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Dr Marianne Hayward

Almost from the time we start to talk, asking and answering questions is a big part of our lives. I’m sure most of you have endured children relentlessly asking why – either because they’re trying to make sense of the world, or because they know that to ask why, to respond to the answer with another why and then to just keep going is a great way to wind someone up. My ten year old was playing that game only yesterday.

The questions might change as we get older, but we don’t stop asking them. Questions help us gather facts, expand our understanding and deepen our relationships. They matter in our personal lives and our professional lives. I’ve spent much of the last week preparing for the inquest that’s brought me down to London today, reading hundreds of pages of documents and spending several hours talking to lawyers, but the whole purpose of an inquest is to answer four simple questions – who died, when, where and how. Apparently simple but crucial questions, with answers that are vital for the bereaved and sometimes for society at large. For the coroner, the witnesses and the lawyers, answering them properly is a weighty task.

So this evening’s passage starts with the disciples asking Jesus a question. “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (v2). As an ordinand, surrounded by other ordinands, all of us asking our teachers questions about God, I find it easy to imagine the disciples inviting Jesus into a similar academic debate. Perhaps they know the rabbinic principle that suffering and death always result from sin. They’ve heard sayings about children being punished for their fathers’ sins (Lam 5:7; Ez 18:1-3; Jer 16:10-13, 31:29). So they see a man born blind, someone who’s suffered from birth, and conclude this is clear evidence of sin. The question is, whose sin – his own, before he was even born, or his parents’?

This of course is the question of innocent suffering. It’s one we’ve probably all dealt with in one way or another. Some of us might have tried to work it out in a detached, academic way, as the disciples are perhaps inviting Jesus to do here – but probably all of us have wrestled with it in our own lives or the lives of those we love. A good friend of mine was asking it last summer as she struggled to understand why God had let her experience such a serious mental illness that she couldn’t care properly for her children any more. How can I go on believing in a God who lets my children suffer like that? she was desperate to know.

So how does Jesus deal with the disciples’ question? Does he treat it as an academic debate, or as a question with searingly personal implications?

Well, Jesus responds in two ways; yes, he answers the disciples’ question but he also engages directly with the blind man, who it seems to me was almost accidental in the discussion the disciples started. Jesus brings the man from the overlooked periphery to which his blindness must have confined him right to centre stage as he heals him. He expresses his compassion for the man, his own identity and mission and the nature of God in very concrete terms, through mud and spit. Moreover, healing as a declaration of God’s character wasn’t just Jesus’ task, but one he shared with his disciples. So the church is always to be a place where those experiencing suffering, whether from blindness or mental illness or anything else, find God’s compassion expressed through practical human kindness and discover God’s healing.

Look back though at what Jesus says before he heals the man, the answer he gives to the disciples’ question. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” (v3). We might find the first half of this response reassuring – the man’s suffering isn’t about sin. No one is to blame. Phew. It’s not my fault when I suffer. The second half though, I suggest, is profoundly disturbing. “He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” (v3b). The fact is, says Jesus, it isn’t about him at all, or his parents, because they aren’t the important ones – God is. In some strange way, the revelation of Jesus through this man’s healing was enough reason for him to have lived all his life up to that point without sight, to have lived on the edge of society, always dependent on others through his begging.

That’s not easy for us to hear. Jesus doesn’t just challenge the disciples’ assumption that suffering is always about sin; he challenges our naturalistic worldview and our assumption that the peace and comfort of the individual is the yardstick by which to judge everything. No, says Jesus, there are more important things. Not only that, but in responding to the question “why?”, Jesus doesn’t look backwards, trace a chain of events, explore what this person did and how that one responded, as the coroner will this week. Instead of looking back to how the blindness came about, he points forward to what can come out of it and he focuses firmly on God.

Christopher Hamel Cooke, who founded the Healing and Counselling Centre here, wrote this: ‘the effect of original sin is that man is forever placing himself at the centre of his universe and usurping the place which is God’s alone’ (Health is for God, p. 61) It’s not just that this man suffers from congenital blindness; it’s that the disciples too suffer from a congenital failure to put God in his rightful place at the centre of their lives and vision. Jesus’ healing offers this man physical sight he’s never had before. Jesus’ healing also offers all his disciples the deeper wholeness of a new, God-centred perspective on life. The challenge for all of us then, whether we think of ourselves as sick or well, is another question. How can our illness or our health be for God’s glory, that God’s works might be revealed in us?