On Thursday of this coming week I am scheduled to say Mass for the Second Grade at Guardian Angels Catholic School, our local inter-parochial school. The Second Graders will use the Scripture readings from today, the Fourth Sunday of Lent. I would like to be able to explain some of the details of this Gospel story to them, but I’m afraid to do so.
When Jesus spat on the ground, and applied mud to the blind man’s eyes, he was using a common cultural gesture of the time. Spitting was often done as an expression of one’s desire to push evil away. In fact, this gesture is still practiced in some parts of the world as a repudiation of evil.
The obvious problem with explaining this to Second Graders is that they would not only understand the gesture, but they would also put it into practice. In order to avoid having the school Principal call to tell me that the Second Graders are spitting on one another, and justifying it based on my homily, I think I’ll leave that detail unmentioned on Thursday.
I’m trusting that you will not begin spitting on one another, at least while you’re in Church; consequently, I would like to address the idea and act of repudiating evil. Because we live in a culture that is so profoundly influenced by technology, we tend to think of Jesus’ healing miracles in terms of their medical causes and physical effects. The actual intent of Jesus’ healing miracles was completely unrelated to the way we tend to view them.
When Jesus performed miracles he was not intending to defy the laws of nature or produce medical curiosities. All of the miracles of Jesus are living parables. As such, they were intended to address the same things that his spoken parables addressed, namely, the Kingdom of God. In this healing of the man born blind Jesus rejected the commonly held notion that physical suffering and deprivation was punishment for sin. He said about this particular man, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.” (John 9:3)
Just as in the case of Jesus’ miracles, we should be careful about how we interpret Jesus’ words. Jesus was not saying that God afflicted this man with a serious disability in order to use him as a demonstration of God’s power. A god who would cause a man needless suffering, and complete rejection by society, simply in order to make an example of him isn’t a god worthy of our trust. Rather, Jesus was saying that he saw in the man the potential for faith.
The man’s disability made him a social outcast and incapable of holding a job. The man’s character, by contrast, allowed him the possibility of rising above his limitations. His physical blindness had not made him blind to the truth. Perhaps it was the fact that he led a beggar’s life, depending on the mercy of others, that he was able to hold onto hope of mercy from God. Whatever the cause, Jesus saw the man as capable of “the works of God,” that is, faith. (John 9:3)
The disciples judged the man born blind to be a sinner because of what we would call a birth defect. The Pharisees made the same judgment about Jesus because he had healed the man on a Sabbath. Both Jesus and the man born blind repudiated evil, and because of that both were judged to be faithless by those around them. As is the case all too often, those judgments passed on others were actually judgments about the ones judging.
We live in a society that embraces a similar double standard of judgment. It is very popular today to keep up good outward appearances for others, but to live a private life that is far less than good. Some embrace a personal ethic of striving to be likeable; others embrace a public ethic of striving to be perceived as generous and caring. Neither of these is necessarily a bad thing. Everyone wants to be liked, and everyone should have some concern for wider society. Unfortunately, it is not sufficient merely to pursue personal or social good; it is also necessary to repudiate evil in one’s life.
When a public image of likeability covers up a private life of narcissistic or anti-social personal goals, the public image is a lie. There is no virtue in being good in public and, at the same time, being dishonest, covetous or self-serving when no one is looking. The daily news is filled with reports of citizens and celebrities who act affectionately toward family and friends but lie and steal and cheat when they think they can get away with it. Pursuing good, without first repudiating evil, will lead to a very shallow and self-serving existence.
When Jesus spat on the ground, and smeared mud on the man’s eyes, he was trying not merely to do a good deed; rather, he was pushing evil away from the man’s life in order that “the works of God,” that is, faith, might find a home in the man’s heart.
In a few weeks, on Easter, we will renew our baptismal vows. All of the penance, fasting, almsgiving and prayer that we do during Lent is intended to make us ready for that annual renewal of our Covenant with God. On Easter, before we repeat the vows of our Baptism we will repeat the Renunciation of Sin that is part of the baptismal liturgy. We renounce sin in order to make a home in our hearts for the works of God, which is faith. I invite you to use these remaining weeks of Lenten penance to make a conscious and wholehearted repudiation of evil from your life. It is not sufficient merely to pursue good; we must first reject evil in order to make room in our lives for the works of God.