Fourth Sunday in Lent

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Those Who See

I came into this world for judgement, so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see might become blind.

Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, “Are we also blind?”  Jesus said to them, “If you were blind you would have no guilt; but because now you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.”

 John 9:39–41

 

Reading from the text of Isaiah sixty-one, Jesus told those assembled in the synagogue at Nazareth that He had come to give sight to the blind (Luke 4:17).  In human terms this work was unsuccessful; crowds were disappointed that He gave no sign (Matthew 12:38–39), others followed not because they wanted the bread of heaven but earthly food (John 6:26), and there was hostility from those who should have welcomed Him, most particularly from the Pharisees.

In this day’s Gospel Jesus speaks harshly to the Pharisees because they know too much and kindly to those who do not know.   His words are not in praise of a stubborn agnosticism but of humility, for humility is the near neighbor of docility, which is the willingness to be taught, to learn.     But if one already sees just how things are and what they mean, no further message is required.  Yet really to know the world one must pay attention and to learn one must listen, but it is a conceit that post-modernity shares with the Pharisees of Jerusalem that everything worth knowing is already known or is in principle open before man’s intellect.   For the Pharisees it was the law, the prophets and the promises which formed a complete system participation in which guaranteed righteousness.   The system was straightforward.  Those who obeyed the law were righteous and were blessed; those who did not were sinners.   No further could be said.  Gentiles were lost sinners.    There was nothing worth knowing that was not already known.   

Then Christ came to reveal not an improved knowledge of this world but a mystery, the mystery of the living relation between every soul and Christ, the mystery of God’s providence in a world full of evil, the mystery of our sharing in Christ while we are yet imperfect, the mystery of life, which to be fulfilled must be given up, the mystery of death, which became the doorway to eternal life, the mystery of God’s love for the whole world and every soul in it ranged around the truth that only through Christ can salvation come.   Christ created an open world at the center of which was the adventure of everyman toward God in terms unique to each.    Each of these adventures has its own particularities and necessities.  When the law became the law of the heart the law was not abrogated but perfected; if the way was narrow, the wayfarer was accompanied at every step by the One he longed to please.  The Church drew into its orbit all the good, with all its partiality, that mankind had conceived and made.   It is no wonder that, inspired by Pentecost and led by Gospel truths, the world blossomed as the companions of Christ let their gentling influence make its mark upon it.  

          No age is itself holy and the Other Side is not without resources.   So came the frost of Renaissance and Revolution, and a blindness fell upon the human spirit, not from ignorance but because we knew too much and saw too completely.   Now we saw that the limit of knowledge was sense experience and the limit of joy experience of the senses.  We saw through the teaching that duty, self-denial and self-giving denied rather than fulfilled our freedom.   We have seen through the vision that this world of men and nature is an anticipation of a deeper longing and a better world into the land of nothingness, and, like our first parents, preferred engagement with the trivial, the noisy, and those things that promised power to that conversation with God for which we were made.  

          Participation in this knowingness, shared by the Pharisees, is not for post-moderns the law with its six-hundred=thirteen precepts but the blinding force of secularity and of cynicism.  Perhaps in a way this knowingness is inaccessible to the self-condemning disappointment of the prodigal son’s folly, but for the post-moderns knowingness is the blindness of those who think they see, and it is the work of Jesus by His presence and possibility to reward persistent knowingness with persistent blindness, just as it is His work to give sight to those who know that they do not know, who can listen, who can see that life is a mystery with clues that awaits an answer from beyond its own competence.   

         All this is openness to the word from beyond the obvious is to the Jews of Jerusalem and their modern companions in knowingness a scandal, not because it violates the reasonableness of a fallen world but because it leads the heart beyond the prison of that knowingness.  This wisdom of the world, says Paul, is foolishness with God (I Corinthians 3:19). And the Gospel declares that what seems to be the foolishness of God in making the mystery of the human pilgrimage is wiser and stronger than the wisdom of men (I Corinthians 1:25).  

           Jesus said that children should not be hindered from coming to Him because the kingdom of heaven belongs to those who come as children (Matthew 19:14).   Often misunderstood and sometimes derided, these words remind the world that in those who enter the kingdom the shell of self-sufficient knowledge must somehow be laid aside to that they can see; those who persist in saying “I see” will remain forever blind, and their guilt, says the Lord, will remain.   And we are told that this is the first criterion on which Christ’s udgment of the world will be founded.    For those who see there is no place in the kingdom, but those who know their own blindness are free of the curse of knowingness and may be given the blessed gift of sight.      

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