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The 4thSunday in Lent (8:00 a.m.); John 9:1–41

For most of my time in parish ministry, and even before, I served as a volunteer on-call chaplain in several community hospitals. I can think of no better way of coming face-to-face with human tragedy and the inevitable questions it brings; let’s face it, no one calls for a chaplain in the middle of the night because they are perfectly happy!

It was midnight; I’d been asked for by a family sitting with a dying young man. After days there they were exhausted, yet afraid that if they left their loved one would die alone. We found a lounge for them to rest; I promised I would stay with the dying man.

An hour or so later an elderly gentleman came in. We chatted; he was the young man’s family doctor. He knew he could do nothing but hadn’t been able to sleep. He was a family friend, had in fact delivered the patient; the youngest in the family, intelligent, a hard worker, caregiver for his elderly parents. He was fit, didn’t smoke, drank rarely and moderately. And he was dying, age 22, of a liver malignancy.

We sat, listening, each breath a struggle, the time between longer and longer. The doctor broke the silence: “Why? Why does God allow this to happen?” My inner defence attorney for God wanted to get busy; then realized that nothing I could say would make sense. I simply said, “I don’t know. I wish I did, but I don’t know. No one knows!”

That’s one of the oldest, profoundest questions that humanity has asked. “Why is there suffering in this world?” There’s been no shortage of attempts at answers.

In Judaism of the Old Testament suffering was punishment for sin. But it wasn’t necessarily the sinner who was punished; simple observation made that obvious. Parents or ancestors might have sinned. An entire nation’s sins might lead to the suffering of only some citizens. Or, the sin of leaders caused war and natural disaster. Rabbis worked out elaborate systems of sin and suffering relationships. One could be sure that if someone suffered it was as the result of someone’s sin.

Further East, karma and transmigration of souls were developed. The unfairness of the Judaic system; why sin does not always cause the suffering of the sinner; is answered. The system is clear, understandable, and totally just. Each person is living out one of an infinite series of lives, running in an endless chain. What happens in their present is not chance, but the fruit of previous lives. If someone suffers for no apparent reason, it is punishment for evil in a previous existence. If someone is happy despite an evil life, that was earned in the past, and will be punished in the future. There is no possible grievance for whatever befalls one, no one escapes. No favouritism, no letting off; no grace, no forgiveness; nothing but calm, dispassionate, automatic justice.

The Christian answer to suffering seems unsatisfactory next to the Judaic balance sheet of sin and punishment; or karma’s wheel of lives in which all come out even in the end . And yet, we believe God revealed it to us; we believe that we know what God has said about human suffering.

To understand suffering, we look at Good Friday and Easter. Almost two thousand years ago, Jesus was put to death. We have sanitized the cross, and have almost forgotten how cruel it was. Hanging from arms nailed to a beam, death is by slow asphyxiation and exhaustion over hours, even days. The condemned person could only hope helplessly for a quick spear thrust to the heart; or the breaking of their legs, thus ending support for the body, bringing rapid asphyxiation.

It was to such a death that Jesus, the Son of God, went innocently, for the love of humanity. Jesus willingly died this death of ultimate suffering, because that would reconcile humanity and God. By this death Jesus claimed that the power of sin to disrupt the relationship between creature and creator would be ended, because it would be God who suffered and died.

If Good Friday had been all, if Jesus had only died, I doubt that we would have heard of him. But Easter happened, the crucified Jesus rose from death, was seen by friends and followers, spoke and even ate with them. Everything he had claimed, his relationship to God, being God in the world, was verified by the resurrection. Everything about his life and death took on eternal significance, for it is the revelation of God.

In Jesus’ suffering and death God made the definitive statement on human suffering. No matter how we suffer, no matter the pain or tragedy in our lives, God has experienced it. Experienced it innocently, with no prior sin, in the totally human Jesus. The cross is God’s answer to theories of suffering as punishment for sin, for here is the sinless Jesus, suffering of his own free will. The cross is God’s answer to systems of endless lives with perfect justice, for here is Jesus, born once, suffering and dying unjustly, once. The cross is God’s large “X” through all human explanations of suffering, for when God willingly suffers, all human explanations are shown up as false.

What then of “Why? Why is there suffering?” Is there no answer? Exactly! We are not given an answer. God chooses to not answer why; God reveals what we are to do about suffering.

Hear Jesus in today’s Gospel. “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” his followers ask about a poor, blind beggar. “Neither this man nor his parents …” There is a hint of impatience in Jesus’ words. It’s the wrong question! The man is blind, he is suffering; ask what can I do to help. Jesus heals the man, knowing that will arouse enmity against him, so that that more of God’s work in the world will be revealed. “We must work the works of him who sent me,” Jesus proclaims as a principle for his disciples, and his followers of all time.

This pattern shows in all of Jesus’ ministry. There are no long discussions over who did what and caused the suffering. There are no exhortations to life changes as conditions of healing. He does not expect anything back, no thanks or reward. Jesus sees suffering, and helps. Jesus’ example is the revelation of God’s will for humanity, and God’s answer to human suffering.

We are not to engage in endless debate over “Why?”. We are not to assess blame or decide guilt. We are not to construct philosophical systems. Suffering is a mystery, a part of human life, whose reasons have not been revealed to us. When we see suffering, we are to work the works of him who sent us, the one who died on Good Friday, and rose again on Easter Day, the one into whose death and resurrection we ourselves were baptized.

“Why is there suffering?” is not the right question to ask. The right question is, “Here is suffering; what can I do?”

The doctor and I sat a long time, quiet. The young man’s breathing got shallower and slower. Finally the doctor said, “If no one knows why there is suffering, then what can we possibly do about it?” Me, “We’re here, maybe that’s all we can do.”

We waited. In time, there was no next breath. We stood; the doctor put a stethoscope to the young man’s chest, and listened for a long, long time. He shook his head. We stood with heads bowed for a few minutes, then went out to find the young man’s family, and to offer whatever comfort we could.

Copyright ©2023 by Gerry Mueller