From the Gospel according to John:
As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – John 9:1-3 (NRSV) – March 18, 2013.)
I’m not the least bit sure I like the last thought of Jesus reply . . . Is he suggesting that a loving God caused this innocent man’s blindness so that Jesus could come along and heal him with some mud made of spittle and demonstrate his power? I mean, really, is he? I don’t want to get into that today, but surely there must be another interpretation for Jesus words and perhaps someday I’ll explore that.
Today, I want to focus on the first clause of his answer, which is basically just a wordy, “No.” As a parent, I cannot tell you how happy it makes me that the man’s blindness was not his parents’ fault! Because accepting that blame is all too often our parental response when things go wrong in our children’s lives . . . . It doesn’t really matter what it is – accident, illness, bad grades, suspension from school, trouble with the law, break-up with their partner or spouse – it doesn’t matter what it is, when something goes wrong in our children’s lives a parent’s response is often an overwhelming sense of guilt. “What did I do wrong that this happened to my child?”
This is, after all, a perfectly acceptable biblical view! In the Book of Exodus, Moses told the Hebrews that God does not “clear the guilty, but visits the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exod. 34:7 NRSV) And again the same words are reported the Book of Numbers: “The Lord is slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children to the third and the fourth generation.” (Numb. 14:18 NRSV) And, again, in Deuteronomy, Moses says, “Be careful to obey all these words that I command you today, so that it may go well with you and with your children after you forever, because you will be doing what is good and right in the sight of the Lord your God” (Deut. 12:28 NRSV) implying that disobedience would mean things wouldn’t go well for the kids! Finally, there is that great biblical proverb reported by both Jeremiah and Ezekiel: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” (Jer. 31:29 and Ezek. 18:2 NRSV)
So there is plenty of biblical support for our parental guilt pangs! But here is Jesus saying that the sins of parents are not responsible for the misfortune of their son. Thanks be to God! What that says to me is that we need to start looking at our feelings of parental remorse in a different way.
Not that those feelings are “wrong” or “bad.” Guilt is a basic human emotion. Everyone feels it and, when it comes to parenting, whatever we do is liable to cause us a little bit of guilty self-reproach because it sometimes seems that “you’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t.” What if, instead of beating ourselves up over these things, we think of what feels like guilt as simply evidence that we are being good parents, good enough to be constantly thinking about what we’re doing and how we’re doing it? We care enough to do our best at the very important, frequently frustrating, often terrifying, and even more often incredibly rewarding job of raising children we love more than we will ever be able to tell them. No parent is perfect, but the ones who worry about whether they are doing it well, probably are doing it well, really well.
Here’s something I know. During the past sixty or so years that I’ve been alive, I’ve had a lot of rough patches, a lot of problems. I’ve done some bonehead things and made some really stupid mistakes. I’ve been in trouble with various authorities, and broken up with lovers and partners. And you know what? Very little of any of that was my parents’ fault! On the other hand, I’ve gotten through those rough spots. I’ve solved the problems. I’ve learned from my mistakes and avoided doing even more boneheaded stuff. I’ve made up with the lovers and, if I haven’t made up with the authorities, at least I’ve figured out how to work with them. And you know what? Most of my ability to do so is due to what I learned from my parents, from what I observed of the way they lived their lives and from the values they taught me. They may have eaten some sour grapes, I don’t know, but my teeth were not set on edge.
I love my kids a whole lot more than I can ever tell them, and I can only hope they have learned from me the way I learned from my folks.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.