Christ the Good Shepherd and the Question of Suffering

Screenshot 2014-03-29 15.13.21

Readings for the Fourth Sunday in Lent

1 Samuel 16:1-13

Psalm 23

Ephesians 5:8-14

John 9:1-41

This sermon was preached at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Crockett CA on March 30, 2014.

“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

About five centuries before Christ, a young prince snuck out of his palace of paradise to see the world. And what he saw in the world was suffering. He encountered an elderly person struggling with a deteriorating body, a sick person suffering from severe disease, a corpse about to be buried in the earth, and an ascetic, someone who basically extends the self-denying season of Lent over a whole lifetime. And he was deeply disturbed by what he saw and he wanted to know why? Why is there so much suffering? What was the origin and cause of suffering? He asked this question to the Universe and then waited for a response by fasting and meditating and seeking wisdom from all kinds of spiritual leaders. Eventually, after what-felt-like ages, he received an answer and the answer woke him up. His name was Siddhartha Gautama but after waking up, he was given a new name: the “Awakened One” which, in Sanskrit, is the Buddha.  And the answer he received was fourfold: first, accept the reality that life involves suffering; second, understand that suffering stems from desire; third, when one can extinguish desire one can be free from suffering; and fourth, suffering can be extinguished by cultivating the right kind of virtues. The Buddha’s life and the lives of millions of his followers have been changed because he asked the question of suffering and expected an answer.

It’s a question that most people ask at one point or another. In the Western tradition, we often pose the problem by asking, “If God is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-loving (omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent), then why is there so much suffering in the world and in our own lives?” Western philosophers and theologians have offered many answers throughout the centuries, expanding and thickening the theological project known as theodicy. Yet how many of us bring the question of suffering to God in prayer? And how many of us actually expect an answer? And what do you think God would say? The Buddha received an answer that changed the world. What about us?

The Gospel this morning invites us to accompany Jesus and his disciples as they encounter suffering in a blind man. And like the Buddha, the disciples ask the question, “Why? Where does this suffering come from? What is its cause and origin?” Specifically, they ask the question, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Informed by the commonly held understanding that illness was often (if not always) the consequence of sin, the disciples wanted to know who was to blame. By articulating our questions to God we can begin to see the logic underneath our questions. And when it comes to the problem of suffering, we may need to stop and ask ourselves if our drive for an answer is connected to our drive to find someone to blame.

Jesus’ answer nips that drive to blame in the bud, saying, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” And according to our translation, he then says, “He was born blind so that God’s work might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me…” So is Jesus suggesting that human suffering is an opportunity for God’s work to be revealed? I think this theodicy can be helpful but I also see it as potentially dangerous and harmful. Scholar Colin Kruse writes, “[Jesus’ response] presents an unattractive theodicy, implying that God allowed the man to be born blind so that many years later God’s power could be shown in the restoration of his sight.”[1]However, when we look at the Greek we see another way of reading Jesus’ response, especially when we realize two important factors. First, the words “he was born blind” were not actually repeated by Jesus; they were added by the translators in their attempt to make their own sense of the Greek sentence. And second, there are no punctuations in the early Greek manuscripts of the New Testament; they were added later by editors. So Jesus’ response to the question “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” can also be rendered in the following way: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. Full stop. But in order that the works of God may be revealed in him it is necessary for us to work the works of him who sent me.” So in this way, Jesus is not saying that the blind man suffered for years in order to serve as a prop in a lesson for the disciples.

Instead, Jesus is saying, “Don’t worry about who is to blame. This is not the time for that. God wants to work healing in this man’s life and he wants to use us in the process, so let’s get busy.” Then Jesus heals the blind man with an all-natural and organic lotion, made purely out of the earthy and intimate ingredients of mud and saliva. And then he says, “Go, wash up in the pool of Siloam”, which the author of the Gospel wants us to know means “Sent.”

Sent. Just as Jesus is sent by the Father to the world so is the blind man sent by Jesus to the pool and so are we sent by Jesus when we are washed up in the pool of our baptism, a sacrament wrapped up in a covenant which involves being sent by God “to strive for justice and peace among all people and to respect the dignity of every human being.” This is part of Jesus’ answer to the problem of suffering. This is what one author calls a “pastoral theodicy.”[2] This theodicy encourages us not to worry about who to blame, but invites us see the suffering around us as an urgent call for us to do the work that our baptism has sent us in the world to do, to bring healing wherever and however we can; to be a pastoral presence to one another in response to a world of suffering and fellow sufferers.

This is part of God’s answer to our question of suffering, which is meant us to wake us up. It is God’s pastoral response to human suffering: God seeking to be a pastoral presence to those who suffer through us who are sent, through our presence. As St. Teresa of Avila said, “Christ has no body now but yours. No hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world.” We have been sent not to be judgmental and think we understand the complexities of one another’s sufferings. We have been sent to acknowledge our blindness and our limited understanding so that we can see how best to love and care for those who are suffering and leave the judgment to God and to the One who said, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” (9:38). We have been sent to wake up and see not as mortals see (not based on outward appearances and superficial judgments) but as the Lord sees, the Lord who “looks on the heart.”

The irony in Gospel grows as the people who have the ability to physically see fail to come to terms with their limitations and the fact that, in many ways, they are blind while the man born blind, who knows his limitations very well (since he has been physically blind most of his life), begins to see. He becomes awakened and enlightened like the Buddha. And he is empowered and sent to awaken and enlighten others.

And most people end the pericope and story there, as our lectionary does, but it makes sense (based on the literary structure) to extend this pericope to include the discourse on the Good Shepherd, which immediately follows it. In this discourse, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd and the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” This is still part of Jesus’ response to the disciples’ question of suffering. This is part of Jesus’ pastoral theodicy and I use that word “pastoral” not only because it is associated with shepherds and their sheep, but also because it connotes compassion and guidance and care. As our Shepherd, God comforts us in the midst of our questions and our suffering and also guides us to serve as agents of God’s pastoral presence to others in their suffering, especially when it involves self-sacrifice and the laying down of one’s life.

It should not surprise us that God chose to anoint David as king, the young son of Jesse who was out keeping the sheep. God knew that a shepherd like David could serve as an effective pastoral presence and as a vessel for God’s pastoral care to the people of Israel in the midst of their suffering. And David could also trust God as his own Shepherd, protecting him through danger and leading him to waters that revive his soul just as the waters of our baptism revive us and strengthen us to do the pastoral work we have been sent to do.

In bringing the question of suffering to God in Christ as the disciples did, we receive a response in the Gospel of John that invites us to be God’s healing and pastoral presence to the world. We also receive an answer that invites us to experience the Lord as our Shepherd, holding us in our questions and sufferings as well as guiding us as ambassadors of his pastoral care. And yet the invitation to bring our questions of suffering to God remains. Asking the question and expecting an answer can have radical and life-changing (even world-changing) consequences for us, as they did for the Buddha. By asking the question of God through the Christ whom we encounter in John, we may find ourselves “waking up” to some truth we have been missing. Although we might not become Buddhas, we will become more enlightened, for as the author of John says, “Christ the true light came to enlighten everyone (1:9)” and, in the words of Paul, we will become “children of light”, roused to do the work we have been sent to do with the words, “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ the Good Shepherd will shine on you.”

Screenshot 2014-03-29 15.26.47

[1]Kruse, John: The Tyndale New Testament Commentaries 220-221.

[2] John Swinton, Raging with Compassion: Pastoral Responses to the Problem of Evil (Grand Rapids MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2007), 5.


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