by Robb Ryerse
It’s a classic story on the Sunday school circuit: Jesus and his disciples are walking one day and see a man begging on the side of the road, a man who had been born blind. The disciples take this opportunity to ask Jesus a gossipy question, “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
The question betrays a common belief at the time, namely that sickness was the result of sin. If someone had a debilitating disease of some kind, someone had to be responsible for it. Maybe his parents had done something which caused the blindness. Maybe the man himself had sinned in some way, bringing on the ailment.
Either way, the man was sick and it was his or his family’s fault.
When we read this now, we probably think, “Aren’t Jesus’ disciples so quaint?” We look back with bemusement that people would think that someone’s health was directly tied to their character. Do the right thing and be healthy. Do the wrong thing and be sick. We know now that it’s just not that straightforward and simple.
Recently, Congressman Jason Chaffetz suggested that people who cannot afford health insurance under the proposed plan that repeals and replaces the Affordable Care Act will have to make a choice between buying health insurance and buying a new iPhone. It was a regrettable comment for a number of reasons, and Chaffetz has subsequently tried to walk it back.
However, Chaffetz’s comment betrays a common belief of our time, namely that poor people can’t afford health insurance because they have sinned. Being poor is a sin. Whether they would say it outright or not, many believe that people are poor because they lack discipline, they are lazy, or they don’t have enough faith. Sin is the cause.
In the politicized evangelical world, it is not uncommon to hear people who receive government assistance disparaged, “The Bible clearly say, ‘If you don’t work, you don’t eat.’” Obviously, someone who would be so foolish as to buy a new iPhone rather than health insurance has sinful priorities or some kind of character deficiency.
Who sinned that you don’t have health care? It’s either your fault or your family’s.
Getting back to the biblical story about the man born blind, Jesus completely rejects the premise of the disciples’ question. His answer is unequivocal – neither are to blame. And then, Jesus, rather dramatically, covers the man’s eyes in mud made from his own spit and sends him off to wash it clean and be healed from his blindness.
There are two significant things we can learn from the example of Jesus in this story.
First, we need to stop blaming poor people who can’t afford health care.
Sure, there are unquestionably people who are lazy and undisciplined. However, poverty in America is far more complicated an issue. Generational poverty, income inequality, rural underdevelopment, and lack of access to education and opportunity are all much more likely reasons for someone to be unable to pay health insurance premiums. Not being able to afford health care is not a sin problem. Jesus didn’t judge people needing health care, and so neither should we.
Second, if Jesus took responsibility for other people’s health care, then so should we.
Jesus didn’t just see people in need and pass them by. Over and over again, the Bible tells us stories of how he did what he could to help, which often meant miraculous healing (which isn’t going to be an option for us). But many evangelicals I know tend to shirk taking responsibility for others, emphasizing instead the notion of “personal responsibility.” And yet the example of Jesus – a willingness to take responsibility for other people’s health care – might very well mean that we prioritize people’s health care over lower taxes.
Far from being a cute Sunday school story, maybe this story has one deeply relevant and radical message. Evangelical Christians need to take their cues not from political leaders but from Jesus.
Robb is the founding pastor of Vintage Fellowship in Fayetteville, Arkansas and the author of "Fundamorphosis: How I Left Fundamentalism But Didn't Lose My Faith."
He blogs at robbryerse.com