Summary: Do you think that bad things don’t happen to good people? Think again! ...
"As [Jesus] passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answered, "It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world."
Having said these things, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he anointed the man’s eyes with the mud and said to him, "Go, wash in the pool of Siloam" (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing." (John 9:1-7)
Jesus and the disciples are in Jerusalem, and as they pass by (presumably on their way to some preaching engagement) they see a man who was born blind. Presumably he is asking them for money. The disciples ask Jesus, "who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"
It’s not what we would have asked, is it? (Is it?)
Why is it that so often the first response we make, when confronted with a tragic situation, is to look for a rationale as to why the thing happened? Is it just that we human beings are naturally curious creatures, or is there more to it than that?
When we see a blind guy in the street asking for money, or when some homeless guy comes to our door, asking for food, don’t we always want to know about the guy’s history. " So, you don’t have any money, eh! So why is it that you don’t have any money? I’ll tell you why! It’s because you spent all your money on alcohol and drugs, didn’t you?" We like to know who is responsible so that we can judge whether the poor soul is really worthy of our charity!
And yet there is another reason too, isn’t there, why we all like to know the reason behind a tragic event. It is because we regularly feel personally threatened by the tragedy of others. Not only are we naturally curious and naturally judgemental, we are also naturally insecure creatures, and we want to know why these things happen to other people, so that we can gain some measure of reassurance that they won’t happen to us!
Whenever I read this passage in John 9, my mind goes back to that short period I spent in Manilla (in the Philippines) many years ago. It was an unforgettable experience, as it was the most raw confrontation I have ever had with absolute poverty. Admittedly, I was deliberately visiting the worst areas in that most tragic of cities. Even so, it was not only the poverty that made such an impact on me, but also seeing how people dealt with it at an intellectual level.
Most people there were very fatalistic. That is, if someone was living in poverty, that was just the way it was meant to be. It was their karma or the result of something they had done, and so it was not seen as necessarily a good thing to interfere with what was a natural process (not, of course, unless you’re the person suffering, in which case it’s a very good thing to help).
I particularly remember a French Anglican Priest there, who told me the problems he had in trying to teach the theology of the cross to his congregation. The idea that one person could suffer for another person’s sin was something that did not make a lot of sense in that culture, he told me.
He illustrated the problem by sharing with me a story about a bus trip he had taken through the city, where the bus was forced to pull over, as there were mangled human bodies blocking the road - victims of a car bomb or some other act of violence. The priest looked in horror at the terrible scene, but was even more horrified by the reaction he heard from his fellow passengers in the bus, who stopped reading their papers, surveyed the scene of death, and said, "those people must have done something really bad", and then went back to their reading.
It’s natural, isn’t it? We need a ready-to-hand explanation as to why terrible tragedies befall people. Because if there is no explanation, such tragedies could just as readily befall us!
I was reminded of that Manilla story again only a week or so ago, when listening to a friend down at Binacrombi tell us about his recent experiences with the Australian army in Iraq. Tom is a high-ranking officer in the Australian army, and has spent the last year training Iraqi soldiers, so that they might be better equipped to take the reigns again in their country. One thing that fascinated him though was the resistance of the Iraqi soldiers to western military culture.