy and quick answers that might excuse us and that might deepen the wounds and the isolation of the vulnerable. Instead, we’re to trust that God is at work in the midst of the chaos and the messiness – and join God there.