Fr. Gregory Homily of Sunday 22nd March – Gospel of John 9:1-41 ‘The Man born blind’
For the people of Israel at the time of Jesus it would have been a commonplace that if misfortune had fallen upon someone, or even the whole community, it would have been due to moral evil done, drawing God’s wrath down on the evildoers. The man born blind might seem problematic for that view, being born in that condition whilst initially, at least, innocent; but that difficulty was evaded by moving the sin back a generation or two – hence the disciples’ question, which Jesus decisively rebuts. We might smile at this but consider some of the responses to a previous pandemic, the HIV/AIDS crisis back in the 1980s, which effectively condemned and ostracised people for getting ill. Have we moved on from this, or are we still obsessed with scapegoating, following the current example of some of our less impressive leaders?
Modern biblical scholars sometimes divide the gospel of John in two: the book of signs (ch 1 – 12), and the book of glory (ch 13 -21). What are we to make of the sign of the healing of the man born blind? The work of God displayed in him points to creation being made new, or, perhaps better, completed: Jesus makes a paste from dust and his spittle, and smears it on the man’s eyes, and then he’s told to go and wash in a nearby pool. This has obvious resonances with the creation story in Genesis of God forming man and woman from the dust of the earth and giving them life by breathing on them. The bathing in the pool symbolises the waters of Baptism from which we are lifted up into the life of the kingdom. God is intimately involved with his creatures, that intimacy being expressed in ways which would flout the rules of normal social intercourse, never mind at a time of self-isolation – breath and spit! In our new isolation we need to remember that God is with us, at a visceral level.
The man born blind then becomes an actor, exercising agency. I am moved reading this to see how he moves from being essentially passive to finding his voice. His first words are: ‘I am the man’, which will receive an ironic echo in Jesus’ ‘I am he’ at his arrest in Gethsemane. The irony continues when his parents vouch for his identity, but also acknowledge his new agency: ‘he is old enough: let him speak for himself’, and reaches its climax when he asks the pharisees ‘Do you want to become his disciples too?’ Driven out by the religious authorities, who can only see his supposed sin, he is sought out by Jesus, and makes an astounding confession of faith, honouring Jesus as God.
We could see this story as pointing to the difference between sight and insight. None so blind, so the proverb goes, as those who will not see. The pharisees are stuck in their preconception that healing works should not be performed on the Sabbath, and that the misfortune of the man born blind must be due to his or his forebears sinning, which blinds them to the significance of what Jesus has done. Again, a while after the event, there are some (more-or-less) contemporary resonances. The first Impressionist exhibition in late 19th-century France caused a riot in Paris until people began to appreciate that the splodges of paint on the canvas viewed up close resolved into a picture seen at a further distance. This is highlighted in Jesus’ closing dialogue with some pharisees ‘It is for judgement that I have come into the world so that those without sight may see … but since you say ‘We see’ your guilt remains’.
‘So that the blind may have sight’ echoes Isaiah’s prophecy of the coming of the kingdom, of creation renewed, with which text Jesus began his ministry. The pharisees are culpable in that being best placed, as experts in the Law and the Prophets, to see the significance of the signs and wonders that Jesus gives as establishing his identity as the Messiah, they (on the whole) are wilfully blind to the significance of what Jesus is doing. And therein is a lesson for ourselves.
There has been much regrettable material in Catholic piety, mostly following and influenced by the Reformation, that presents us as totally wretched sinners utterly dependant on the dubious mercy of an enraged God. That is a travesty. To be sure, as St Paul reminds us, we have all fallen short of God’s glory, but God’s justice is inseparable from his mercy. We are reminded in the reading from 1 Samuel that God does not judge as humans judge, and in the reading from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that we are already children of light, and are to wake from sleep, rise from the dead, and become luminous in the light of Christ, the light of the Resurrection, of creation made whole. When we face God’s judgement we shall be in that light, with all our masks, evasions, fears and wounds exposed. We shall see ourselves in God’s sight, as we really are. And in God’s mercy we shall be called to love ourselves as we are, unconditionally, as God loves us, and being healed of our wounds rise into the company of the blessed in the light of everlasting day in God’s presence. That is our hope of glory. For now, we must strive for insight, strive to see the new creation being born in and through us, in our learning, however slowly, to be agents of God’s love and compassion, to bring his light into the dark places of our world.