This is a Gospel about blindness, and there are two kinds of blindness on display here. First, there is that of the man who was born blind. No doubt he was sitting along one of the streets in Jerusalem begging for money when Jesus walked by. It is Jesus who takes the initiative in this Gospel; it doesn’t say anything about the blind man asking Jesus to be healed. After all, he couldn’t see Jesus and probably had no idea who was walking by him. So Jesus takes the initiative here, and he performs this rather unusual ritual of making clay and smearing it on the blind man’s eyes, and then he tells him to go wash in the pool of Siloam.
We have here a prefiguring of our sacrament of baptism: the mud on the man’s eyes is a symbol of the oil that is rubbed onto the head of the person being baptized. And washing in the pool of Siloam is like the baptismal waters that are poured over the one who is being baptized. In doing this, Jesus gives sight to the man, who is now able to see for the first time in his life. His life is changed forever by this encounter with Jesus.
And what is the reaction of the Pharisees? Perhaps they are amazed at what has happened. But do they rejoice with this man who is now able to see over this miracle? No, instead they focus on the fact that Jesus healed him on the Sabbath. One of the commandments is, as we all know, keep holy the Sabbath. Over time this had come to be interpreted as doing nothing that could be construed as any kind of work, and there was an extensive list of things that constituted work. Making clay, which Jesus had done, was on that list of prohibited items. And so amazingly that is what they focused on, rather than the miracle that Jesus had performed, and they interrogate the man.
Here we have the other kind of blindness on display: the spiritual blindness of the Pharisees. Their understanding of the Law has become so complex and legalistic that they fail to see that Jesus fulfills the true intent of the Sabbath, by relieving the man of the burden of physical blindness which he had carried since birth. Their spiritual blindness prevents them from seeing the hand of God in this miracle which Jesus has brought about.
Giving physical sight to the man born blind is a sign to us, that Jesus came into the world to give spiritual sight to us. What does this spiritual sight enable us to see? As Scott Hahn says, it helps us “to see earth in light of heaven, time in light of eternity, and our lives in light of our destiny.” In other words, the spiritual sight that God gives us helps us to see things, not as we tend to see them, but as they really are. Our human tendency is to see only what is right in front of us, to see just a narrow window. It’s like looking at an Impressionist painting: if you stand too close to it, all you can see is a jumble of colorful dots. That is our narrow vision. But if you stand back, you can see the whole picture; you can see how all the dots form a coherent image.
We are all limited by our own experiences and by what our senses tell us. And we are also often limited by our emotions. And while these things can sometimes help us see the world around us accurately, that is not always the case. For example, when we are in a stressful situation, the stress we feel can affect how we see everything. Or let’s say you were betrayed or let down by someone you really trusted. It’s very likely that you will be really suspicious of or afraid to trust other people, even the ones who are good and trustworthy people. Or imagine the things that were important to you when you were a child or a teenager; no doubt there were things that you really wanted, perhaps felt you couldn’t live without. Time passes, priorities change, and the things that you wanted so much are now meaningless. These are all examples of our limited perception of the world, or even of our blindness.
But spiritual blindness goes beyond these examples. Spiritual blindness is like the darkness that St. Paul refers to in our second reading today. Spiritual blindness is an inability to see the truth in such a way that it affects our relationship with God and whether or how we follow him. It’s like the Pharisees, who were so focused on the minutiae of the Jewish Law that they could no longer see what it was all for anyway. If we are spiritually blind, for example, we cannot see the things that are keeping us from God. We cannot see the things that are leading us away from God. Or rather, we choose not to see them.
The thing with spiritual blindness is that it affects each one of us to some degree. We all have our blind spots. That is why so many saints and spiritual writers have talked about the importance of self-knowledge as being necessary to grow closer to God and to grow in holiness. The more we know ourselves, the more we can see where we need to change and where we need to grow, and the more we can see how much we are in need of God’s grace. The one who doesn’t think he has to change or who basically feels like he never really does anything wrong is the one who is most spiritually blind. Being aware of our sins and our need for God’s forgiveness, on the other hand, is a sign that the light of God is starting to illuminate our minds.
Let’s ask the Lord to continue to shine his light on us, that the light of Truth will illuminate our minds and our hearts so that we will be able to see just how much we need Him.