Confronted with a man who was born blind,
Jesus’ disciples ask,
“who sinned, this man or his parents?”
A devastating earthquake hits the island of Haiti
and American televangelist (and sometime politician) Pat Robertson
asks whether this might be because of a pact
the Haitians had made centuries ago with the devil.
Who sinned, the Haitians or their parents?
An even stronger earthquake
and the resultant tsunami
pushes Japan to the brink of a nuclear crisis
and the governor of Tokyo asks
whether this might not be divine punishment.
Who sinned, the Japanese or their parents?
We might think that faced with such misery
we would never raise such questions
but it is a natural human response to misfortune
to ask why such things happen,
to ask who is to blame,
to seek some past action on someone’s part
that would justify the pain and suffering
that has occurred.
We desire to find order in the world;
for if we can figure out how misfortune and disaster
are connected to someone’s past action
then the perplexity that accompanies such events
might be dissipated,
and we can restore our belief
that the world really is, despite all appearances,
a reasonable, just and orderly place.
But Jesus approaches the misery and misfortune
of the man born blind
in a different way:
in response to his disciples’ question
he says that, “Neither he nor his parents sinned;
it is so that the works of God
might be made visible through him.”
Jesus then spits on the ground, makes a muddy paste
and, rubbing it in the man’s eyes,
heals him and restores his sight.
I don’t think Jesus is saying
that God blinded this man from birth
just so that Jesus could come along, decades later,
and heal him.
Rather, he is indicating to his disciples that,
when confronted with human suffering,
they are asking the wrong sort of question.
They are seeking an explanation
of where misfortune comes from:
Why was this man born blind?
Why must the suffering of the poverty-stricken people of Haiti
be magnified by a terrible earthquake?
What did the people of Japan do
to deserve a catastrophic tsunami?
But these sorts of questions are unanswerable,
or at least whatever answers God has to them
are probably not the kind of thing
we mere mortals might understand.
Instead, Jesus redirects the attention of his disciples
from asking about the reason for suffering
to the ministry of alleviating suffering.
The source of the misery and misfortune of the man born blind
What is visible is the healing, saving, enlightening power of Jesus.
What is visible is the ministry of Jesus, the light of the world.
Into the darkness of the man born blind, Jesus brings his light
both to heal the man’s physical blindness
and to give to him the eyes of faith,
so that he might recognize the power of God
in the one who has healed him.
Having been enlightened by Jesus,
the man becomes himself a source of light,
bearing witness to Jesus
before those who would oppose him.
This remarkable transformation from darkness to light
is echoed in our second reading,
from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians:
“Brothers and sisters:
You were once darkness,
but now you are light in the Lord.”
Notice that Paul says to the Ephesians
not simply that they have received light in their darkness,
but that they have become light.
The light that they have received
they are now to share with others.
In other words,
now that they have received Christ’s light
they are called to share in Jesus’ ministry
of healing, saving, and enlightening.
Notice that in today’s Gospel Jesus says to his disciples,
“We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day.”
Not I, but we –
the disciples are called to share
in Jesus’ ministry of light in darkness.
Faced with human misery and misfortune,
whether that of the man born blind
or the disasters of our own day,
true followers of Christ
must not let the inevitable questions about “why”
keep them from answering Jesus’ call
to join in his ministry of light:
“Awake, O sleeper,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will give you light.”
Through the light of Christ,
we become light.
And, transformed into light,
we can respond to the call
that he gave to the disciples
who witnessed his transfigured glory:
“Rise, and do not be afraid.”
Rise, and join me in being light
in the darkest places of human misery and misfortune.