Gospel for the Fourth Sunday in Lent (26 March 2017)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. ....
6 Having said these things, he spit on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he anointed the man’s eyes with the mud 7 and said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing.
8 The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar were saying, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” 9 Some said, “It is he.” Others said, “No, but he is like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” ....
13 They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. 14 Now it was a Sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. 15 So the Pharisees again asked him how he had received his sight. And he said to them, “He put mud on my eyes, and I washed, and I see.” 16 Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?” And there was a division among them. 17 So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him, since he has opened your eyes?” He said, “He is a prophet.” .... 34 They answered him, “You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?” And they cast him out.
35 Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 He answered, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” 37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you.” 38 He said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him. (John 9:1, 6–9, 13–17, 34–38 – ESV)
“This passage – 9:1-38 – is widely recognized as one of the masterpieces of Johannine storytelling. Its literary beauty has been captured in the early oratorio (1896) of Sir Edward Elgar, The Light of Life (Opus 29). The passage is marked by a unity of time, space, and theme. It is taken for granted that the celebration of Tabernacles continues. .... Somewhere outside the Temple a blind man comes to sight and faith in the Son of Man, while Jewish leaders move toward blindness (9:1–38). (Francis J Moloney, The Gospel of John, The Liturgical Press, 1998, 290.)
he spit on the ground and made mud with the saliva: This was a traditional practice.
he went and washed and came back seeing: Recall 2 Kings 5:10–13, where Elisha does not heal Naaman on the spot but sends him to wash in the Jordan. John’s statement here is full of energy, trust and a definite outcome! A similar expression is used a little later in the account, when the man is asked how he got his sight back: “He put mud on my eyes, and I washed, and I see.” Not a word wasted!
The blind man has accepted the word of Jesus without question and things happen. But the physical healing is not the focus here. The miracle is a sign. The man is healed because of Jesus who is sent by God. The name of the pool where the man washes is Siloam, which means “Sent One”. “It is not the contact with the waters of Siloam that effects the cure, but contact with the Sent One.” (Francis J Moloney, op cit, 292.)
There is also clearly a play on seeing and not seeing, light and darkness going on here. The blindness is in some of the neighbours but most particularly it is in the religious authorities. An old English proverb comes to mind: “There are none so blind as those who will not see.” And the Prophet Jeremiah berates the people: “Hear this, O foolish and senseless people, who have eyes, but do not see, who have ears, but do not hear” (5:21).
“I am the man”: This is the same response we find Jesus giving when he is arrested – egō eimi (John 18:5 & 8).
it was a Sabbath day: By making clay for the man’s eyes, Jesus broke the Sabbath law. Some of the religious authorities take hold of this fact: “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” Yet some of the religious authorities have their doubts: “‘How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?’ And there was a division among them.” A similar situation occurs with the first disciples. When they are brought before the Sanhedrin there is division – see Gamliel’s intervention in Acts 5:34-42.
“The parents were afraid of ‘the Jews’ because they had decided that anyone who confessed that Jesus was the Christ was to be put out of the synagogue (v. 22: aposynagōgos genētai). For this reason they avoid christological debate with ‘the Jews’ and send them back to their son (v. 23). As far as the story is concerned there is a threat to both the parents and the son, and the parents are not prepared to face such a threat. It remains to be seen how the son will behave. The first readers of the story, the Johannine Christians, also discovered their experience in the story. They had forged their christology within a context of hostility and conflict. ‘The Jews’ rejected Jesus’ claims and thus rejected all those who accepted them (cf. 12:42; 16:2). It was probably not only the parents of the man born blind who decided that they did not wish to be involved in a debate about the christological status of Jesus of Nazareth. Subsequent generations have experienced a similar faintness of heart.” (Franics J Moloney, op cit, 294.)
NOTE: When John’s Gospel refers to ‘the Jews’ he is clearly not speaking of the Jews as such – Jewish race or people. He is speaking specifically of the religious authorities. After all, every other player in this drama is a Jew – Jesus included.
having found him: This is a most sensitive touch in the story. Jesus goes in search of the man. Having found him, he enables him to see with the eyes of faith. “‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ 36 He answered, ‘And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?’ 37 Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you’. 38 He said, ‘Lord, I believe’, and he worshiped him.”
There is an axiom in the thinking of St Thomas Aquinas: Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur. (Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 75, a. 5; 3a, q. 5. See also Summa Theologiae, 1a, q. 12, a. 4.) An English translation would be: “Whatever is received is received according to the manner of the recipient”. Put most simply, we all bring our biases to any situation. When we look at reality there is much we are blind to. We must work very hard over a lifetime before we begin to see reality as it is.
Remembering this principle might save us from impatience with others – and ourselves – and the kinds of unholy rows that can follow impatience. Over the years I have come to see that when human beings are in conflict, each party will have a different perspective on the conflict and its reasons and neither party will be telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
In today’s Gospel, Aquinas’ axiom is writ large. We see the man who is “born blind” gain his physical sight and then slowly he begins to see with a new and deeper kind of sight. There is a similar movement in the Samaritan woman who meets Jesus at the well – John 4:5-42 (Third Sunday of Lent). The contrast between physically seeing and not seeing – sometimes using the metaphor of light/day contrasted with darkness/night – is a rich theme in John. The journey to seeing with this new and deeper kind of sight is at the core of John’s record of Jesus’ life and teaching. In the end, what matters is our ability to see what matters.
The 14th century English hermit and mystic, Richard Rolle (1300-1349), speaks of coming to see what matters: “the eye of his heart might contemplate heavenly things.” (Richard Rolle, The Fire of Love, trans. G. C. Heseltine, Burns Oates & Washbourne, 1935, chap. 15, 63.) “The eye of the heart” – what a beautiful way to say it! St Benedict (480-543) is on the same wavelength when he writes at the beginning of The Rule that those who seek God must “listen with the ear of the heart”.
The Anglo-Irish philosopher and novelist, Iris Murdoch, reminds us that “it is a task to come to see the world as it is” (Iris Murdoch, The Sovereignty of Good, (Routledge Great Minds, 89), Taylor and Francis, Kindle Edition, Location 1551.) We would say, as Christians, that it is impossible to come to see the world as it really is except by the grace of God. But we would also say that grace builds on nature. With honest effort we can come to see the distractions and deceits in our lives for what they are, face them and submit to the truth; we can also desire to see with the eye of the heart – and let that desire be in every glance and every look we cast towards people, events and things.