March 25, 2017; 4 Lent, Year A

“Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

The disciples asked Jesus for a bit of conventional, biblical interpretation. They knew from reading the scriptures that God rewards the righteous and punishes sinners. That is a central message from the book of Proverbs. “Misfortune pursues sinners, but prosperity rewards the righteous.” (Proverbs 13:21) The ancient history of Israel as recorded in the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings used this principle of reward and punishment as its organizing structure for history: Whenever Israel was faithful, God blessed the nation with peace and prosperity; whenever Israel was unfaithful, God punished them with disaster. The writer of that great biblical epic structured his interpretation of the nation’s early history on that single principle.

But the Bible is not of one mind about these things. The book of Job, for instance, is a small piece of wisdom-protest literature challenging the notion that God rewards the good and punishes the wicked. Job was an innocent man, yet he suffered horribly. His visitors who argue with him sound exactly like the voice of the Proverbs, and at the end, God declares them in the wrong. But Job was of more interest to the philosophers than to the people of the street. Everyone on the street knew that God rewards the righteous and God punishes sinners. Therefore, everyone knew, if someone were born blind, it is a punishment for sin. The only curiosity: Whose fault is it? Theologians, rabbis and everyday people could argue for hours about that question. Whose fault is it?

Notice how Jesus doesn’t even entertain the question. Instead, Jesus shifts the paradigm. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”

Jesus does not accept their world. He doesn’t even enter their debate. Jesus transcends the division and the stuckness. He declares, contrary to common sense, that this man’s blindness from birth is for the glory of God.

How can that be? Isn’t it a terrible thing when someone is born blind?

Why are some children born into poverty? Why is a child born with drugs in its body?  …born of an abandoned unemployed single mom trying to overcome addiction?  …born of undocumented parents in Springdale?  …born of a millionaire narcissist?  Who sinned?

Can you feel the stuckness in the questions about “Who sinned? Whose fault is it?” The entire context of those questions is a context of alienation, judgment, and condemnation. It is a context of dividing the world into right and wrong, righteous and unrighteous, lucky and unlucky, blessed and cursed, us and them. We live in a world so divided.

It seems to help our anxiety to believe there are reasons why these things happen. It helps our anxiety if we believe maybe that this is just the way things are inevitably, or that maybe there is some justice behind all of this. …that someone really did wrong and these are just the consequences. But mostly, like the disciples, we’re just stuck with these questions. We live in a world that is tragic and is so terribly divided. Yet Jesus declares, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” Jesus declares: God’s glory can be revealed in this. God’s glory can be revealed in anything.

First Jesus speaks. Stepping out of the debate. Insisting against all appearances that God’s glory can be revealed in this.

And then Jesus acts. With saliva and dirt he makes some mud, puts it on the man’s eyes and tells him to go wash in the spring of Siloam. Free access to healing. You would think that was a good thing. But it was the Sabbath. Jesus broke the Sabbath laws. There will be more divisions, more conflicts, more fear, more condemnations.

The authorities come to investigate. A man born blind now sees? How did it happen? They interrogate the man. He simply sticks with the facts. “The man put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.” He’s cautious.

But the authorities have to interpret the facts. Fact: The mysterious man violated the Sabbath. He made mud. That’s work. He does not observe the Sabbath, therefore the man is a sinner. But there is a division of opinion. Some say the man healed the blind; he must be from God. The authorities interrogate the blind man again. This time the man stands up to them. But the authorities know of course, this blind man is a sinner from birth. He was born blind. What does he know? The price of his challenging the authorities? He is thrown out of the synagogue. That is a terrible consequence in those days. He is now exiled, alienated, without community. Jesus just tried to do something good, and now look what’s happened.

Jesus hears that the man has been exiled. Jesus seeks him out, comes to him and invites him into the new community. This new community will be founded on love, compassion, acceptance, and forgiveness. It is a completely different way to be in the world.

Over and over in the gospel, Jesus steps into the middle of the either-or world of division, alienation, judgment and condemnation and Jesus transcends it with his both-and world of love, compassion, acceptance and forgiveness. Jesus brings union, reconciliation, oneness. In his new way of thinking, all of that suffering and sin and division is simply an opportunity for the glory of God which heals and reconciles.

Jesus invites us into that community. Whenever we see needs or suffering, Jesus asks us to bring Christ’s generosity and compassion. Whenever we see divisions and alienation, Jesus invites us into a new paradigm of inclusion and possibility.

So I wonder. How can we reframe the alienating questions that divide our world and nation today? How can we step out of the either-or nearsightedness that sets us against one another? How can we find a third way which transcends the divisions?

Who sinned, this man or his parents? Neither, he was born blind so that God’s glory might be revealed in him.

What glory is God waiting to reveal in our nearsighted divisions?

Who sinned? …Republican or Democrat, …native or immigrant, …Christian or Muslim, …rich or poor? …white or dark? The question gets asked every day: Who sinned?

How can we step beyond these darkened conflicts and declare the glory of God that transcends and heals our blind divisions? How can we get some spit and dirt and creativity into the issue in order to create some healing mud? How can we live in the welcoming community that reaches out to division, alienation, judgment, and condemnation and offers uniting love, compassion, acceptance, and forgiveness.

“Surely we are not blind, are we?”

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