March 24, 2020 — Fr. Ted Penton, SJ, gave this homily on Sunday, March 22 from the floor of his bedroom at Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C., where he is quarantined. At the time, he was being tested for coronavirus, but he has since found out he does not have the virus. His homily is based on the week’s reading, found here.
“Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Who sinned? Wow, what a loaded question. Now, we might be tempted to dismiss it out of hand — saying, we know better, blindness doesn’t come from sin — but I think this question gets at a deep-seated, very human tendency.
We want to think there’s a reason that things happen, that there’s a big master plan, which one day we’ll understand. That especially when bad things happen, there will be a moral at the end of the story, the good guys rewarded, the bad punished, it will all make sense and we can walk away happy.
The disciples assume, probably without even realizing they’re doing it, that blindness must be punishment for a sin. Why else would some people be born blind when others aren’t? It doesn’t seem fair, and we want the world to be fair, so it’s understandable to want to apply blame for bad things somewhere, even to natural events.
Understandable, but wrong, as Jesus tells us. And wrong in two senses: First, it’s untrue; second, it causes a lot of harm. Imagine what a weight that must have been for the blind man and for his parents, the judgment by everyone else that they were sinners. Imagine what a heavy burden that must have been to carry. Even worse, they probably believed themselves that this blindness was punishment for their sin. Imagine the needless shame they must have felt.
Now it’s easy to look at this passage and say, “In olden times, when people didn’t have science, they didn’t understand that blindness could be caused by genetic mutation, or by birth defects. We’re much smarter now.” True, there have been important scientific advances, and true, as a society we don’t stigmatize blind people or their parents, assuming them to be sinful. Though even today, when we think we’re so advanced, we do continue to stigmatize people for the way they were born. But I think that the deeper issue here goes beyond birth conditions.
For example, I often hear people say, “Everything happens for a reason,” as if it’s a very pious sentiment. I don’t think it is pious, and frankly, I get a bit upset when I hear that statement, which reminds me of the disciples’ question. Both this statement and the disciples’ loaded question assume some moral reason for the blindness, something that lets us say he deserves it, that it’s his own fault, or at least the fault of his parents. Or conversely, we might think he must have been given some other gifts to compensate for his blindness.
Either way, it lets me off the hook — why should I help him when it’s his own fault, or if he has other gifts anyway? When I hear someone say, “Everything happens for a reason,” I usually keep my mouth shut, but I’m always tempted to ask right back, “Really? What’s the reason for murder, for war, for racism, for sexual abuse? What reason would justify this pandemic? You give me a reason and I’ll tell you pretty quick why it’s not good enough.”
There’s no reason we can know. Of course, there’s a cause which we can discover through research, and that’s extremely important work in helping us prepare, we hope very soon, a vaccine or a cure. But there’s no reason for it in the sense of a purpose. The pandemic isn’t here because someone sinned. This isn’t God’s way of punishing humanity, or of giving us a gift in disguise. That’s what Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel: “neither the blind man nor his parents sinned.” That can sound to us today like it’s obvious, but in fact it’s a hard lesson to swallow. It means that there’s no way for us as humans to fully understand the purpose of these events.
God is not a divine puppet master in a morality play. When people commit evil acts, it is not God who is to blame; free will is real. With suffering not caused by human action, like innate blindness or this pandemic, God is not singling some out for punishment and others for reward. The rain, Jesus tells us elsewhere, falls on the just and unjust alike. It's us, not God, who want to see the rain, the blindness, the pandemic, as a moral judgment, as somehow deserved, or leading to some better future. It's us, not God, who long for a tidy answer, for an easy moral that comes at the end of the story to explain why everything happened the way it did.
I’ll let you in on a secret — there is no easy answer, it's not tidy. Why does blindness or disease or a virus fall on the just and unjust alike, when it would be so much more satisfying if they fell only on the unjust? There’s no answer we can tie up with a bow, though many biblical passages wrestle with these problems, for instance in the Psalms and in the book of Job. God's ways are mysterious, always surpassing our own understanding. We can't fit them into the tidy boxes we make, even pious boxes.
But where does that leave us? Are we left in despair, with nothing to say or do in the face of such immense suffering, except that it's somehow part of God's mysterious plan?
No. But instead of saying “everything happens for a reason,” and then asking what that reason is, I think it’s much more helpful to start by saying, “God is present in every situation and can transform every situation for the better.” This is our Christian faith, this is the Good News we’re called to share, and this is my deepest held belief.
This leads us to ask not why did this happen, a question with no satisfying answer, but where and how: “Where is God in this situation that looks so bleak, and how is God calling us to participate in the work of transformation?” This is what Jesus points to when he says that the works of God are made visible through the blind man.
So where is God in the midst of this pandemic?
Everywhere we look. In the brave health care workers who put themselves at risk on behalf of others. In the food service, grocery and pharmacy workers who may earn low salaries, but are still taking on personal risk to keep us nourished and healthy. In the people working night and day to find a vaccine or a cure. God is in the opportunity we have to rethink the way we live, to re-examine our priorities. God is in the extra time some of us have to spend with family and friends, to take a nap, to read a book, to pray. God is in our solidarity with and help for those who are most vulnerable. God is here with us in this Mass.
This Mass isn’t the reason for the pandemic. God didn’t make the pandemic happen so that we could have this Mass, or so that health care workers could prove their bravery, or even in order to lower greenhouse gas emissions — that would be abhorrent. That would be like a return to human sacrifice, killing off some so that certain good effects could come about, and that is not how God works.
But God is present here with us today, helping to create community, to build up our faith, to build up our hope, to bring a moment of joy into a very difficult time.
If God is here in these many ways, the next question is: How is God calling me to participate in the work of transformation, of helping God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven? The world is not fair, but we can work to make it more fair, more merciful. That is how we participate in the work of God.
I firmly believe that God is calling each of us to respond to these challenges in our own way, to each offer the little we have. I’m in quarantine myself, and I’m no doctor and I’m no nurse, but I am a priest, and today this Mass is the little I have to offer.
My sister had a great suggestion — to keep a “COVID-19 Gratitude Journal.” Each day, to write down the things you’re most grateful for. Because every day has at least something in it that is good. However bad things get, God continues to be with us, to love us and will never abandon us, even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. THAT is why we call the Gospel the Good News.
And filled with that gratitude, we can then ask God and ourselves where and how we can best be of service, how we can best love one another. Because however tough the situation of the present moment, knowing, loving and serving God and one another, that is the ultimate reason why we’re here.
Fr. Ted Penton, SJ, is the Secretary of the Office of Justice and Ecology at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. He was born and raised in Ottawa, Canada. Learn more about his journey to priesthood here.