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?" If we took this passage out of context, its opening line might give us a false impression that on this occasion, Jesus was out for a leisurely afternoon walk with his close friends. But if we review the preceding chapter of John’s gospel account, we may notice that this isn’t quite the case. On the contrary, Jesus is actually fleeing the Temple area after a protracted argument with the Jewish religious leaders; an argument that begins with a provocation to entice Jesus to stone an adulterous woman, and ends with the Pharisees picking up the stones to hurl them at Jesus himself. At this time, Jesus still chooses to escape a threat on his life (though of course, the day will come when he will no longer do so), and so he leaves the area, hiding himself from the public. It is at this time that he notices this blind man, begging for his living, as many did in those days at the gates of the Jerusalem Temple, seeking the almsgiving of worshippers while the latter were leaving in a charitable mood. How often have we given out of charity, without even looking at, or getting to know the recipient of our kindness?
How often have we asked ourselves the very question the disciples have posed: what was it that caused this person’s unfortunate situation - was it his or her own failure, or the circumstances into which he or she was born? Usually, it is based on our assessment prompted by this question that we conclude whether or not the person is deserving of our giving. But the Gospels remind us, time and time again, that the true compassion knows no bounds, no logic, no assessments. Jesus restores the sight to this individual (about whom he says that his illness was a result of no sin on his part), just as readily as he cures the paralyzed man at the pool of Bethesda (yet, to whom he issues a warning, “Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you”). So in one way, Jesus was shaped by his culture as any one of us is today. Just as we are influenced by the beliefs of others, his thinking reflected commonly held assumptions, biases, and popular scientific knowledge. But in another, crucially different way, Jesus stands in stark contrast to us because he chooses to suspend all judgement rather than acting on it. He does so even in the aftermath of a situation when he had been judged and nearly stoned as a result.
The disciples’ question here only reveals the popular belief of their time: they could not see the blind in any other light but as a sinner who deserved no compassion, as traditionally sin was considered as the cause of sickness, and sickness could even happen as punishment for the sins of parents down to the third and fourth generation (as recorded in multiples places in Exodus and Numbers). The disciples might have expected Jesus to say that this particular blind man was afflicted for the sins of his parents, since interestingly, of the six miracles for the blind recorded in the gospels, this is the only person who was blind from birth (so he wouldn’t have had an opportunity to sin before his condition ensued). As such, I think it is particularly relevant to our own experiences because we often tend to notice the presence of evil on a systemic level much more readily than on the individual one. But it also means that we are less likely to see its victims as humans.
So even as we judge the disciples for raising the question (only “the elephant in the room”, really), have we not found ourselves pondering the source of our own new calamity over the last few weeks, in similar terms? We may have asked whether it was the fault of the Chinese cooking practices that brought the virus into human populations; or maybe it was the fault of all the travelers that should have known better than bring it home from their March break vacations; or was it the fault of the governments that did not act swiftly enough to contain it (or conversely, that have acted too swiftly to a fault)? In any case, the question remains the same: for whose sins are we suffering today?
Desperate for answers, we may look into different parts of the Bible and find any answer that we may choose, supporting any biases we may have. However, when taken as a whole, our scriptures and our faith have always taught us that these are not the right questions to ask, and there will never be a black-and-white reason for the presence of suffering in this world. Instead, what we have in the Gospels is “simply” the model for love and life we see as epitomized in Jesus Christ. And what Jesus does in this passage is three-fold: 1) he “sees” this man before the man sees him; 2) he encourages his followers to act compassionately whenever an opportunity presents itself; and 3) he touches the man. As such, Jesus’ noticing “yet another beggar” sitting at the Temple gates, touching his eyes, holding his hand, leading him away from the village - all those actions not only model for us how we should treat one another, but also remind us of the way that God establishes a connection with us. For what are the other ways for a blind person to connect with the world, but through touch? Not many. So let me leave you with two groups of questions to ponder over the week - another crazy, different, chaotic yet strangely slow week of our lives?
1) How did God touch you, before you even saw God for the first time, or how was God trying to touch you before you reached back to Him/Her for the first time in a while? What aspects of your life would you consider “sacramental” - places, things, rituals, people, music, nature - anything that puts you in touch with the invisible reality of God’s presence in tangible, physical ways? 2) How much freedom do we give to ourselves to touch the lives of others? Do we need a good enough reason to help someone, and do we require their trouble not to be “ their fault” before we choose to help? How much is our compassion circumscribed by our prejudice? And even more so, bound by our fears? Do we tend to give a blind person walking with a cane a much wider birth than necessary (just as one example)? And as in our today’s lives, an ordinary human touch has suddenly become so complicated, are we going to distance ourselves in more ways than physical?
In the weeks to come, we might expect that our social/physical distancing will still increase, our services and goods will become more scarce, and our tempers will be challenged to the same degree by our isolation from friends and entertainment, as they will be by an increased proximity to our family members. But I truly hope and pray that with the unprecedented loss of an opportunity to physically be in each other’s presence, we will not lose the ability to truly “see” each other first and foremost as human beings made in God’s image; our needs both shared and unique. And even more importantly, that we will continue to discern the many ways in which we have been touched by God, even amidst all of life’s challenges. Thanks be to God.