A blind man sat on the busy city sidewalk. He sat behind a cardboard mat with a small tin can for donations. Next to him was a sign that read, “I’m blind, help me.” All morning people would walk past the man, and once in a while someone would drop in a coin or two.
At one point a woman walked by, then returned. She picked up the man’s sign, turned it over, then began to write on it. The blind man touched her shoes but did not say a thing. After she left people passing by started to put more and more coins in the blind man’s cup.
Later in the day the woman returned. The blind man could tell it was her when he touched her shoes. “You’re the person who wrote a new sign. What did you write?” he asked. “It’s a beautiful day but I can’t see it,” was the reply.
The story comes from several versions of a popular YouTube video. Although the man sitting on the sidewalk was physically blind, there were many people who walked by all morning who were also blind, yet not physically. They walked by day after day but could not see. They were blind to the goodness around them and the needs of another who they saw everyday.
The sign provided by the woman helped open the eyes of their souls so they could see. The spiritual blindness was removed once they recognized the goodness around them, in this case represented by beauty – “the beautiful day.” Once their eyes were opened they could see the plight of the blind man and reached out to help him.
The Gospel today recounts the story of the man born blind in the fourth Gospel. As the story progresses Jesus develops a contrast between the man born blind and the Pharisees. In the story blindness is used as an image of sin. In the culture of that day a person who was blind, or for that matter anyone who suffered from any disability, was viewed as a sinner. The thought was that if a person does good then God will bring prosperity to that person. The converse also applied: if a person did bad then they would suffer. In this line of thought a person with a disability must have sinned, or someone in their family, because they suffer.
Jesus takes on this understanding of sin and disability. He completely separates the misconception that there is a connection between sin and disability. He says: “Neither he [the blind man] nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.”
Then Jesus made the clay, smeared it on the man’s eyes, and told him to wash in the Pool of Siloam, after which he could see. The man who was physically blind had no sin; his blindness served to manifest the works of God performed by Christ Jesus. The blindness associated with sin is not a physical blindness but a spiritual blindness.
Spiritual blindness is represented by the Pharisees. They question the man born blind regarding his healing, which St. John tells us took place on the Sabbath. The man recounts the healing but the Pharisees refuse to believe. They first refuse to believe because Jesus healed on the Sabbath.
Next they attempt to discredit the healing by calling in the man’s parents. They testify that their son was indeed born blind. They do not offer an explanation of the healing for “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.”
Yet the Pharisees refuse to believe, their blindness persists, so they call the man born blind back for more questioning. This time they begin by stating their premise: “We know that this man [Jesus] is a sinner.” They interrogate the healed man again but to no avail. The man says to them: “I told you and you would not listen.”
Once again the obstinacy of the Pharisees is made clear. Finally they discount the healed man’s testimony based on their association of physical blindness with sin: “‘You were born totally in sin, and are you trying to teach us?’ Then they threw him out.”
Jesus, hearing about the exchange, seeks out the healed man and asks: “Do you believe in the Son of Man?… The one speaking with you is he.” “I do believe, Lord,” the man replies, and “he worshipped him.” In other words, he makes a profession of faith in Jesus.
This encounter is then contrasted with Jesus’ exchange with the Pharisees who say: “Surely we are not also blind are we?” To which Jesus replies, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains.” The Pharisees refuse to see the work of God unfolding before them. They are blinded by their own stubbornness of heart and thus remain in the dark.
The contrast between the man born blind and the Pharisees reminds us that God sees into the heart of the person; he does not judge by externals. The concept echoes the words of the Lord to Samuel as he prepares to identify the chosen one from among the sons of Jesse. The Lord says to Samuel: “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.”
Living in Christ we have been freed from spiritual blindness. We recognize him who saves, him who forgives, him who heals as the Son of Man and Lord of life. St. Paul encourages us to recognize this in our own lives and thus to live life as one who has been healed. He says: “You were once in darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light, for light produces every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth. Try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the fruitless works of darkness.” St. Paul urges the Ephesians and us as well to keep our eyes open to the grace we have received in Christ Jesus. He does this because sometimes it is easy to get caught up in our own lives, sometimes in our very self so much so that we become blinded to God’s presence in our lives and in the world around us.
During the season of Lent we ask the Lord to remove any blindness from our hearts that inhibits us from seeing his goodness, his mercy, his love so we may share that same goodness, mercy and love to those around us.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.