April 3, 2011 – 4 Lent A
© 2011 Evan D. Garner
A few weeks ago, an earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated parts of the Japanese coast, and the world is still waiting to see just how terrible the already-devastating tragedy will become as the challenges at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors remain unresolved. But, even though that crisis is still unfolding before us, countless people have already wondered—either aloud or to themselves—why that catastrophe has occurred. And I don’t just mean the nuclear scientists and engineers who are studying design flaws in sea walls and reactor shields. Ordinary people, like you and me, can’t encounter a disaster like this one without asking why.
Why does something like this happen? Why do we live in a world where forces out of our control unleash their terrible power, leaving tens of thousands of people dead? Similar questions arose after the earthquake and tsunami of 2004, which wreaked incomparable damage across the coastlines around the Indian Ocean. Not long after Hurricane Katrina, I heard individuals searching for the real reason behind the disaster that flooded New Orleans. Are occurrences like these the unintended consequence of industrialization? Or do disasters like these signal God’s punishment for human sinfulness?
You might have read that the governor of Tokyo had to apologize for and retract his statement that the recent tsunami was “divine punishment” for Japan’s egoism. Though a very poorly conceived tactic on his part, the governor seized the opportunity provided by the disaster to lambast his countrymen for their self-centeredness, which had, as he put it, “attached itself like rust to the mentality of the Japanese people,” provoking divine punishment. Apparently, however, his approach to the disaster wasn’t the typical reaction of the Japanese people.
In a recent young adult bible study, we looked at the faith-based questions behind the earthquake and tsunami, and one of the aspects we explored was the difference in the approach of the typically eastern and western religions. As Dan Gilgoff, the Religion Editor for CNN.com wrote, “Indeed, where Christianity, Judaism, or Islam are often preoccupied with causes of disaster—the questions of why God would allow an earthquake, for example—Eastern traditions like Buddhism and Shinto focus on behavior in reaction to tragedy.” In other words, you and I might stand amidst the rubble of a coastline devastated by a tsunami and ask God, “Why did this happen,” while the Japanese might stand on the same coast and ask, “What should we do now?”
“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?’” It was common in Jesus’ day for an individual’s troubles to be attached to something he or she had done wrong. If you were a horrible sinner, you might end up with a terrible disease or some financial challenges. Figuring out why someone was born with a disability or disfigurement was a little tougher, and the disciples seem to have stated that predicament succinctly: “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” It was a philosophical and religious question being debated by many in that day.
Jesus, when asked, responded definitively, saying, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” He resisted his contemporaries’ need to explain the man’s blindness as a product of an individual’s sinfulness—whether that of the man or his parents. Instead, he took the difficult circumstances and looked forward, insisting that God’s will is to be found not by looking backwards in search of a cause but by looking ahead for God’s glory.
We don’t hear anything else from the disciples in this gospel lesson, so we don’t know for sure whether they got what Jesus was saying, but we do read that the Pharisees struggled with it. For starters, they were surprised and perplexed that this man, who came out of the womb blind, was now able to see. Surely God would only punish a person with a lifetime of sightlessness if he or his parents were particularly sinful. How, then, could the man who was “born entirely in sins” now be given his sight—that which God had denied him?
And, when the Pharisees learned that the healing had occurred on the Sabbath, their confusion only grew. Not only, therefore, was the blind man steeped in sin, but Jesus, who had healed him on the divinely appointed day of rest, had performed an amazing miracle and yet simultaneously committed a grievous sin. To try to make sense of the situation—which is to say to try to determine for sure that their understanding of sin and punishment was correct—the Pharisees interrogated the man and his parents a total of three times. But they never found a satisfactory answer, so they drove the man out of the synagogue, cutting him off from the religious community and ridding themselves of a conundrum they couldn’t accept.
Sin and punishment. Transgression and consequence. Action and reaction. Cause and effect. We are taught from a very early age that there are consequences for our actions. Talk back to your mother or father, and you may receive a painful whipping. Drink and drive, and you may get arrested or even kill someone. Have intercourse out of wedlock, and you may have an unplanned pregnancy to deal with. None of us would call those God’s punishment for our sins. They’re just examples of reaping what you sow. But, when we’re faced with a personal crisis that we can’t explain—like an illness or a death or a disaster—it’s easy to fall back on that familiar pattern of cause and effect. Even though our rational selves might not believe it to be true, there’s often a part of us that thinks we deserve this tragedy—that God is paying us back for our faithlessness.
Do you remember the game Mouse Trap? It was a favorite in our house even though none of us ever even attempted to play it. The board game features a Rube-Goldberg-type contraption that involves a series of interconnected steps that results in the successful drop of a mouse trap onto an unsuspecting plastic rodent. With the turn of a crank, the inevitable is set in motion, and my brothers and I sat for hours setting up and resetting the mechanics of the game, smiling in satisfied bliss when everything went as planned. That’s how I’ve been preconditioned to interpret a terrible situation. I am programmed to explain any undesired outcome by searching for that mythical series of steps that led in succession up to it. And, even though I know in my heart that God doesn’t work like that, there’s a piece of me that nods in silent resignation: “Yep, I should have seen this coming.”
Jesus wants us to know that that isn’t how the world works. Although cause and effect may apply in the tiny and specific instances of drunk-driving and premarital sex, when we expand the situation to the cosmic level, we discover that God isn’t a God of cause and effect. He’s a God of reality and response. The reality of the world that we live in is that it’s a broken place. And we, as its inhabitants, are broken and sinful people. That isn’t the cause—it just is. That’s how things are. We are all sinful, and none of us is any more responsible for the world’s brokenness than anyone else. We all share the sin of the world equally. As Jesus said, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” God doesn’t make a person blind, or give a person cancer, or send a devastating tsunami because anyone or even an entire nation is sinful. Instead, the world is a broken place so that God’s glory might be revealed in it.
If the reality of our existence is our brokenness and need for redemption, then God’s response is to love us and redeem us. That’s how his glory is revealed—not by finding a cause for our pain and suffering but in knowing that God can save us from even our most terrible disasters. Although it may not come naturally for westerners to let go of a need to explain everything, we can learn from those who stand in the aftermath of tragedy and ask, “What is our response to this? And what is God’s response?” The hope that God gives us is not in comprehending why suffering exists in the world but in knowing and trusting that God can save us from it. Amen.