Sunday of Week 4 of Lent – Laetare Sunday (Year A)

Commentary on 1 Samuel 16:1,6-7,10-13; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

On this fourth Sunday in Lent, we celebrate the Mass for the second of the three “Scrutinies”. As described in last Sunday’s commentary, the Scrutinies are special rites that help prepare the Elect (also called ‘catechumens’, i.e. those participating in the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) to enter the Catholic Church. Today’s readings from Year A may also be used in Years B and C when there are catechumens present who will be baptised at Easter.

When catechumens are present, they are presented to the gathered community which they will soon be joining as full members, and from which they will receive acceptance and support. After the homily, and before the Creed, they will leave the gathered community, because they are not yet full members of the faith community.

It is in this context today, that we have the marvellous story from John’s gospel about the cure of a man born blind.

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man who was blind from birth. This man is the hero of today’s Gospel. The Gospel is much more here than just a miracle story about the man – it is a story about everyone who becomes a follower of Christ.

Again, like last Sunday, when we read about the Samaritan by the well of Jacob, today’s story has close links with Baptism. In addition to catechumens who may be present, it is also a time for us to understand the commitments that our baptism entails.

The disciples ask Jesus, “Why was this man born blind? Was it the result of his own sins or the sins of his parents?” Jesus turns the question around: neither the man nor his parents sinned to cause this. The real reason was so that the glory and power of God should be made evident before their eyes, so that their own blindness could be cured.

All the way through, the story emphasises that the man was blind from birth. To heal him is to help him begin a completely new life which he had never before experienced. He will be able to experience the light that Jesus brings: “I am the Light of the World.” To see is to be bathed in that light. If we do not know Jesus we are living in darkness.

In the beginning of the story:
-the man is blind – he cannot see;
-he is a beggar – he has nothing;
-he is an outsider – no one accepts him.
-He is a man without Christ in his life.

But in the end, because he can see, he becomes a disciple of Jesus. It is the inevitable outcome.

In the beginning, he was blind – he was in darkness. In the end, he is in the light, not just of his physical sight, but because a deeper insight opens him up to Jesus who is the Light of the world.

Jesus heals the man’s eyes. He uses mud and saliva. At that time, people believed that saliva could heal and, to some degree they were right. By using mud, Jesus also helps us to recall God using mud to create Adam, the first man. Here, too, there is a new creation – Jesus is making a new person. St Paul calls the baptised Christian a “completely new person”. Then, Jesus tells the man to wash in the pool of Siloam. This is, as it were, his baptism.

After his healing, his friends and his neighbours discuss his identity. Is it really him? But he was blind, and this man can see. Because he has changed, some people cannot recognise him. When we are baptised, when we follow Christ, we too should change. Maybe some people will say, “You are not like the way you were before! You are hardly the person we used to know.” And that is what they should be saying!

Guardians of orthodoxy
Because they were not satisfied, the neighbours bring the blind man to see the Pharisees, the guardians of orthodox religion. Jesus had healed the man on the Sabbath and the methods he used were against the letter of the Law. The conundrum, of course is that if Jesus was from God, he would not break the law. And, if he is a sinner, how can he do these things? Sinners cannot do the work of God.

For the Pharisees, sin is breaking the letter of the law; for Jesus, sin is doing an unloving thing, breaking or hurting a relationship. It is a distinction we need to keep in mind. It is a sin to violate one of the commandments, not because we violate a law, but because we have failed in the love of a brother or sister. And we can sin even when we do nothing at all for someone in need of our love.

The Pharisees now ask the blind man his opinion. For him, it is all perfectly clear: Jesus is a prophet, that is, his actions are from God. He measures Jesus by what he did, not by what the law says. But the Pharisees cannot accept this. If they accept, they have to accept Jesus and his teaching also. So they do not even accept that the man was born blind! Prejudice can blind us even to facts.

Pressuring the parents
The Pharisees try to get the parents on their side. Maybe they will admit that the blindness was only temporary. But, the parents know very well that their son was blind from birth, and they do not deny it, but they are afraid to say anything. They know that if anyone says Jesus is the Messiah, he will be expelled from the synagogue and will no longer be part of the community. In such a tightly knit society, this is not a price they are willing to pay even for their son. Many Jewish converts to Christianity must have had the experience of being expelled by their communities. Christians, too, over the centuries, and down to our own day, have had this experience.

So the parents say their son is an adult. He can answer for himself. They cannot afford to identify themselves with Jesus against the authorities.

Telling the truth
The Pharisees again ask the man to tell the truth, meaning, to tell them what they want to hear. “We know that Jesus is a sinner. He cannot do these things.” This evaluation is based on their interpretation of the Law, which they regard as supreme. Says the man:

I don’t know if he is a sinner. I do know I was blind and now I can see.

The Pharisees for the umpteenth time ask, “What did he do?” The man says, “I told you already. But you will not listen.” The man begins to mock them. He is more daring now, not afraid. “You want to be his disciples too?” he asks them.

Inevitably they become angry. They insult the man. “You are his disciple. We are Moses’ disciples. No one knows where that fellow [Jesus] came from.”

This is a example of Johannine irony, where people say things which have a meaning of which they are unaware – for it is true that no one knows the origins of Jesus. He is the Word who has been with God from the beginning, and is God. On the other hand, some of this truth is quite obvious to this simple, uneducated man. He exclaims:

How strange! He cured me. Sinners cannot do such things. God does not listen to sinners. God listens to those who respect him and do his will. It has never been heard before that anyone cured a man born blind. If Jesus is not from God he could not do this.

Pharisees now become very angry and say to the man “You were born and raised in sin. You want to teach us?” The words are cruel and indicate a refusal to accept that people can change and be transformed. We, too, often tend to condemn wrongdoers for the rest of their lives. But, fortunately for each one of us, that is not God’s way.

And they expelled the man from the synagogue. This is what the parents feared, but their son is made of different stuff. This was the experience of many Jews who became Christians. And the experience of many others who were expelled by their families, relatives and society for choosing to follow Christ.

Found by Jesus
Jesus hears the man has been expelled and goes in search of him. Jesus asks him:

“Do you believe in the Son of Man, that is, the Messiah?

And the man replies, “tell me who he is and I will believe in him.” He does not immediately recognise Jesus in the flesh, for it is the first time he has seen him with his new sight. Jesus says,

You have seen him. He is talking with you now.

“I believe, Lord,” the man says as he falls down in worship before Jesus, whom he calls his Lord. He sees now also with eyes of faith.

He is now a disciple. A disciple is someone who knows and can see and accepts Jesus as his Lord and Saviour. Jesus says,

I came to this world so that the blind could see and those who see become blind.

The Pharisees ask Jesus, “Do you mean we are blind, too?” Jesus responds:

If you were really blind [like the man], you would not have sin; but because you say, ‘We can see’, you are guilty.

Those who sin, those who refuse to listen, those who are proud, they are the really blind people. The Pharisees, who thought they could see, were the real sinners. And the man, born blind, who accepts Jesus is the one who can actually see.

Links to Baptism
As mentioned above, this gospel has a clear relation to Baptism. We read it today for the catechumens who are preparing for Baptism. They are beginning to see Jesus, to recognise him and to follow him. But it is certainly for us who are already baptised.

At first sight, one might wonder about the relevance of the First Reading from the First Book of Samuel to the general theme of the Mass. The central lesson is that God chooses his own and does not judge by outward appearance. Samuel thought that the eldest son of Jesse, so tall, so handsome must be God’s choice to be king after the discredited Saul. But eldest son was not God’s choice – God wanted the youngest, the shepherd boy David.

In the Gospel, Jesus sees a future disciple in the blind beggar, and passes over the self-righteous Pharisees who, externally, seemed to be so devoutly religious. Today, too, our catechumens need to wonder why they have been chosen to enter Christ’s community when there would seem to be so many others more fitting.

And the same for each one of us. We have not conferred a favour on God by getting baptised. It is we who need to wonder and give thanks that God’s way has been made known to us. And we give thanks most effectively by giving back to God the love he has shown us through the love we show to all our brothers and sisters, Christians and non-Christians alike.

The Second Reading reminds us how we were once living in darkness but, through our Baptism, are now living in the light. We are, then, to be children of the light, to reflect that light which has been given to us. “You are the light of the world,” Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. “You are the salt of the earth.”

We might say that we are only living in the light to the extent that God’s light shines in us and through us, giving light to others. “The fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true,” the reading tells us. But the good and right and true can only be seen when people are good and right and true. So, “take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness but instead expose them.” There should be no dark corners in our lives.

If we are people of the light, people of integrity, we are not afraid of the light, we have nothing shameful to hide. We are totally transparent. For most of us, that is something of a problem, but let us keep working to become people transfused with light, the light of truth and goodness and love.

For that we need to see Jesus and the Gospel ever more clearly. Then, let this be our prayer today, along with with the beggar in the gospel:

Lord, that I may see.

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