Sunday reflection: John 9:1-41

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection only represents my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here For previous Green Room entries, click here.

Today’s Gospel reading is John 9:1-41:

As Jesus passed by 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 he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him. We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day. Night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva, and smeared the clay on his eyes, and said to him, “Go wash in the Pool of Siloam”—which means Sent—. So he went and washed, and came back able to see.

His neighbors and those who had seen him earlier as a beggar said, “Isn’t this the one who used to sit and beg?” Some said, “It is,” but others said, “No, he just looks like him.” He said, “I am.” So they said to him, “How were your eyes opened?” He replied, “The man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes and told me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ So I went there and washed and was able to see.” And they said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I don’t know.”

They brought the one who was once blind to the Pharisees. Now Jesus had made clay and opened his eyes on a sabbath. So then the Pharisees also asked him how he was able to see. He said to them, “He put clay on my eyes, and I washed, and now I can see.” So some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, because he does not keep the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a sinful man do such signs?” And there was a division among them. So they said to the blind man again, “What do you have to say about him, since he opened your eyes?” He said, “He is a prophet.”

Now the Jews did not believe that he had been blind and gained his sight until they summoned the parents of the one who had gained his sight. They asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How does he now see?” His parents answered and said, “We know that this is our son and that he was born blind. We do not know how he sees now, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him, he is of age; he can speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone acknowledged him as the Christ, he would be expelled from the synagogue. For this reason his parents said, “He is of age; question him.”

So a second time they called the man who had been blind and said to him, “Give God the praise! We know that this man is a sinner.” He replied, “If he is a sinner, I do not know. One thing I do know is that I was blind and now I see.” So they said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples, too?” They ridiculed him and said, “You are that man’s disciple; we are disciples of Moses! We know that God spoke to Moses, but we do not know where this one is from.” The man answered and said to them, “This is what is so amazing, that you do not know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if one is devout and does his will, he listens to him. It is unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything.” They answered and said to him, “You were born totally in sin, and are you trying to teach us?” Then they threw him out.

When Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, he found him and said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered and said, “Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” He said, “I do believe, Lord,” and he worshiped him. Then Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see might see, and those who do see might become blind.”

Some of the Pharisees who were with him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not also blind, are we?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains.”

The healing miracles of Jesus always have a special resonance for me, more so when Jesus heals the blind. Most of you know that my wife Marcia is blind, and has been for almost 34 years now due to diabetes. Her eventual decision to put her trust in the Lord after this happened is her own story, and I don’t want to usurp her place in offering that narrative; she wrote about it extensively at Patheos while a columnist there. Suffice it to say, though, that after deciding to trust the Lord that she has experienced His work through her blindness, and had blessings that may never have happened otherwise. Christ has made Himself known to her through her blindness — and as a couple of commenters noted on Friday, Marcia sees more clearly than most as a result.

In this passage, we see this at work in a very clear way. The assumption at that time among the Pharisees in this narrative was that blindness and other physical handicaps were a punishment from God for sin. That belief is not altogether uncommon these days, either, in certain contexts. These ailments were seen as justice imposed on others for something, because God truly does promise justice. However, our idea of justice and God’s plan for it are not necessarily the same thing.

Jesus sets out to demonstrate that in this example. When He sees the blind man’s suffering and especially his isolation, Jesus heals him on the sabbath, which provokes the Pharisees. The disciples, also operating under the belief that his blindness was punishment for some sin of the beggar or his parents, asks him which of those were to blame. Jesus tells them that neither the man or his parents caused this condition through sin, but that the blindness will allow God’s work to become clear … to those who truly see.

The neighbors see enough to know that this is some sort of sign, and bring the beggar to the Pharisees for their consideration. Rather than acknowledge the obvious — which is that the healing must be from God, and that Jesus has made His identity plain through it — they remain stuck on the fact that the man must have been a sinner to have been blind in the first place. They ignore his testimony on that basis alone, and then ignore the testimony of his parents. When they demand that the beggar repeat his testimony, he does and tries to emphasize again the supernatural form of healing. Instead of opening their hearts, though, the Pharisees remain focused on their condemnation based on the assumption of his guilt. “You were born totally in sin, and you are trying to teach us?” they rebuke, and throw him out of the synagogue.

There is a critical contradiction in this reaction, to which the Pharisees are blind. If the blindness is from sin, then why does the blind man now see? If the healing lifts what is supposedly God’s judgment on the beggar, his family, or both, then how can Jesus not be an agent of God in some form or another? Only if the man had never actually been blind could that be the case, but the parents and the community testify to his status. Rather than recheck their assumptions, they remain steadfast in their judgment and miss the truth.

Unfortunately, the Pharisees of this passage don’t catch up to that even when given a second chance by Jesus himself. A few of them followed the beggar to watch Jesus’ reaction to the rejection of the newly-healed man. Jesus tells the beggar that He comes to heal the blind, and also will end up blinding those who supposedly see. Those Pharisees present question whether they’re included in the latter, to which Jesus responds, “Now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains.” The Pharisees in their judgment claim to see as God does, and fail to recognize their own sinfulness while judging others as unworthy for theirs.

Why, though, do the Pharisees stay stuck in that paradigm of illness as punishment? Why do we continue to do so ourselves? That philosophy provides an easy way for the comfortable to dismiss the afflicted, and as such has a powerful attraction. If illness, poverty, and oppression are punishments from God, then the lack of such allows us to believe that we are ourselves better than those others, and justifies our apathy towards them, and even outright hostility. We have no impetus to work to alleviate those human conditions, but plenty of room to judge them and lecture them about their status while celebrating our own.

Jesus tells the disciples that the beggar’s blindness is an opportunity to make God’s work visible, which means that all can see it who bother to look. But if affliction can be a path for God’s mercy, so too can our comfort. That starts with a recognition that we are all “totally born in sin,” and all in need of God’s mercy, which can come through the actions of our neighbors. The Pharisees remain blind to this truth, just as they remain blind to the demonstration that their assumptions have all been in error.

We do not see as God sees, and we often have a blindness about that blindness. The other Scripture readings today remind us of that in other ways, too. In 1 Samuel, the prophet seeks out the next King of Israel as God sends Samuel to Jesse in Bethlehem. Jesse has fine-looking and strong sons, but the Lord warns Samuel not to rely on his own sight. “Do not judge from his appearance or from his lofty stature, because I have rejected him. Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the LORD looks into the heart.” Samuel has to have Jesse send for the youngest son, who in those days would be the least likely to receive an inheritance. In Ephesians, Paul reminds the Church that Christ is the Light that “produces every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth.”

Jesus calls us to mercy and compassion, not rejection and isolation in comfort. He is the Light of the World, so that all of us blinded by sin to our own fallen natures may see, repent, and love God with all our hearts again — and express that through love of our neighbors rather than assume to know the mind of God in rejecting neighbors. Affliction and comfort offer us the opportunities to come together in the unity of the Holy Spirit to lift all eyes to the Lord, so that all may eventually see that beatific vision of eternal life.

In our marriage, blindness has offered that opportunity for growth in charity and love. That’s because while Marcia and I met because of her need for transportation due to her physical blindness, our love has helped me open my eyes to God’s word and blessings. As readers concluded long ago, her vision far exceeded mine where it counted.