As noted last week, the challenge of writing about the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent this year is that there are two possibilities: the readings of year A (which can always be used), about appearances and the man born blind, or the readings of year C, featuring the parable of the Prodigal Son.
I will make two comments on the former, centering on recreating man and on appearances. Most preachers will address the latter, but I think the former deserves mention.
If you read the Gospel attentively, you might be struck by what seems to be a somewhat gross detail. Jesus’ disciples might have expected Him to lay hands on the blind man, or perhaps just speak a word and his eyes will be healed. He does neither. He spits, mixes a paste out of dirt and spittle, and smears the clay on the blind man’s eyes, telling him to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam. Then Jesus goes off.
Roman Brandstaetter was a Polish-Jewish writer who became Catholic in World War II. His grandfather was a major rabbi, and Roman was well-steeped in the Hebrew Bible from his youth. His comments on the episode of the man born blind are illuminating.
Think back to the creation of the world, as presented in Genesis 1. “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth,” the primary element was … water. It’s a wet world. We know today that water seems to be the prerequisite to life: one reason NASA is considering sending a satellite to Triton, one of Neptune’s moons, is the hypothesis there may be water there, something hitherto thought inconceivable in the far reaches of our solar system. But I digress… Only two days after God creates this watery universe does He create “the dry land.”
Genesis 2, a separate account of creation, also has a water focus. The earth of Genesis 2 is barren and lifeless, devoid even of vegetation, because “the Lord God had not sent rain upon the earth and there was no one to work the ground.” Then the surface of the earth is watered by streams (Genesis 2: 5-6. There is later mention of the “rivers” of Eden, see vv. 10-14). The dirt needs moisture, and it needs an artisan.
And then God creates man.
“The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Genesis 2:7).
This hybrid creature has one foot on the earth, created from the now watered soil, and one foot in heaven, animated by God’s own gift of life. That’s how Genesis 2 affirms what Genesis 1 taught when saying “God made man in his image” (Genesis 1:27).
According to Brandstaetter, invoking the old rabbis, Yahweh made man from the mud of the ground. We can imagine the wet clay of sculptors. Our modern, scientific mentality tells us man needs water to live.
So, in smearing the eyes of the blind man with wet clay, made from the dust of the ground moistened by His spittle, Brandstaetter suggests Jesus is making a Christological statement: just as God once made man from the dust of the ground, so God on that day in Jerusalem made a new man, a healed man, a man who can truly see not just physically but with faith, made from the dust of the ground.
Likewise, the allusions to washing have clear Old Testament antecedents, above all in the passage through the Red Sea (Exodus 14:15-31) but also in the healing of Naaman the Leper (2 Kings 5:1-19). Naaman, like Jesus’ disciples, might have expected something more from Elisha than the instruction to go and wash in a second-rate Jewish river: Naaman says as much. His servants basically tell him: “What have you got to lose? If you were told to stand on your head, you would. Why not try it?” And he’s healed.
In his using clay to cure the blind man, Jesus is making a new man. Jesus is both God and the new Adam, and He is renewing the face of the earth, binding up the sick man and giving him back his sight. Jesus, like God in Genesis, works at making man: it’s not just the fiat of Genesis 1 but God-the-maker who fashions (and now re-fashions) man. And He does it on the Sabbath, the same Sabbath on which, in Genesis 2:1, God kicks back and “rests” because He’s “finished the work He had been doing.” But, as a consequence of man’s sin, God now has some more work to do … and He does it, on the Sabbath, reaffirming again that He is Lord and Master of the Sabbath (cf. Matthew 12:8; Mark 2:28; Luke 6:5).
Lent is about letting God re-create us, to renew us and through us the face of the earth. Lent is about being transfigured from the old man to the new. Lent is about being open to the ways of God, rather than overlaying them with our expectations, the temptation of fitting God’s plans into our visions.
Jesus makes a new man of the blind man. He’s physically healed, but he’s also more than that. Like the Samaritan woman last week, he can “see” that Jesus is a prophet. He can see what the Pharisees refuse to see: how can Jesus perform such signs and wonders unless He is from God? But, as we have been saying since Luke described Jesus’ temptations, trying to force God and His plans into our narrow, Procrustean beds is also our temptation — and our sin when we yield to it. The Pharisees yielded to it, which is why “their sin remains.”
We are called to see reality with the eyes of faith. Appearances deceive. Man may look like he prospers by evil. That’s the reverse side of the error underlying the whole misguided theology of this Biblical episode. Like good Jews of their time, the disciples see suffering and draw a one-on-one correspondence to punishment: “who sinned: him or his parents?” God is just and so suffering must indicate wrongdoing. Suffering, sterility (these were not Planned Unparenthood people), premature death — all these are signs of God’s rejection. (That’s why the Sanhedrin not only wanted Jesus dead, but wanted Him dead on a cross. Jewish stoning had a mixed record of accurate moral assessment: real prophets were killed. But the excruciating and prolonged agony of crucifixion undoubtedly had to prove that God rejected its victim — see Deuteronomy 21: 22-23).
But, already in the Old Testament, inspired characters were admitting the theology did not add up. Job is the paramount example: despite his “comforters’” assertions, he insists on his innocence. Only very late in the Old Testament, at the time of the Book of Wisdom, i.e., on the eve of Jesus’ day, does this theology (and a theology of the afterlife) begin to be worked out.
So no, dear disciples, neither the blind man nor his parents are morally responsible for his blindness. Don’t judge by appearances. Don’t think that worldly suffering is a sign of divine rejection, or worldly prosperity a sign of divine approval. (Somebody needed to tell that to the Puritans and Calvinists who, in search of visible proofs of their election, helped foster what Max Weber called “The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.”)
And don’t think that man, without God’s reconstruction, is self-sufficient. When God tells Adam and Eve that if they sin, they will die, He does not connect some arbitrary punishment to defiance of His Will. No, He tells them what must inevitably happen: if you sin, i.e., if you cut yourself off from me, you must die, because you are not self-sufficient. A flower on the vine may look beautiful; a flower in a vase may momentarily look just as beautiful but, cut off from the vine, it already inevitably contains its own death and decay in it because it is no longer connected to the source of its life. Appearances can be deceiving. Just ask David’s brothers.
And so the Gospel lesson: don’t judge by appearances. And let God recreate you, renewing the face of the earth.
All views herein are exclusively those of the author.