Cowboy, cancer, blind man, sin and an attempt to connect dots that emerged from today’s Gospel

John 9:1 As he walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ 3Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.

IMG_1332Last week my son was bucked from a two-year old horse he was working to break.  He was bucked off onto the ground and onto his back.  Got right up, got back on the horse, but his back continued to bother him all the week long. He’d been bucked off many horses before and walked through days of aches and pains, but this time the pain was more sharp and wasn’t waning. Rather than ignore, he decided to have a professional check it out.  Went to the doctor.  Had some x-rays. Late last night he gets a call from the radiologist.  Just the fact that it was nearly 10 PM shaded the way my son heard the news that an abnormality on his spine had been detected.  An abnormality that concerned him.  A defect with a specific name. Something lurking at the ‘bottom-end’ of his spine that may be the cause of the pain. Something more serious than simple bruising or a minor fracture. The doctor was concerned enough to call and alert my son of his preliminary findings.  A sort of FYI call with no good news attached. Later that night, another call.  The radiologist apologized.  Said he hadn’t meant to alarm him, but since the time he had first called he had consulted with spine-specialist colleagues.  They had concurred that though the abnormality was present it was not caused by the fall and did not contribute to my son’s pain.  Nor did it presage a more serious condition.  Simply something my son was probably born with and would live a healthy life with, regardless.

So, as they say – all’s well that end’s well.  Pun intended.

Except for the worrisome assumptions that surfaced from what one doctor saw that others did not.  The radiologist was reading my son’s x-ray through the lens of cause – what was causing the pain?  With that focus, the radiologist identified an abnormality and reported his finding prematurely to my son – before he had sought input from other professionals to confirm his assumptions.  The call ushered in a time – brief though it was – of worry.

This focus on cause is what detoured, derailed and blinded cancer doctors for many years to cures and treatment.  More than just a focus on cause, there existed in cancer research a bias towards an ‘age-old notion that all cancers were connected by a common abnormality – the unitary cause of carcinoma‘.  According to this theory,

Cancer was not an unnatural group of different maladies.  Instead, a common feature lurked behind all cancers, a uniform abnormality that emanated from abnormal chromosomes – and was therefore internal to the cancer cell. (The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, p 342)

Later, and as of now, cancer is understood in ways beyond the imagination of early researchers. There is no “uniform abnormality.”  Cancer is both-and, not either or. Cancer resides within the human body at the cellular level.  But is also comes to the human body from outside sources.  It is complex and simple at the same time.

But it was the “uniform abnormality” lens through which the radiologist initially read my son’s x-rays.  He was looking for a unitary cause – something internal – and when he located the abnormality it lead him to prematurely conclude that the abnormality was the cause.  And the cure, or treatment, would be something directly applied to the abnormality.

But, the abnormality on my son’s spine was not the cause of his back pain, just as the doctor reported a few hours later much to my son’s – and my – relief.

Hmm.  So what does all this have to do with today’s gospel?

I wonder if the Pharisees were, like early cancer doctors, so attached to an age-old notion about sin – its cause and cure – that they rushed to a diagnosis based only on what they saw and what they understood sin to be?  Did they believe it was sin that lurked behind all abnormalities?  Like blindness?  Sin caused the blindness?  The only question was who’s sin?

It seems silly – this metaphor.

And yet, amongst other things[1] this gospel passage teaches us something about the nature of sin – what it is, what it is not, where it comes from – that it exists in our DNA but is also comes into us from other sources – and ultimately, how we are cured, healed, forgiven our sin.  Like cancer, it is simple and complex all at once.  The Pharisees with their singular focus on sin, their myopic understanding of what sin was and from whence it came, misdiagnosed the blind man.  They read the x-rays wrong.  They alarmed the patient unnecessarily.

Had they consulted the professional first, had gone to Jesus, they would have learned that the abnormality was no sin of either the man’s or his parents.  It was simply a physical condition with which he was born and he would live a healthy life, regardless.

Jesus did heal the man of his abnormality.  But that act really had nothing to do with sin, per se – at least as the Pharisees understood sin.

Praise, God.

Note to reader:  Today’s reflection is written quickly and is really just a taste of what the Spirit has me thinking about Sin.  I haven’t had time to really connect or collect thoughts – this is sort of like the premature phone call the radiologist made to my son.  So apologies for a ramble that may not offer ‘treatment’ or helpful insight.  I trust a more informed word will come my way before the day’s end.

Lectionary Readings: AM Psalm 37:1-18; PM Psalm 37:19-42 Job 16:16-22,17:1,13-16; Acts 13:1-12; John 9:1-17

[1] Most importantly I think is that through the healing Jesus shows the Pharisees and us that he is who he says he is, We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.  5 As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.


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