FOURTH SUNDAY OF LENT (A)
March 10, 2024
1 Samuel 16: 1b, 6-7, 10-13a;
Ephesians 5: 8-14; John 9: 1-41
by Jude Siciliano, OP
The second reading from Ephesians sets the tone
and names the tension in both today’s readings and our world: the conflict is
between light and darkness – good and evil. “You were once darkness, but now you
are light in the Lord. Live as children of light....” It doesn’t take too much
life experience to know that the struggle is far from over, contrary to the
euphoric opening tone of Ephesians. But then, right after these opening words,
Christians are advised not to take part in the “fruitless works of darkness.”
So, the seeming triumphalism is tempered with a note of reality - the struggle
is far from over. Christians, “children of light,” still must be strong and
vigilant to do what is “pleasing to the Lord.”
Lest the worshiper get the impression that Ephesians is merely a voice of encouragement, cheering us on from the sidelines, today’s gospel gives us a vivid and dramatic miracle story. It is not only about the cure of the blind man, but the deeper light-giving that happens as the man faces opponents and naysayers to his experience. Let’s turn to this story, but before we do, I will repeat a suggestion I have made before when the gospel selections are so long, as they will also be in subsequent Sundays. I would not choose to proclaim the shorter version that is given as an option. Why violate the story teller’s intention? Why chop up a well-told story? If John thought a shorter story would have accomplished his intention, he would have given one. If the reading seems too long for people to pay attention to while standing, then invite them to be seated.
One significant ray of light we receive from Jesus in the blind man’s story comes from the opening lines. It was the common belief at that time that sickness and misfortune were caused by one’s sin. People wanted to give God credit for everything that happens to humans. But they went too far, attributing to God both the good and the bad of their lives. The belief also attributed birth defects to either parental sin or the baby’s sin while still in the womb! When the disciples point out the man “blind from birth” they voice the contemporary opinion, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”
We might chuckle at their naivety, but we still hear sickness or misfortune being attributed to God and to our wrong doing. “God must be punishing me.” “I must have done something terrible for God to be punishing me in this way?” When we already feel the disorientation, confusion and the disrupted life that suffering causes, how sad to be additionally burdened thinking that God is the source of our pain. And, that it is a punishment for something we have done! What isolation such a thinking can cause; believing that not even God is with us and that those closest to us might hold the same belief and think less of us. “She must have done something wrong otherwise why is God doing this to her?” “If he really had faith, God would help him.”
Are we so far removed from the thinking that blames a person for the misfortune they bear? In our “enlightened” world don’t people still think that poverty, and its resulting maladies like sickness and short life span, are the fault of the poor? (And aren’t those physically or sexually abused sometimes blamed for what they “provoked” in others? “She wouldn’t have gotten raped if she hadn’t dressed that way.”) As long as people think in this way, they won’t look deeper into the economic, cultural or political reasons that keep poor people and whole nations in a permanent underclass. Such attitudes about poverty’s sources will also prevent people from doing something to change oppressive conditions for groups of people in our own cities and for nations in other parts of the world. Jesus casts light on such darkness and answers their question, “Neither he nor his parents sinned.” The blame lies elsewhere; maybe even on the very people who are blaming others for their dire conditions! God is not punishing the man for sin; indeed, God wants to do something that will deliver the man from his blindness. After enlightening his disciples, Jesus sets about changing the man’s condition. So, he cures two forms of blindness. He enables both the man to see and his disciples to get a different perspective.
Did you notice that when Jesus responds to the disciples’ question he shifts from the “I” to the “we”? No accident, for he suggests we too must be involved in activities that bring light to the world. The Christian’s unenlightened ways of thinking are exposed by the light the “Rabbi” (the teacher) has cast and we are expected to bring this light to similar situations. We are to stop finding excuses for our lack of involvement in the needs of the world; we must stop blaming the victims and set about making visible “the works of God,” by ending the situations that cause and continue misery in people’s lives. Jesus’ cure also extends to those of us who carry judgmental thoughts about the race, gender, economic condition, or sexual orientation of others. We invite his healing today, asking to see our neighbor in a true light. With Christ’s help we will attest to the same healing the blind man experienced – “he opened my eyes.”
Jesus invites the blind man to wash in the Pool of Siloam. Why would John make the aside that Siloam means Sent? He is reminding us in subtle ways that not just Jesus, but all those whose eyes have been opened at the pool of baptism, are sent to be bearers of light. But it is necessary to emphasize that we are not sent on our own. Look at how the story unfolds. The man’s eyes are opened at the pool. At first he only has a beginner’s notion of who Jesus is, “he is a prophet.” Yet, this is enough to get him in trouble with the religious authorities. He is expelled from their presence. This suggests he is “excommunicated” from their religion. Since the religious leaders hold so much authority in the community, this expulsion would put him even further apart than his blindness did. He is really left alone. Jesus searches him out and confirms the new thing that has happened to him and then evokes an act of faith from him. At first the man called Jesus a prophet; by the time this part of his journey is completed he has made an act of faith in Jesus, “I do believe, Lord.” And John adds that he “worshiped” Jesus. He has gone from being blind, to having physical sight, and then to an even deeper sight, for he sees who Jesus is.
The story also reflects John’s community’s experience. As Jews, they first thought their following Jesus could happen within Judaism. One way those new Christians continued to practice their Jewish faith was to be “discrete”; they kept a low profile when among others. Perhaps their faith resembled the first stage of faith expressed by the blind man, they believed Jesus was a prophet. But that is an inadequate expression and more is required. (Jesus is not just one very good person among many who have lived. That’s not what we believe.) Eventually, their confession of faith in Christ got them in trouble with their Jewish families and friends. Like the blind man, they too were expelled. Imagine how difficult following Jesus had become for them. It all started simply enough, but they could not imagine how far from their origins and former lives their new sight would take them.
Just as the man’s initial sight was not the end of his coming to the light, so it is with us. Our darkness is replaced in baptism by the vision of Jesus as Lord; with the blind man, we too worship him. But whether we were baptized as infants or later in our lives, the washing in the pool was just the first step. We can agree and exclaim with Ephesians that we were “once in darkness but now are light in the Lord.” The task, as Ephesians suggests, is to live as “children of light.” Easier said than done. Left on our own, we know this is not possible, but we were not left on our own after we left the baptismal pool. Jesus has come out to find us and accompany us on our way. We look to his light to be children of the light. We know we need that light because, like the blind man, we are daily challenged by an unbelieving world. At the Easter Vigil we will be invited to turn to the baptismal pool and sign ourselves with the water. This is not a re-baptism. It is a renewed commitment to the One who is the Light and who guides us in a world that requires us to daily distinguish light from darkness.
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