The Wrong Question
Lent 4, Year A
A couple of weeks ago, my wife Alice told me a moving story about an experience she had at Children’s Hospital, and she gave me permission to share that story with you. Alice teaches quilting classes. While she teaches people to quilt she also gets to know them and care for them. That is how Alice ended up visiting the seriously ill daughter of one of her quilting students. The student, a young woman, has spent the last 15 years of her life caring for and advocating for her severely disabled daughter. This daughter has brain damage, has never learned to speak, and cannot voluntarily move her limbs. She recently developed pneumonia and a serious digestive problem.
While Alice was visiting the mother and meeting the daughter, one of the doctors came in to consult with the mother. After the doctor explained a few medical details, the mother asked him, “Why did this happen? Why was my daughter born this way? Why do we have to live with this affliction?”
The disciples ask Jesus a question very much like the mother’s question in that hospital room. They want to understand the man’s blindness. At that time, most people believed that afflictions like blindness were a punishment for sin, so the disciples ask, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
The questions we ask reveal a lot about us. The question that the mother asked of that doctor and the question that the disciples ask of Jesus reveal a lot about their understanding of God. For the disciples, God is a powerful king who judges our lives and meets out punishments and rewards.
- If you are rich then God is rewarding you for your obedience.
- In the same way, if you are afflicted then God is punishing you for your sins.
The blind man was born with the affliction of blindness. So, the question is, who sinned? Did he sin before his birth or is he being punished for sins he would commit later in life? Or did his parents sin? For the disciples, asking who sinned to cause his blindness is the same as asking why the man was born blind.
We have a different image of God today. We don’t think of God as a king judging our lives. Rather, we see God as the great creator and controller of all that is. God decides who will be rich and who will be poor, who will be afflicted with blindness, or cancer, and who will live healthy lives. Sometimes I think that our image of God is an old bearded guy sitting at a computer console, surrounded by giant screens, watching what’s happening all around the universe and deciding what will happen next. So, we want to know why. Why did God decide this or that? We may be asking the wrong question because we have the wrong image of God.
The disciples had the wrong image of God, so they asked the wrong question. Jesus’ answer to their question gives us a different image of God. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that the works of God might be revealed.”
From our view of God as the great controller deciding each person’s fate, Jesus’ answer sounds cruel. Why would God make a man blind just so that God’s works might be revealed? This actually reveals the error in our image of God. We assume that God chose to make this man blind, but what if that is not what Jesus is saying? The sentence can also be read with the emphasis on “born”. The man was BORN so that God’s works might be revealed. And he was blind. The key to understanding this story is to consider what the man sees and what he reveals when given the gift of new sight.
God’s works are revealed in the man’s life. When the Pharisees ask him what he thinks of Jesus the man replies, “He is a prophet.” But he doesn’t stop there. The Pharisees are trying to understand Jesus. He heals people, and that seems good, but he does the healing on the Sabbath, and that’s against the law of Moses. Is Jesus a prophet of God or a sinner? When they press him to reveal more about Jesus the man says, “I don’t know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”
This man was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed. He was blind, but now he can see. He can see the world around him. In healing this man’s sight, Jesus has revealed the beauty of the world to a man who had never seen.
The man born blind reveals God’s works by his life. When the Pharisees throw him out of the synagogue, Jesus comes to him and asks, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” To better understand what Jesus is asking we might translate the question as, “Do you put your trust and faith in Jesus?” “Do you love, cherish and trust in Christ?”
The next part of the story is tricky. The man looks at Jesus and asks, “Who is this Son of Man?” Remember, he only received his sight after he went to the Pool of Siloam to wash the mud from his eyes. Jesus was gone by then. He has never seen Jesus before this moment. The man-who-now-can-see looks at Jesus and asks, “Who is this Son of Man?” and Jesus responds, “You’re looking at him!” In love and gratitude and wonder, the man who was born blind looks at Jesus and says, “Lord, I believe.” The man looks at Jesus and says: You are my savior. I will trust in you. I will cherish you. I will put my faith in you.
Who sinned such that this man was born blind? No one. He was born blind to reveal God’s works. He was born blind, and you were born right handed, and you were born with curly hair, and you were born with a great voice, and you were born with keen insight, and you were born with a loving heart. All of us were born with different gifts, different strengths, and different challenges. We were each born, just as we are, so that God’s works might be revealed. The purpose of your life and my life is to reveal God’s works!
And what are God’s works? God’s works are the works of a loving Father. God’s works are the works of a nurturing mother. God is love and God’s works are the works of love. We were all born to love and to be loved.
That brings us back to the room at Children’s hospital. Alice stood there, next to the bed of her friend’s daughter as the mother asked the doctor, “Why did this happen? Why was my daughter born this way?” The doctor responded, “We don’t ask that question. We just can’t know, so we ask other questions. What can we do for your daughter? How can we help her live the best life possible?”
After the doctor left, the mother turned to Alice and said, “You’re married to a minister. You’re a Christian. Can you tell me? Why was she born this way?” Alice replied, “I think the doctor has the right questions. How can we love your daughter? How is love being revealed by your daughter’s life and by your life as you care for her?”
Yes, God created the universe. God created all that is, seen and unseen, so that love could be given and received. God created a universe where cancer strikes down the people we love, where little girls are born with incomplete brains, and where earthquakes and tsunamis kill scores of people.
Like the doctor said, “We don’t ask why, because we can’t know. We cannot grasp the greater meanings and purposes of creation. We can ask how. How are God’s works being revealed? How can we love and be loved?
We are all born with a purpose. The man was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed and you were born so that God’s works might be revealed. We are all born for that purpose. We are born to love and to be loved.
How will God’s works be revealed in our lives? That’s the very question we set out to answer in our mission statement:
We seek to provide a welcoming environment where individuals can come together to walk in Christ’s love and forgiveness through worship, prayer and service to the community.
What a beautiful purpose we each have! What a beautiful purpose God has for our lives, and what a beautiful mission God has given us here at St. Dunstan’s.
The Rev. David Marshall
St. Dunstan’s Church, Shoreline WA
April 3, 2011