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The Fourth Sunday of Lent
March 31, 2019

 

 
    You’ll pardon the pun, I hope, if I say that today’s scriptures are eye-openers. They are. They get us to look below the surface, to get beyond appearances. Things are not always what they seem to be, and points of view long and tenaciously clung to can be dead wrong and often are.

     In the reading from the First Book of Samuel, God sends the prophet Samuel on a search for a new king to succeed Saul.  He sends him to a most unlikely place – to backwater Bethlehem.  Why not to the big city, Jerusalem, where there would surely be many more likely candidates to choose from?  But no, it’s to Bethlehem that God sends Samuel - to the house of Jesse who has a veritable stable of sons – eight of them, in fact.  When Jesse presents his oldest son, tall of stature and impressive, Samuel thinks to himself, ‘this must be the one,’ but God tells him no: “Do not judge by appearance, or from his lofty stature,” he tells him, because I have rejected him. For not as man sees does God see…man sees the appearance but God looks into the heart.”

     Samuel reviews the whole line-up of Jesse’s sons but it’s clear to him that none of them is God’s choice for king. So he asks if there is another one.  And, there is. There is the one out tending the sheep, the youngest - David - the one who would never have made a head hunter’s list. And unlikely David turns out to be God’s choice. Call that eye-opener number one: don’t trust appearances: things are not always as they seem. God sees differently than we do.

     The David story sets the stage for the story of the man born blind, another story where appearances are misleading. When Jesus sees this man who was blind from birth, his disciples ask him why such a thing ever happened. Were his sins to blame, or his parents’?  The first question is, of course, absurd (how could he have sinned before he was born!); the second is based on a false premise, a false religious premise that even enjoys currency today: namely, that illness is God’s punishment for sin. This is the very sort of thinking Jesus came to do away with, the sort of thinking that turns God into a petty, punitive tyrant. Jesus came to reveal a very different God altogether: a God of mystery, yes, and, as Pope Francis likes to remind us, the very name of God is mercy. So Jesus answers his disciples’ question about whose sin was involved by saying, “Neither! “This has happened,” he says, “so that the works of God may be made visible in and through him.”

     So that’s the first thing: this is a story about how God works.  God doesn’t work like we do.  Simple as that.  But the story has another dimension too. We’re in John’s gospel, remember, the gospel of signs and symbols, and so, not surprisingly, blindness becomes a metaphor: a metaphor for obtuseness – refusing to see – and seeing becomes a metaphor for understanding. A word about both.

     In the story, the Pharisees should be the ones who see, who understand. They are the teachers, after all.  They know the Law, they know the sacred Traditions.  But, unfortunately, as can happen with religious leaders, they are so trapped by the tradition, so locked up in it - straight-jacketed by it and close-minded - that they are unable to learn anything new. They know it all, or think they do.

     Their understanding of the Law and tradition assures them that the blind man has been steeped in sin from his birth. And they know more: they know that Jesus has to be a sinner. Why?  Well, because he blatantly broke God’s Law by working on the Sabbath. His work, by the way, was the effort he put forth to mix his saliva with clay and smear it on the blind man’s eyes. That was work, believe it or not, a clear violation of the Sabbath!  That’s all the Pharisees needed to prove that Jesus was a sinner. He broke the Law. He couldn’t possibly be from God. Case closed. So much for those who see!

     And as for the one who doesn’t see – the man born blind – he ends up, of course, being the one who not only sees with these eyes but the one who understands. He not only gains physical sight, he also comes to see – to understand – what only the eyes of faith can see and understand.  And notice how he comes to faith. It’s something we should all be able to relate to (certainly our friends with us this morning who are preparing for baptism). He comes to faith not all at once, not like the way he gained his physical sight; no, he comes to faith gradually, step-by-step.  Notice how, at the beginning of the story, he refers to Jesus simply as “the man called Jesus.”  That’s a little detached, isn’t it?  Later he calls Jesus “the prophet,” and that’s progress. Later still, Jesus is “the man from God.” And then, at the very end of the story he calls Jesus  “Lord” and worships him in a dazzling act of faith.

     It’s that way with us, my friends. Faith for us is always more a pilgrimage than a possession: a pilgrimage towards God with many questions along the way - doubts, too, as well as discoveries - dark and foggy days, for sure, and some days that are clear and bright when everything seems to make sense.

     Dear friends, today’s readings are meant to open closed minds. They are meant to awaken us to how different God’s ways are from our ways. And they are meant to give us comfort in knowing that the way of faith is a journey towards the Light but not always a journey in the light.

     May the Christ we now encounter in the Eucharist open closed minds and bring a ray of light to eyes that are blind!

Father Michael G. Ryan

 

 

 

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