4th Sunday of Lent

Naoise Grenham works as a Policy and Research Analyst at the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.

‘He went off and washed himself, and came away with his sight restored.’ (John 9:1-41)

‘We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’ (John 9: 4-5)

The healing of the man born blind through the miraculous power of Christ offers much for reflection in our modern day. The lengthy account captures both the great potential for restoration through the merciful love of God as well as the many human obstacles to the healing ministry of Christ, both then and now.

We are immediately challenged by the perennial problem of pain and the difficult, yet unavoidable, question of how and why a good God can allow suffering to persist when He surely has the power to prevent it.

The passage begins with an encounter of ‘a man blind from birth’ whose lifelong illness prompts the disciples to ask Christ, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Their very human instinct to attribute suffering to some sort of private failing is rebuked by Christ who invites his followers to view the man and his situation through the eyes of faith: ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.’ Christ then anoints the man and invites him to wash himself in a pool, the combination of which restores his vision.

At this stage, we might look at this passage suspiciously and query if the blind man has been unfairly made to suffer to serve as a teaching prop for Christ in his ministry. However, that would miss the underlying message of the account which has much less to do with suffering per se, and much more to do with our free response to the grace of God. Christ comes to save us but not to suppress our freedom, even if we use that freedom to reject the medicine of his grace.

The dismissive responses of the Pharisees and Jews to the report of the healing of a blind man reveal the human potential to deny Christ even in the face of his wondrous works. The Pharisees deem Christ to be a sinner for carrying out work on the Sabbath, even the work of healing, while the Jews reject the possibility of Christ doing the will of God because of his claim to be the Messiah. Although both communities are confronted by the sight of the healed man they instead turn away and narrowly focus on their own limited understanding of law and history.

In stark contrast, the healed man submits to Christ having witnessed his healing power, despite his limited grasp of events. Even though he sees ‘in a mirror dimly’ (1 Corinthians 13:12), he submits in obedience to the power of God and co-operates with His grace, in the same manner of co-operation with divine blessing as healed him in the first place. As we read and reflect on this passage, we might ask ourselves whether we are open and willing to take that leap of faith in response to God’s grace in our lives or whether we, like the Pharisees and Jews in this passage, constrain God and His works to a mechanism of our own making.

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