“TELL ME WHO HE IS SO THAT I MAY BELIEVE IN HIM”
Whoever wants to write a book, or an article, or an essay or even a letter needs to plan the structure of what they wish to say – at least the beginning, middle and end. One novelist always wrote the final chapter of his book first and worked back to the beginning. It is a little like that with the gospels.
The gospel of Matthew is structured around five great ‘sermons’ or ‘teachings’ of Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount is probably the best known collection (chapters 5-7), but also Missionary instructions (10) Parables (13) Community instructions (18) Eschatology (23-25). The gospel of John is structured around the seven great ‘signs’ that Jesus worked. These are:
Changing water into wine at Cana (2:1-11)
Healing the officials son in Caparnaum (4:46-54)
Healing of the paralytic at Bethesda (5:1-15)
Feeding of the 5000 (6:5-14)
Healing of the man born blind (9:1-7)
The raising of Lazarus (11:1-45)
The passage for this Fourth Sunday of Lent is the healing of the man born blind. It is an illustration of one of the other great themes of John’s gospel -from darkness to light. We are all familiar with the beautiful words of the Prologue in chapter 1:
In the beginning was the Word:
The Word was with God
And the Word was God.
Through him all things came to be.
All that came to be had life in him
And that light was the light of men,
A light that shines in the dark,
A light that darkness could not overpower (Jn 1:1-5)
And elsewhere we read:
I am the light of the world;
Anyone who follows me will not be walking in the dark;
He will have the light of life. (Jn 7:42)
In today’s passage, Jesus contrasts the growing vision of the blind man with the increasing blindness of those who claim they can already see.
This healing takes place after Jesus has left the Temple during the feast of Tabernacles. (Jn 7:2.10) You will remember this was the feast of the harvest, when tents or booths erected for everybody to live in the open while the harvest was being collected. The feast also commemorated the entry into the Promised Land, where true worship of God could take place, and the hope of the future coming of the messiah. It isn’t surprising that people coming away from that celebration excitedly would be talking about the end of time and the coming of the Messiah. During the festival, priests would go to the pool of Siloam each day and draw a gold pitcher of water and recite their ritual prayers. Without water there could be no harvest, no life. They then poured the water on the altar of the Temple, which was lit up for this feast. No wonder the teachings of Jesus in the Temple during the feast of Tabernacles were controversial. We read in chapter 7 “… there was much muttering about him among the people”. It is in this context that we have to understand the great messianic revelation of Jesus “Let anyone who thirsts come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as scripture says “Rivers of water will flow from within him” (7:37-38). These words were pronounced each day during the feast at the pouring of the waters from the Pool of Siloam. You will remember last Sunday’s gospel passage of the woman at the well of Samaria:
Whoever drinks this water
Will get thirsty again;
But anyone who drinks the water that I shall give
Will never be thirsty again:
The water that I shall give
Will turn into a spring inside him, welling up to eternal life
The story of this sign begins with a theological debate. The disciples ask Jesus whose sin has caused this man’s blindness. Jewish belief was strong that suffering was the punishment for sin – either that of the man himself or his parents. Sin is not responsible for suffering says Jesus. God’s glory will be seen through this man’s act of faith.
Jesus speaks and acts at the beginning and the end of this passage. The rest of the section is people asking questions and giving opinions. The reading focuses on ‘knowledge’ and ‘ignorance’. The blind man passes from ignorance of Jesus to recognising his identity. The parents know that their son was blind and has been cured but they don’t know what happened. Pharisees, assured in the knowledge of their faith, are blind to the new reality. Other words in the text, which are significant: ‘blind’ and sighted’. The man born blind becomes capable of sight, not just physically but also spiritually. Others, who enjoy normal vision, are blind when it comes to discerning spiritual realities. They have eyes but they do not see. They have ears but they do not hear.
The gospel challenges the Pharisees who are steeped in the scriptures to examine how they see and understand them. To confirm their ideas and prejudices or to open themselves up the knowledge and insight that God is working in different ways. “Are you trying to teach us” they replied “and you a sinner through and through since you were born”.
The passage comes back to Jesus and his conversation with the blind man:
“Do you believe in the Son of Man”. Tell me who he is so that I may believe in him”. Jesus said “You are looking at him. He is speaking to you”. The man said “Lord I believe” and worshipped him. How close are these words to those of the woman at the well of Samaria “I who am speaking to you” said Jesus, “I am he”.
No wonder these gospels are used during these Sundays of Lent at the ‘scrutinies’ of those adults to be baptised at Easter. So many of them have made a long journey to recognising the presence of Jesus in their lives and now in the Church. They will speak about seeing things in a new way as they have come to faith. They are asked questions and will finally say the Creed before their Baptism. So that they can make the same answer as the man born blind. “Tell me who he is so that I may believe in him”.
ARCHBISHOP GEORGE STACK