There is a story about Jesus that I have pondered for many years, and it comes to mind again for me now in the midst of a “fourth wave” of COVID-19 that is overwhelming our hospitals and necessitating renewed measures of caring for our health as we head into the winter. It is about Jesus’ and his disciples’ encounter with a blind man one day.
As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see.
The picture of a man in Jesus’ day who has been blind since birth is a sight of enormous suffering. Having no way to support himself, he would have been compelled to live a lonely life of begging for his daily bread. We can picture him at his usual post by the side of the road when Jesus and the disciples encounter him. The striking thing is how differently Jesus responds to the suffering man than his disciples.
For the disciples the depth of this man’s suffering is a problem that wants an answer. They want to know what caused it. “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” Why do they ask this question? Is it so they can fix things? So they can assign blame and remove themselves from responsibility and move on from this painful moment? So they can simply understand and thus have a feeling of controlling or containing the suffering? One thing is clear: for the disciples to ask the question, “Who sinned?” is for them to concentrate on their own feelings of discomfort when confronted with a fellow human being in pain. They are focused on how they feel and the answers they want, not on how the blind man himself feels. All of this is a natural and normal human impulse when we encounter suffering in ourselves or others.
A year and a half into this fearful new world of lockdowns and an inexorably spreading virus, we are all suffering in many, many ways. For all of us it’s the chronic anxiety of wondering what’s coming next, a low-level anxiety that now forms the background to our lives, but which accumulates and manifests as stress in all kinds of ways. For some it’s been the uncertainty and insecurity that comes from loss of employment. There is the strain on mental health that comes from isolation.
Some in our community are now experiencing negative health outcomes as procedures are delayed. Some have now experienced COVID-19 itself, with varying degrees of severity. And of course we all look with alarm to our healthcare system and all those who work in it, and those who are now filling up hospital and ICU beds, suffering from the effects of the virus.
In all of this it is natural and normal to ask, “Who sinned? (for all of this to be happening)?” Is it the sufferer’s fault, or someone else’s? Maybe it’s the intransigent and insufferable anti-vaxxers, say many. (And I have heard this group called many things, in person and in the media. Idiots. Unclean. Filthy. All de-humanizing terms used to terrible scapegoating effect.) Maybe it’s the rotten leadership of our government, say voices from the left and right. Maybe it’s China. In our climate of anxiety conspiracy theories mix with evidence-based accusations in a bewildering cacophony of denunciation. Always behind that fundamental question of Who sinned? is the attempt to contain, control, distance ourselves, and manage our own feelings of fear.
When Jesus encountered the suffering of a blind man by the side of the road, he responded strikingly differently than the disciples. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” he said, “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”
Jesus sees the man’s suffering not as a problem to be solved, but an occasion to manifest God’s works, which are always life, salvation, compassion, and hope. It’s not that it’s necessarily wrong to ask the questions of the how and why of suffering: it’s just that they don’t really foster connection, compassion, or empathy—the works of God. Jesus sees the suffering of a blind man as a moment to reach out in human and healing care. He stops and takes the time with the man in front of him. He doesn’t shield himself from the man’s suffering by asking abstract questions about who’s to blame for his situation, but he empathizes and proceeds to heal.
I think Jesus shows us another way to be in our own time of suffering. That is first to connect with our own feelings and be truthful about them. Not to avoid our own feelings by directing attention outward at the (always supposedly terrible) actions of others. Are we bewildered? Confused? Angry? Scared? Then just name and sit with these things without blame for anyone else.
Second, Jesus invites us to let go of worries about the state of the world or questions about the meaning of everything, and just be present to who is before us in the present moment, as he was present to the blind man. If we can connect with our own hearts in empathy, and tend to the real suffering of the individual who is here, now, then there is a way through. Instead of being stuck in helpless wondering about who sinned, we have a way through to see the power of God (life and healing) manifest in our own and others’ lives.
The question of why we suffer is real and agonizing and important. We’ve been asking Why? since at least the time of Job, thousands of years ago. What Jesus shows us is that even in times of suffering we can manifest the works of God. We always have the choice to be patient, compassionate, and courageous—amidst either our own or others’ suffering. We always are called to do the works of light. We always—in every moment of either joy or sorrow—have the opportunity for God’s works to be revealed in us. Indeed, it is why each and every one of us were born.
May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.
And may the God of all grace bless you now and forever.
Image credit: Václav Mánes - Healing the Blind Man (wikimedia commons)