Today there was one more brutal killing. It was in the name of terror, or perhaps hatred, or maybe racism. It was a conspiracy or perhaps a lone-wolf gunman. It happened here, or over there. For one reason or another, it was reported on by the news, while similar events were overlooked. Welcome to one more day in our brutal, broken, vengeance-soaked world.
Tragedies like these accost our sense of security and tangle our views on how the world works. We often find ourselves asking hard questions. Big questions. Why is there suffering like this? Where is God in this situation? Does God cause tragedies like this, or just allow them? Is that different? These questions, natural in the face of pain, remain abstract and philosophical until something happens to you, or someone you love. Personal pain breaches the distance of abstraction. Until then, until you’ve been the one on the inside of tragedy, there is a risk in these moments. The risk of staying safely distant.
In the Gospel of John, a story unfolds in the 9th chapter. Jesus and his disciples are walking through Jerusalem. They see a man begging. A birth defect left him blind. Unable to provide for himself with a trade, he sat on the curb and begged. He was vulnerable, dependent on the kindness of others to live. In a world without seeing-eye dogs, handicap accommodations, and social services, this was a tragedy.
“Who sinned?” We ask.
The disciples, known for their social sensitivity, asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Getting right to the bottom of things, aren’t we? In the face of a tragedy, the disciples wanted to discuss theology. They wanted to sort out the boundaries and consequences of sin.
The disciples’ question echoes over and over in our discussion of the day’s news, over coffee shop tables and in conversations at church. Who is at blame here? When the Pulse nightclub in Orlando became the site of one more mass shooting, I heard plenty of people, distant by geography or demographic, musing about who to blame. “If only they hadn’t been at a gay club,” one said. “If only they’d been allowed to carry their own guns,” another said. “If only we didn’t let their kind into our country,” I heard more than once. Like the disciples, we’re asking Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned that this night club was massacred?”
We look around for who to blame, and what to blame them for as if finding an indisputable villain wards off any such tragedy from impacting our lives. That’s why we ask that question, isn’t it? That’s why in the face of tragedy we’d rather talk theology than feel. It’s too painful. It’s too painful to contemplate what it would be like if those dying children were our dying children. It’s too painful to trace our way through the labyrinth of thoughts, following the slender thread that will guide us to our own culpability. The culture, after all, is something we are all responsible for. Instead, we avoid feeling the pain by chatting about who sinned.
In this conversation, the disciples were stuck on the outside of the tragedy. They saw the suffering man as something other than themselves, a situation they could dissect, rather than a person in pain. A case study for their systematic theology. They would ask, and debate, and keep walking until the blind man was out of sight and mind. Something new would engage their attention.
We must work while it is day.
Jesus didn’t take the bait. As quickly as the disciples posed the question, Jesus shot it down. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” In the middle of sin and tragedy, sin is not the point. It never is.
Jesus’ next words intrigue me. “This came about so that God’s works might be displayed in him. We must do the work of Him who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work.” There are some who take this text as support for the idea that everything is predestined in God’s sovereignty. Even this man’s blindness was arranged from the dawn of time so that Jesus could show off his divine healing chops. But Jesus wasn’t teaching theology that day. He wasn’t doing a seminar on God’s foreknowledge and man’s free will. He was trying to change the disciples’ field of vision.
They were looking for something to blame. Who is the sinner here? Jesus answered, essentially, “Sin isn’t the point. When you and I come face to face with tragedy, we have one appropriate response. We do the work of God. We never know when our time to do God’s work will run out, so we do it whenever we can.” Jesus wanted them to see the person, and act with compassion.
Jesus’ action in the rest of the story demonstrates exactly what he meant. He left the heady discussion and got down on the dirty curb with the blind man. He mixed mud and touched dirty hands to dirty face. He gave personal attention to someone who never quite knew if he was being seen. He brought healing into the middle of one man’s suffering. Jesus did the very thing he said. He took that one moment, in the face of suffering, as a divine appointment to do good.
Will we avoid? Or will we do good?
Why is it that every time there’s a tragedy in the world, some Christian pastor finds his way on TV declaring that the tragedy is God’s punishment for sin? Why is it when we walk past someone on the street begging or interact with someone whose life is in a real mess, so often the thoughts that come to mind are blaming thoughts?
The disciples said, “Who sinned, this guy or his parents?”
I say similar things. “The parents blew it. The system just propagates the problem. This guy just can’t get it together.”
When we see misfortune, I think we’re scared by what we see. We want to assure ourselves that something like that could not happen to us. So, we have to generate an explanation that draws a line of protection around us. THEY are druggies, not like us. THEY are illegals, not like us. THEY follow a violent religion, not us. If bad things happen to THOSE PEOPLE, well… there’s a reason. (They probably deserve it.)
This is why religious accounting systems are so popular. This is why we love legalism. It shows us clearly the lines. How far is too far? If we stay in the lines, what kind of blessings can we expect? Most Christians would say that they don’t believe in Karma. You know, the Hindu belief that the sum of your actions in this life determines your fate in the next life? You’ll be reborn to live out the punishment or the blessing of your choices. Well, Christian legalism is exactly the same thing! It’s a system of measuring who is sinning and how much, so you can know that you’re safe.
I think when the disciples asked this question, they were looking for that line of safety we want to draw around ourselves. Where’s the line that determines who these terrible things happen to? What kind of sinner do you have to be to get stuck with blindness? But that thinking keeps you on the outside of suffering. It keeps you from feeling compassion. Most of all, it keeps you from doing good in the face of pain.
In the face of suffering, there are two different kinds of responses. On one hand, we can look at a person in pain and ask why this happened. Whose fault is it? Where is the sin? Where is the line? We need to know so this sort of thing doesn’t happen to us.
Or, on the other hand, we can look at the person in pain and ask what we can do right now. How can we do kingdom work here, at this moment? In what ways can we enter into the suffering, and bring light?
That’s what Jesus did. I think it’s what Jesus is inviting us to do as well. Whether the suffering in view is personal or global, close enough to touch, or across the sea, the moment we come face to face with it, it is a divine appointment, an opportunity for us to do the work of the One who sent Jesus.
Marc Alan Schelske writes about life at the intersection of grace and growth at MarcAlanSchelske.com. He is the teaching elder at Bridge City Community Church in Milwaukie, Oregon where he has served for 18 years. He's the author of Discovering Your Authentic Core Values. Marc is a husband, dad of two, speaker, writer, hobbyist theologian, recovering fundamentalist who drinks tea & rides a motorcycle. You can follow him on Twitter at @Schelske
Photo Credit: FreeImages.com / Gregory Porter
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