May my words be in the name of the Holy and undivided Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Jesus' disciples ask him an interesting question in today's Gospel – especially so in this season of Lent when we strive even harder to take up our own crosses and better follow our Lord. They see a man born blind and ask if it is because he sinned or because his parents sinned that he has been blind from birth. Jesus, of course, answers that it was neither, but rather so that God's works might be revealed through him. But their query reflects the not uncommon human suspicion that personal misfortune represents some kind of divine punishment. One might wonder, however, why it is that faithful Jews such as Jesus' followers would ask such a question. It is reasonable to presume that they should have been familiar with the book Job – a book of Sacred Scripture which makes it clear that human suffering is not related to the wrongdoings of those who suffer. Also, they should have thought of our Lord's own words on the matter, recorded by St Luke in the 13th chapter of his Gospel, where Jesus says that the Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with their sacrifices – meaning that they were killed by his soldiers while they offered sacrifice in the Temple – were no worse sinners than any other Galileans, or that those who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell upon them were no worse offenders than any one else living in Jerusalem at that time.
Suffering then is not to be seen as some kind of a specific punishment that the one who suffers has brought down upon themselves. Suffering in a more general sense, of course,is a result of sin – original sin, the sin of our first parents. It is a result of our fallen nature and it is as such part of the human condition. In this life we can all expect both the good and the ills that this world offers – as our Lord made clear in chapter five of St Matthew's gospel when he said that our Father in heaven makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
Indeed, we have many examples from Scripture showing us how good people can endure much suffering in this life. Job I have already mentioned. We may also think of St Peter in the Acts of the Apostles being beaten and thrown into prison, the Apostle St James being killed by King Herod's men, and the lengthy list of sufferings that St Paul underwent – as he tells us in his second letter to the Corinthians, chapter 11, he endured many imprisonments, countless floggings, and was often near death. Five times he received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times he was beaten with rods. Once he was stoned and left for dead. Three times he was shipwrecked, being for a night and a day adrift at sea; on his frequent journeys, in was in danger from rivers, bandits, faced many a sleepless night, was hungry and thirsty, and was often cold and naked. And, as if that were not enough, he tells us in chapter 12 of the same letter that he was given by God what he calls a thorn in the flesh. What this mysterious thorn was we are not exactly sure – but we know that it tormented him and presumably, since he says it was in the flesh, he means it caused him great pain. So greatly did it torment him that three times he appealed to God that it might leave him. But God refused his request saying : ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for strength is made perfect in weakness.’
It would also be well to consider here some other words from St Paul on the subject of suffering, words that we heard in last week's reading from chapter five of his letter to the Romans: suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. Our sufferings in this world can be of spiritual benefit to us, provided that we accept them in the right spirit. This does not mean that if you are ill you should not seek medical attention or take the medicines that will cure you; but rather that those sufferings that can not be avoided can provide an opportunity for growth.
Think of them, perhaps, as a temptation. One way of dealing with suffering is to grow angry with God that he allowed this pain to come into your life or that he will not take it away from you. Another is to accept it in a spirit of humility, reminding yourself that just as we accept those things we think of as good from God so also must we accept those we think of as bad, to paraphrase the words Job use when it came to his own suffering; and saying to God that with his grace it is something we can bear. And also remembering the words of the Lord that those who would follow him must take up their cross. Our Lord did not reject his cross, painful though it was; and neither must we. Through our patient endurance God's works are made manifest through us, just as they were with the blind man; and just as St Paul's suffering with his thorn helped make him perfect, ours borne with God's grace can also help us be perfect – and thereby lead us at the last to be with him in heaven. Amen.