Was it the Republicans? Was it the Democrats? Was it the Christians? The Muslims? The black lives? The blue lives? Was it me?...Definitely not me, right?
We’re not the first to ask that question. In the family and lineage-based cultures of Bible-y times they would put it this way: If your father eats sour grapes, will your teeth be set on edge? In other words, whose fault is it that there is so much wrong with the world? Our generation's? Or our parents'? Are we paying the consequences of our own bad decisions or someone else’s? Who deserves the blame? Don’t bother trying to figure out how a bad fruit might affect one’s grill. That’s not the point.
But then the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel came along. They were both somewhat rigid, pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps type personalities—the sort whom you might find shaking their fists at a vending machine in a subway station for not returning their change, before proceeding to lecture all passersby, “See, this is the problem with the world. No one takes responsibility for their own workmanship anymore.” Predictably, they were certain that God’s official stance on the issue would be, “If your teeth are set on edge, it’s your own damn fault.” Everyone pays the price for their own sins.
Interestingly, the conventional wisdom blamed the past generation. The prophets blamed their own generation. But no one in either party explicitly blamed his or herself.
One day, several centuries later, in this same culture, Jesus and his disciples were walking along a road, which was kind of their thing, when they came across a man who was born blind (John 9).
Notice, the blind man has not petitioned them for anything or really even engaged them at all. Yet the disciples immediately see in this man’s plight an opportunity to shoehorn into an old, familiar debate. They don’t even ask the blind man his name or anything about his story before talking about him in the third person and launching into an arms-length conversation on the “sour grapes” question. “Rabbi,” they ask, “who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind” (v. 2)?
Think about this for a second: this sour grapes debate has been going on for at least six centuries at this point and still no resolution. In over 600 years of official Sour Grapes policies, repeals, referendums, and doctrinal stances, the society has not made a single inch of progress.
One wonders what the disciples even plan on doing with this information, if Jesus answers one way or the other. The fact is they don’t seem to care much about this blind man as a person. They only want to talk about him as an issue. They want him to be a symbolic stand-in for a philosophical query, where they can each score rhetorical points with their own little speeches and then go home satisfied. The last thing they want is for him to be a real flesh and blood human. Then they might have to interrupt an intriguing discussion in order to go help him.
How often do we do this on both sides of any issue: swirl our brandy around in a comfortable living room as we discuss the healthcare question without really knowing or caring about anyone in need of healthcare? Or the Iraq question without actually knowing or caring about any Iraqis?
But Jesus, being Jesus, doesn’t take the bait. Instead, he comes up with a third option. What if this man’s blindness is a result of neither his nor his parents’ sin? Or what if it’s immaterial, in any case, whose fault it was? What if we were to look at this as just one more opportunity for us to demonstrate what God is like with an act of healing (v. 3)? Then he heals the man.
It’s weird how novel and out-of-the-box this idea seems in a society that has spent hundreds of years trying to figure out whose fault it is. If someone needs help, help them. Kaboom, mind blown. We often refer to the Jesus movement as “Good News” for this very reason, it introduces something brand new into the world. Another option. A way forward, which no one saw before.
At the same time, this novel, out-of-the-box idea is so obvious as to appear hopelessly idealistic—If it’s actually that simple, why haven’t we gotten anywhere? But what if this third way actually were simpler and more doable than the alternative?
What if it actually is easier to listen to the supporters of the other candidate than it is to change them?
What if it actually is easier to mow a neighbor’s lawn than it is to win an HOA battle?
What if it actually is easier to help a sick person with their bills than it is to fix the healthcare system?
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t complex, large scale issues, which require serious debate. And I’m not suggesting we just retreat into private moral deeds in place of wide ranging justice. But when the only way we know how to begin those debates is with blame, it’s clearly a dead end. Apparently, Jesus cares more about helping than he cares about who is right.
Jesus seems to think it might just be crazy enough to work.
Grace and Peace,
Jared Witt is a pastor in the ELCA and, along with Aaron Schmalzle, is a Founding Director of Castle Church Brewing Community and Castle Church Faith Community.