Sunday of the Blind Man, May 20, 2015
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen. Christ is risen!
On May 29, 1453, after a fifty-three day siege, the capital of the Roman Empire, the center of the Orthodox Christian world, founded by and named for the first Orthodox Christian Emperor, the great city of Constantinople, fell to the Ottoman Turks. The walls were blasted in by one of the earliest uses of cannons, and the last Emperor of Rome, Constantine XI Paleologos, died defending the walls of what was left of the Roman Empire.
The anniversary of this event is in less than two weeks. In that year, it was a Tuesday, and ever since that Tuesday 562 years ago, Greeks have regarded Tuesday as an “unlucky” day. Certainly it was not a lucky day in 1453, and what was formerly known as Pontus or Asia Minor came to be called Turkey, and the city known as Constantinople is now generally known to the world as Istanbul.
One has to imagine what those people in conquered Constantinople must have felt after their city was overrun by Muslim Turks. How had it come to this? The greatest empire the world had ever seen, founded in Rome in 27 BC, its capital transferred to Constantinople in 330, once stretching from Great Britain to North Africa, from Egypt to the Caspian Sea, had finally been defeated, after nearly a millennium and a half of unbroken existence. And when the empire gradually had become Christian after the conversion of Constantine in the 4th century, was it not the fulfillment of the will of God that this Christian empire would eventually encompass the whole world, bringing the peace of Christ everywhere?
But that was not the will of God. Sometimes, just when it seems that we’ve got the will of God all figured out, that things make sense, our world takes a sudden turn. Or we come upon some contradiction that does not square with our human sense of what is right and wrong.
We encounter this same kind of narrative dynamic in the Gospel of Christ’s healing of the blind man.
The Lord’s Apostles provide us with what we might think of as “our” voice in this Gospel, when they ask, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” They see someone who is suffering profoundly with blindness, and so they analyze the situation and figure that someone must have sinned in order for God to punish so seriously. Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?
Well, it really makes no sense to say that the blind man sinned. How could he have sinned in his mother’s womb? What could he have done in there that would result in blindness being inflicted on him as a newborn infant?
But the Apostles are on to something when they suggest that his parents are at fault. First century Jewish culture did not hold to the individualistic view of the world we have in the twenty-first century. They knew that everything you do affects other people, that the sins of parents are visited upon children and grandchildren, that sins of leaders affect those who follow them, that sins can negatively affect friends and relatives. Despite what we may think, no act that we commit is truly isolated—both our sins and our holiness affect those around us and even the whole world.
And from this truth we also learn this one: Suffering doesn’t pick its targets by who’s at fault. We can suffer because of what someone else does. We can cause others to suffer. No one is protected from suffering because of not being at fault. Even though we have a sense of fairness, that bad things should happen to bad people and that good things should happen for good people, that is not how the world really works.
If you are suffering right now, it is not necessarily the result of something you have done wrong. It might be. We do often cause ourselves suffering by our sins, but it may also be caused by something else. Likewise, if we see someone else suffering, that doesn’t mean he’s getting what he deserves.
So while the disciples of Jesus were correct in their sense that sin and suffering can affect even those who are not at fault, what Jesus says in response to them reveals that they were incorrect in trying to pin the blame for this man’s blindness on someone’s sin.
After they ask him whether this man or his parents sinned, Jesus says, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be made manifest in him.” In other words, this man was born blind so that God’s glory could be shown to the world through his healing, which is of course the very next thing that Jesus does for the man. After all, no one had ever heard of someone born blind who was then healed of blindness. What an amazing miracle!
But now we might be tempted to be cynical toward God. The Lord caused this man to be born with blindness, suffering for many years, just so that He could show off a miracle and impress the world? Is God really being self-serving, inflicting pain just so He can show off by healing it?
We have to look at this situation closely, and we have to look at it with the eyes of faith, not with the eyes of our individual sense of entitlement. First, we have to truly believe that everything we have is a gift from God. If we don’t believe that, then of course we will think that God inflicted suffering on this blind man. He was entitled to sight, and God withheld it from him.
But if we do believe that everything is a gift, then that means that God does not owe anyone anything, including sight. As the much-suffering Job once said, “The Lord giveth. The Lord taketh away. Blessed be the Name of the Lord” (Job 1:21).
But even if we believe that everything is a gift from God, that we really don’t deserve anything but that all things we have are from God’s providence, that may still leave us feeling a bit uneasy. Or maybe even ripped off. Sure, everything is God’s. He can give it to whomever He wants. But why is He so unfair? Why does He seem to give riches and power and prestige and good health to creeps and good folks just can’t get a break?
What we so often forget when we start analyzing whether God is fair is this simple truth: This world is not all there is. This world is not all there is. When we see someone die young or innocent, this world is not all there is. When we see a good person who loses everything because of the greed or cruelty of others, this world is not all there is. When we see the wicked prospering, people who don’t care about God gaining prestige, people who are ungenerous controlling power and authority, this world is not all there is.
Someday, there will indeed be a reckoning. Then, and only then, will everything finally become fair. Only then will all of humanity fully enjoy the mercy and love of God according to how they cooperated with it. At that moment, the saints will finally shine completely forth, and those who rejected God’s gifts will be eternally damned. Many of those who seemed to be comfortable in this life will spend eternity in great discomfort, while many who spent this life in misery will spend eternity in joy.
In the meantime, God is at work to prepare us for that final reckoning. Although it doesn’t seem “fair,” what that blind man needed for his eternal life was that he be blind until it came time for Christ to heal him. And his parents needed it, too, as well as the disciples, the rulers of the synagogue, and so on. That man’s blindness has contributed to 2000 years of spiritual healing of those who have heard his story.
Christ is preparing us. That is why the next thing He said after His disciples questioned Him was this: “I must work the works of Him Who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
That light is with us even now. While we have this light, we must work together with Him. Ultimately, the circumstances of our earthly lives really do not matter, because they are merely a brief prelude to eternity. Or rather, they do matter, but they matter in the sense that they are given to us as prologue for what is to come.
If we have sight, we must look to Christ. If we have blindness, we must look to Christ. If we have riches, we must give everything to Christ. If we have poverty, we must give everything to Christ. If we have power, we must be slaves of Christ. If we are powerless, we must be slaves of Christ.
Whatever we have, no matter how small, we have been given to prepare us for the life that is to come. And that life is not only “to come,” but it is also now. The life that is to come is breaking through into this moment. We now experience a sample, but someday, we will experience it in full.
When that great city of Constantinople fell all those centuries ago, I am sure that many asked God why. I am sure that many have wondered how God could have allowed such a thing. But even that great city with all its glory was only ever temporary. Even that great loss was so that the glory of God might be revealed.
So, whoever we are and whatever gifts we have been given or even not been given, let us give all to Christ, so that we may glorify Christ with the blind man and continue our preparation for the glory of the life that is to come.
To the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, be all glory, honor and worship, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen. Christ is risen!