My children will never know a world in which the Internet doesn’t fit in the palm of your hands.
I never knew a world in which the moon was out of reach.
My parents never knew a world in which telephones were nowhere to be found.
My grandparents never knew a world in which automobiles were outnumbered by horse-pulled carts.
We’ve changed a lot in the past hundred years. We’ve changed even more in the past thousand. And, in the two-thousand years since Jesus walked the earth, we’ve changed so much I doubt he would even recognize the world we live in. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that everything is different.
This Sunday’s gospel lesson (John 9:1-41) is a story about sin. Jesus and his disciples walk past a man whom John reckons as “blind from birth,” and the disciples ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” If you’re preaching this week and are tempted to say, “We’ve learned a lot since then,” I beg you not to. For the sake of your congregation, don’t relegate this born-blind-means-someone-sinned mindset to the past. It’s still as prevalent today as it was two-thousand years ago.
For starters, let’s stop and realize that Jesus lived in a time when most people had moved past a cause-and-effect understanding of sin and divine judgment. Sure, there were the crazies who stood on the street corner and said, “If you don’t repent of your sin, God’s going to send his judgment upon you.” Sound familiar? Yes, Fred Phelps of Westboro Baptist Church has recently died, but there will always be someone to pick up his ungodly cause. But most faithful people in Jesus’ day had figured out that people aren’t born blind because their parents sinned. The religion of the day—“post-exilic second-temple Judaism” to use an overly complicated term—wasn’t built on the premise that we’d better do right or else God’s gonna get us. Instead, being faithful was about showing up at the appointed times, remembering the story of God’s people, structuring one’s life around the mandates of the faith, and living in right relationship with God and neighbor.
But still people ask the question, don’t they? In this story, it’s the disciples. Or, put another way, the disciples ask the question that all of us—ALL of us—ask when we encounter an inexplicable tragedy: “What caused this to happen?” We want cause and effect. And, when we can’t find it, we use the divine calculus of sin and punishment to explain it. Katrina and New Orleans—the only people I’ve heard attribute the disaster to divine judgment are the same people who’d rather use the Old Testament than the Weather Channel for the ten-day outlook. A child born with a serious disability—most of us understand that even unfortunate genetic mutation is a part of life, but those who won’t acknowledge the role of DNA in life are the ones who talk about blindness as a punishment for sin. The more we understand about how the world works the easier it is for us to let go of a need to ascribe tragedy to sin and judgment. But still there will be unanswered questions.
If we don’t understand something, we go looking for an answer. God is that which can never be fully understood or comprehended. God is infinite. And that means God is as good a target for the things we can’t explain as anything else. But the people in the pews don’t need to hear how far we’ve come—that we don’t look at a child born blind and ask who sinned. Because we do. We still do it. Maybe not with someone else’s blindness-from-birth but in whatever other ways hit us personally. Cancer. Car wrecks. Divorce. Famine. Floods. When we’re in the midst of a tragedy bigger than our rational capacity for explanation, we jump to the level of things we don’t understand. Dear preacher, help us understand that it’s not our sin that has brought these things upon us. That’s not how God works. The disciples’ question is our question. The Pharisees’ question is our question. We need to be reminded of the answer even though we already know what the answer is.