I had a friend who died at 53 of a disease that is rarely fatal, except to those who have been stripped of their natural immunities. At the time of her death, Sharon was one of the longest surviving bone-marrow transplant patients in the United States. She had contracted a virulent form of leukemia when she was only 36, with two young children at home. Bone marrow transplants were then a highly experimental treatment, and her chances of long-term survival were considered slim. Sharon did survive. But as a result of an imperfect match with the bone marrow donor, she contracted graft-versus-host disease, which caused the white blood cells produced by the new marrow to reject her body’s tissues. They attacked her liver, her intestines and her eyes in turn, jumping from one organ to the next. She was in and out of the hospital for years, and there were numerous operations. She suffered continually from pain in her muscles and joints. Miraculously, there had been no kidney failure from the massive doses of drugs she took to suppress her immune system.
Members of the black Baptist church Sharon attended with her second husband chipped in to help pay for her bone marrow transplant. But the unspoken message was that if her faith were only strong enough, she would be healed. To be so sick for so long was a sure sign that God must be punishing her. God sure knows how to get you down on your knees, well-meaning parishioners would tell her, unwittingly assuming the role played by Job's friends in the Old Testament. Her pastor had little patience with sickness of any kind. Giving in to illness was no different than giving in to sin, as far as he was concerned. No matter how bad you feel, he used to tell his flock, you press your way. Come to church, get a blessing, you’ll feel better.
Sharon’s continuing health problems eventually forced her to leave that church. For her own survival, she felt she couldn’t continue to heap guilt on herself. However, the story does not end there. Incredibly, the pastor who had so little patience with disease was himself diagnosed with leukemia. He was terrified the church would abandon him, and he could no longer bring himself to preach. A man who had occupied a respected position among the community of saints had been revealed to be no better than a sinner.
Judge not, Jesus said. The usual interpretation is that we should not think ill of others. But there is another side to it. Jesus always seemed to have a soft spot for sinners but was unsparing in his treatment of Pharisees, who were the respectable religious people in his day. He denounced them as hypocrites, and likened them to white-washed tombs, full of dead men's bones and uncleanness. He told a story about a Pharisee who thanked God that he was not like the tax collector praying nearby, who could only cry, "God, be merciful to me a sinner." Jesus no doubt inflamed local sensibilities by suggesting it was that sinner, not the Pharisee, who found favor in God's eyes. "Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled," he said, "but he who humbles himself will be exalted."
Every God-fearing Christian believes that Christ came into the world to save sinners, but it is hard not to think Jesus must have had someone other than oneself in mind. Even those who once thought of themselves as repentant sinners soon grow comfortable in the company of the elect. To assume the role of saint, however unconsciously, is to force others into the role of sinner; if not, there can be no accounting for the evil in the world. We assume someone must be to blame, even though Jesus blamed no one. So, does that make me a saint or a sinner? Don't ask.