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Sin Sick?

Today's PAYG used the well-known and well-loved story of the paralysed whose four friends lowered him through the roof of a house to be healed by Jesus.  I am always struck by how this event, which must have taken ages, and which makes me wonder why no-one went to investigate the act of wanton vandalism going on above them, is told as if it took just as long as it takes to read it.  This, however, is not the direction PAYG took, instead centring on the link that existed in first century worldviews between sin and sickness or misfortune.  The commentator asked the question, who is that we think of as being responsible for their own sickness or suffering?  Clearly, we don't make a direct link between paralysis or blindness and sin these days, but, she suggested, what about people with AIDS or asylum seekers or immigrants, do we see their problems as being of their own making?

A while back a press article attributing 40% of cancer to lifestyle choices caused a deal of furore among people with cancer, many of whom live broadly healthy lives.  Is it justified to say that we contribute to our own sickness, our own suffering?  What about, for example, people who smoke or people who drink to excess.  Or people who enjoy extreme, dangerous sports.  Or people who work ridiculously long hours.  Do they/we contribute directly or otherwise to our own suffering?  Do they/we cause sickness/suffering for others close to us or, indeed, for society more widely?

I am reminded that questions about the relationship between sin and suffering cannot have a simple answer.  Sometimes it is indeed the case that foolish choices lead to personal suffering.  Sometimes it is the case that bad things happen to good people.  Sometimes the non-smoking, teetotal, healthy living woman gets cancer.  Sometimes a child is born with AIDS because her mother, who had been raped, was infected, or with foetal alcohol syndrome because his mother had an alcohol addiction.  Sometimes our choices cause suffering for others directly or indirectly.

That Jesus broke the link between personal (or familial) sin and sickness or suffering is central.  Never, ever, blame the person for their suffering, instead address them as they are.  That's really challenging in a world of limited resources (who do hospitals choose to treat?) with a blame culture (everything has to be someone's fault).  It's also challenging if we believe that somehow the world is damaged/disordered as a consequence of human 'sinfulness', not in a neat, responsibility evading view of 'Adam and Eve fouled up, we pay', but in recognising that the choices we make impact on the lives of others, directly or indirectly.  In some sense, the relationship between sin and suffering is utterly correct, it's just that it is more nebulous and complex than the ancients, and sometimes the church or society, likes to think.

In the pericope (chunk/passage/story) used by PAYG Jesus first forgives the man's sin and then heals him physically.  There is, it seems, something holistic here.  Not a simplistic sin = suffering relationship, but a health/wholeness > physical cure understanding.  To be freed from the regret, anxiety, grudge, emotional hurt of the past is valuable in and of itself; to be physically cured is, perhaps, a bonus.

I could of course go on to ramble about what we understand as 'normal' and 'healthy' or 'whole', and disability theology is a vast and complex field all of its own, but I have work I ought to do, so I'll shut up!  Suffice to say, I do not believe that there is a neat one-to-one corelation bewteen personal sin and suffering, though I do believe that choices have consequences, which may include sickness or suffering.

Fence dwelling as ever!


  • strange - I did PAYG this morning and had the calling of Simon Peter....

  • Um... maybe one of us was on a diffenret day from the other?

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