As Jesus went along, he saw a man who had been homosexual from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he should have been born homosexual?’ ‘Neither he nor his parents sinned,’ Jesus answered, ‘he was born homosexual so that the works of God might be revealed in him.’
Full marks if you correctly identify the words above as a reworking of the passage about the cure of the man born blind found in John’s Gospel (9:1-40). While some may find it shocking, perhaps even blasphemous, that I should change a Gospel passage in such a radical way, others may find it helpful. I am fully mindful of the fact that the analogy is imperfect. How many of us would seek to have our heterosexuality ‘restored’ assuming that at one time and by some terrible misfortune it had been snatched away from us. In the words of the Lady Gaga song: “I was born this way”. Equally, my use of this passage is not meant in any way to suggest that homosexuality can be cured. Many have tried; few, if any, have succeeded.
According to Judaism at the time, misfortune such as blindness was the result of sin: God punished men and women in proportion to their sins. This warped concept has continued throughout the centuries and pervades the mentality of some Christians even today. In its most extreme form it dominates the philosophy of Pastor Fred Phelps and his cronies at the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. Not only do they picket various events such as military funerals, gay pride processions, and other places of worship displaying offensive signs stating “God hates Fags”, “God hates Jews”, “Thank God for Dead Soldiers”; his congregants also single out cancer patients as victims of God’s vengeful wrath on the human race. While this may be fundamentalism at its most lunatic extreme, it is not unusual to hear more level-headed people say that God is the source of this or that mishap. “Why me? What did I do to deserve this?” The very idea is completely wrong, sad, and absolutely contrary to what we know of God-made-flesh in Jesus, because it suggests that God is overseeing our weaknesses and failings in order to knock us down, inflict suffering upon us and crush us whenever we ‘step out of line’.
In the story of the blind man, Jesus rails against this concept: “Neither he nor his parents sinned.” He does not want to respond to the theoretical question about the presence of suffering, pain and disease in the world; rather, Jesus wants to demonstrate God’s attitude before them. This man has for all his life occupied, as James Alison puts it, “the place of shame”. He has suffered not only from blindness, but from the ostracism imposed upon him by those who branded him “a sinner” because of it. This place of shame is familiar to lesbian and gay Catholics who for too long have been made to occupy it by the ecclesiastical authorities whose own blindness clouds their vision. It is, first and foremost, the place that Jesus once occupied for us.
While the disciples discuss whether the man is more or less at fault for his condition, Jesus loves him, draws closer to him, and touches him with tenderness. The affectionate closeness of Jesus gives the man his sight. In the hand that touches, the mystery of God’s love is revealed. Mystery is not an incomprehensible reality; rather, the harshness and wickedness of human beings are incomprehensible. Nor is mystery an untouchable reality. Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is that often we are so distant from one another that we are unable to love or speak with one another. But when Jesus’ hand reaches out and touches the man, we behold the mystery and are able to comprehend how great is God’s love for us.
Jesus opens the man’s eyes so that God’s work may manifest itself; an abstract question about who was at fault for the man’s blindness does not interest him. He does not condemn, hiding behind cold justice, as do the Pharisees; rather, Jesus bears the burden of weakness and heals: he stops, speaks, reaches out his hand, and invites the blind man to wash himself in the pool of Siloam.
So what would Jesus do in the case of a man or woman who has been homosexual from birth? I feel certain that his actions toward those of us who have been cast by others into a place of shame would be the same: he would stop, speak, reach out his hand and restore us to the dignity that is ours as sons and daughters of God. Today’s Pharisees can be expected to express their hostility at Jesus’ acceptance of his gay sisters and brothers. Like their forebears, they appear to be distant from life and devoid of passion for others. They are concerned with appearances, indifferent to the joy of the man who has been accepted and so they cast him away. They are swift not to let him forget all of the sin into which he was born! For them, punishment comes from God and is a condemnation. A cold heart, justice without love, and words without goodness truly do not change anything in life. There is a need to love, to extend the hand to those who are considered not quite suitable for the kingdom of heaven, to stop, to speak, to restore, to look into the heart and find in that person a friend.
The challenge for us in accepting the embrace of Jesus is always going to be how we respond to the Pharisees of our day. Should one tolerate the intolerant? The vicious hatred and violence toward lesbians and gays that still raise their ugly heads, even in our more tolerant society, cannot be detoxified either by mere tolerance or by meeting hatred with hatred, violence with violence. After experiencing the fury of the Pharisees who were not ready to accept any lessons in the ways of God from the cured man, he again meets Jesus and says to him, “Lord, I believe!” His is the profession of faith of a man who, loved, recognises in love the face of God. This is the light of Jesus, light that overcomes evil, light that illuminates life and renders it eternal. It can never be a case of “us” in contention with “them”, only a radical acceptance and embrace of those who, in their meticulousness and scrupulosity with regard to Church teaching, thereby diminish the light of Christ that shines through every believer, regardless of their sexuality. In the same way, when we denigrate and condemn from our own perspective, identified as “negative reciprocity” by James Alison (Discipleship and the shape of belonging [in Broken Hearts and New Creations, DLT, 2010]), that is tantamount to shoving Christ’s light under a tub (Matthew 5:15). In the same chapter of Matthew’s gospel – the Sermon on the Mount – we read, “Pray for those who persecute you; so that you may be children of your Father in heaven…” (5:44-45). Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.
(With acknowledgement to Lady Gaga)
This text was originally published in the Quest Bulletin, no. 66 (Spring 2013)