The Gospel Story for the Fourth Sunday of Lent reaches to a fear that has existed since the beginning of human history: blindness. No one deliberately desires to be blind, and people spend enormous amounts of money to keep their eyesight at ultimate performance. Themes built around the subject fill the Gospels, mentioned more than a dozen times in Matthew alone.
Blindness is first brought up in the Old Testament (Genesis 19:11) as a punishment for the morally blind of Sodom. As the emissaries of God clutch Lot from an angry mob, they render the entire crowd blind so that they can’t even see where they are going right before the destruction of the city took place.
Stories like this led to the long held superstition that blindness was somehow a punishment from God for sins of the victim or other members of his/her family. That was the mentality of the people of Jerusalem during Jesus’ time. The Savior himself did not believe such a theory, and, in fact, spoke of the lack of vision in an entirely different way. He answered his apostles’ questions about why he spoke in parables by telling them many in the crowd see, yet don’t see, and hear, yet don’t hear. Jesus told them that they had been blessed with a sight that some others wouldn’t get, a sight that even the old prophets longed for, but never got to see. That sight was Jesus Christ. (Matthew 13:10-17)
Jesus had one of the most unpleasant confrontations of his human ministry just months prior to being arrested. It took place as he was preaching the wages of sin in the Temple of Jerusalem. Jesus was addressed by Pharisees who questioned his authority, and both sides ended up accusing each other of failure to follow the tenets of Abraham. He told them that disbelief in itself was a great sin, and they responded by calling Jesus a demon and a Samaritan (kind of like calling someone the ‘S’ word). He told them that if they understood the Father’s love, they would also love him. He answered the insults with his own name, “I AM,” that which was spoken to Moses by God. Then he left the temple secretly as they considered stoning him.
As Jesus and the apostles passed near a city gate, they spotted a beggar who had been blind since birth. Assuming the tradition, some of the apostles wanted to know if the man’s blindness was caused by the sin of his parents or his own. Jesus told them neither, but rather the man was born that way in anticipation of the day he would glorify God because of it. He declared his own presence to illuminate wisdom and called himself the Light of the world.
Some will recall what happened next: Jesus mixed clay with his saliva, a common practice for comforting eye infections during that time, and put the mixture on the man’s eyes. He then told him to wash the substance off in the waters of the Pool of Siloam, and when he did so, the blind man was suddenly able to see. The pool was fed by the 1750 foot Hezekiah’s Tunnel, an architectural wonder of the ancient city, which is a major tourist attraction today, and holds a reverent spot in Biblical Hebrew tradition.
While many know that others, including the Pharisees, questioned the man about how he was cured, and the inquiry about why he was blind in the first place persisted, some may overlook the man’s slow but determined conversion through the whole process. He first responds that the cure was done by a man named Jesus. Later after persistent grilling by the Pharisees with the blind main remaining steadfast in his answer as to what happened, the inquirers began to argue among themselves, some pointing to the sin of healing on the Sabbath, while others questioned how such a cure could take place without God’s intercession. Then asked for his opinion, the man declared Jesus a prophet.
The detainee’s parents were brought before the Pharisees and asked the same questions. They said, yes it was their son, and yes, he was born blind, but no, they didn’t have any idea how he was healed. They showed their outrage by telling the officials to ask him themselves, since he was, after all, an adult. Even though his parents had likely been informed of the occurrence, they feared the Pharisees and made no statement regarding who or what Jesus was.
The inquisitors again turned to the man born blind. They told him they knew the healer was Jesus, and proof that he was a sinner was in the fact he did it on the Sabbath. Thus they expected the man to confirm their allegations and save himself from punishment. This time he reminded them that there was no case in the Old Testament books where a man born blind was cured by another, not by Moses or Abraham or any prophet. So, how could Jesus heal in such a way if he was not from God? The Pharisees were outraged. Not to be outdone, they berated the man for attempting to teach them about scripture and excommunicated him from the faith.
When Jesus heard what had happened to the man born blind, he searched and found him, and asked if he believed in the Son of God. The man asked to know the Lord that he could believe. Jesus enlightened the man that it was he who was speaking to him. This time the response was “I believe,” and he began to worship Jesus.
Jesus explained the difference of real sight to physical blindness. As the Light of the world, he would illuminate the way for those who couldn’t see, but allow darkness to settle on the path of those who thought they could see but didn’t. Once again, the Pharisees were angered and demanded to know if Jesus was suggesting they were blind to truth. The Teacher told them that if they were blind, their sin could be forgiven, but since they were so sure they could see everything clearly, the offense of disbelief would linger with them.
This Gospel story is told with the 2nd Scrutiny of the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation) process celebrated in the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and throughout the Church. It affords the catechumens (those preparing for Baptism) and candidates (baptized Christians preparing to celebrate Catholic Eucharist and Confirmation) the opportunity to contemplate the slow and steady development of a blind man who literally had no hope and was given to begging in the streets.
He first trusted in Jesus, but when his eyes were open, he began to believe him more than an ordinary man…a prophet, perhaps. As the challenge to his testimony and cure were presented, the man’s faith grew even stronger until he recognized that whoever this Jesus was, he came from God. Finally the man born blind said to the face of Jesus, “I see. I believe.”