Lent 4 / Year A
This morning we hear our third big conversation of the Lenten season. This one involves Jesus, his disciples, a man blind from birth, the man’s parents and neighbors, and local religious authorities. Unlike the first two conversations and the one we will hear next Sunday, Jesus is a minor actor in this encounter. The blind man has the leading role with most of his lines coming after he receives the gift of sight.
The conversation begins with the disciples asking Jesus a question. On seeing the blind man they wonder, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” It is telling the disciples don’t address the man or do anything to help him. To them, he is little more than an object lesson; the impetus for asking a theological and theoretical question. For Jesus, the blind man is a human being. And his blindness is not the result of sin, but like everything broken and bruised in this world it is an opportunity for God’s gracious and merciful healing power to make a person whole.
The disciples do what we do even in our own day. That is, when something goes wrong we want to know who is at fault; who is to blame. Blame has been much discussed this week as some people seek to determine who is at fault for the COVID 19 pandemic. A popular target is “the Chinese” – whatever that means. Now, finding the source of an outbreak – either initially or locally – is important work because it can help to contain the spread, but finding the source is not the same as assigning blame.
Why do we blame? When something goes wrong we have a deep need to understand what happened and why it happened. Rarely is it satisfying or comforting to say, “There is no one to blame because ‘it just happened.’” If bad things can “just happen”, it follows they can’t be fixed and therefore can occur again… and again… and again. Simply put, we do not want to live in a world where we have so little control. When something goes wrong it is much more comforting to find someone – anyone – to blame.
Every time a company introduces an Edsel or New Coke, the blame game kicks in. It was marketing’s fault, or R&D, or manufacturing. Eventually someone will take the blame, heads will roll, jobs will be lost, and everyone left will feel better about themselves. In business they call this “the blame culture.” If it is your fault then it isn’t my fault. You are a bad person and I am a good person.
Most of us don’t accept blame passively. We fight by deflecting the blame either back on our accuser or onto a third party. In fact, the more narcissistic a person is, the less he or she is able to accept a share of responsibility in what has gone wrong. For such an individual, the emotional pain of being wrong is simply too great to bear. As a result, a narcissist always has to be right and this means those who disagree with him or her always have to be wrong. Have you ever known a person with a desperate need to build up him/her self by tearing down others?
For the disciples, getting word from Jesus about who is to blame ultimately is rooted in a desire to believe no matter who is at fault they themselves must be good because they are not afflicted. But, as I said, for Jesus this is not about finding fault. It is about respecting humanity. It is not about who did what wrong. It is about what can I do or (better put) what can God working in and through me do for a person in need.
This is the first great drama played out in today’s big conversation. The second has to do with who deserves compassion. Oh sure, the religious leaders feign offense Jesus heals the man on the Sabbath, making him in their minds a sinner, but their response most certainly is rooted in jealousy and envy. Like a child who watches a sibling get something he does not – “Hey, no fair! How come Billy gets extra ice cream and I don’t?” – the religious leaders are upset Jesus does something compassionate for the man while doing nothing for them. Perhaps even more to the point, Jesus does something compassionate for the man they are not able to do. Envy and jealousy.
Have you ever noticed how acts of compassion are often met with criticism? “Why should the church give out bags of food each week? Those people should go out and get job and work for a living.” “Why do senior citizens get their own shopping hours and I have to fight it out with everyone else when the shelves are bare?” “How come those NBA players got tested for the virus while ordinary people are turned away?”
Compassion criticism rooted in jealousy and envy sees the world only with the eyes of self-interest to the exclusion of all other perspectives. But those other perspectives add something critical to the picture, like adding color to a black and white photograph. Did you know many of our Food Pantry clients hold jobs. I see them working at Food Lion and Hardies, but this work does not provide enough income for them to make it on their own. A bag with five food items supplements what they are able to do for themselves and is well deserved. Others are elderly or disabled and not capable of being productive wage earners. When it comes to special shopping hours, rather than complaining about what others get that you do not, perhaps you might advocate for additional adaptions that might be beneficial, rather than petty. And when it comes to who gets tested and who does not, isn’t the important question not how scarce resources are meted out, but why such necessary resources are scarce in the first place and what can be done about it.
So, we add today’s conversation to our first two. “The Intentional Conversation” and “the Accidental Conversation” have a new companion. Lets call it “The Blaming and Complaining Conversation.” Perhaps the single most significant effect it has is to obscure the incredibly wonderful and marvelous thing Jesus does in one person’s life. This should not surprise us because blaming and complaining have a way of blinding us to the good things God is doing in this world. And they have a way of blinding us to the miracles God does for us.
I realize I am not fully aware of the anxiety these days raise for many of you. My life, which is largely lived alone, has not changed much. The more I interact with many of you the more I realize I am the exception, not the rule. Still, during these days of trial and fear, God is doing incredible things. It is easy to be blind to what these things may be. I love the tenacity of the man who sees for the first time in his life (and just imagine what an overwhelming sensory experience it must be for him!). In hurricane of blame and complaining he remains focused on the blessing he experiences: “Here is an astonishing thing… Jesus opened my eyes!” In the midst of all that is troubling and fearful, may your eyes be open to all the ways God is present and active in your life. This is not the time to allow blaming and complaining to swallow up all that is good and godly.