‘I Came Into This World for Judgment’ — Jesus and the Man Born Blind

SCRIPTURES & ART: Jesus, who comes to restore and transfigure fallen man, heals us body and soul.

El Greco, “The Man Born Blind,” ca. 1573, Metropolitan Museum of Art
El Greco, “The Man Born Blind,” ca. 1573, Metropolitan Museum of Art (photo: Public Domain)

As noted last week, the Church provides two options for its readings on the Third, Fourth and Fifth Sundays of Lent. The Year B reading for today is John 3:14-21 (“For God so loved the world …”). The Scrutiny reading (to prepare catechumens for baptismal scrutinies), available for use every year, is the account of healing of the man born blind (John 9:1-41). The latter will be the subject of my commentary.

The Church offers the “Scrutiny” readings for these Lenten Sundays because they have sacramental allusions to Christ: the “Living Water” (the Samaritan woman, baptism), “the Light of the World” (healing the blind man, baptism and, by extension, penance), the “Way, the Truth, and the Life” (raising Lazarus, the Holy Eucharist). 

In today’s Gospel, Jesus encounters a man blind from birth. The Apostles’ question — “who sinned, him or his parents?” (John 9:2) may seem strange to us, but we need to understand what stands behind it.

For much of the Old Testament, the idea of an afterlife was inchoate at best. The Old Testament did not have a clear idea of what we call “heaven” or “hell.” All the dead go to “Sheol,” the “abode or place of the dead,” a kind of murky post-mortem existence. 

The ancient Jews were not, after all, ancient Greeks: they didn’t see the human person as a “soul trapped in a body.” For them, the person was a whole, body and soul. (The German theologian Karl Adam notes that this is one reason why the idea that Jesus was “spiritually raised,” rather than rising from the dead in his transformed human body, while appealing to moderns would have simply made no sense to Jesus’ Jewish contemporaries, like the Apostles). So, for ancient Israel, this disincarnate post-mortem existence was somehow shadowy (which explains how sometimes we hear the word “shades” used for the dead). 

However, as we noted last week, Judaism and Christianity distinguish themselves from other “religions” precisely because the relationship between God and human beings involves morality. People live good lives and bad lives. But if everybody ends up in the same kind of murky “Sheol” yet God is just, good has to be rewarded and evil punished somewhere. If everyone’s lot in the next world is the same, the only other locus to effect justice is this world.

The just man, therefore, should enjoy blessings in this life. The blessings typically singled out by ancient Israel were long life (if Sheol isn’t that appealing, the longer you avoid it, the better), faring well (being healthy and prosperous), and having lots of children (Yahweh wants the memory of you to continue). On the contrary, short life, suffering (bad health or abject poverty), and childlessness (this was not a contraceptive culture) were curses. That’s one reason why the Pharisees want Jesus to die on the cross: a young man suffering excruciating (the word comes from “cross”) torture for an extended time is clearly rejected by God and cursed (even before one throws Deuteronomy 21:33). So, obviously, a man suffering so severe a handicap as being blind from birth, with all its attendant problems (abandonment, being a social outcast and probably a beggar) naturally elicits the Apostles’ question.

Israel, of course, also began thinking about its theology. By the time we get to writers like Qoheleth and especially Job, this facile correspondence between sin and suffering is under challenge. Job is convinced of his righteousness, yet he’s lost everything: his wealth, his family, his children, his health. His lot does not correspond with the theology. Job has the questions, but not the answers. He also has faith (which is seeking, but still not arrived at, understanding): “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord!” (Job 1:21). (He also does not blame God for allowing suffering to happen, and thus “did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing” — v. 22).

It would not be until the last century or so before Jesus’ birth that the Old Testament begins to develop a clear understanding of an afterlife, especially one differentiated in terms of reward and punishment. That insight, found in the Book of Wisdom, develops out of the insight of love: as the Song of Songs (8:6) already observed, love cannot be quenched by death. As Wisdom reminds us, “God did not make death” and his loving fidelity is also just (Wisdom 1:12-16).

But because the Book of Wisdom arose in Jewish communities outside Israel, its inclusion in the Hebrew canon was in debate in Jesus’ day. We see traces of this debate over life after death in the quarrels of the Pharisees and Sadducees (e.g., Mark 12:8). So, yes, Jesus’ Apostles may have continued to think in the traditional Jewish terms of close correspondence between this sin and this punishment.

Lest we too quickly get an idea of moral superiority, consider today’s debates over COVID-19. On the one hand, there are those who (too?) quickly draw a correspondence between the scale of our pandemic and the scale of contemporary immorality. On the other hand, there are those whose morally therapeutic deism makes it practically inconceivable that God might chastise people for their sins, Biblical witness notwithstanding. Our Catholic tradition recognizes that there is some link between sin, i.e., freely chosen moral evil, and suffering (including death) without specifying exactly how that link plays out in concrete lives. That I leave to individual discernment and the Last Day.

Jesus, who comes to restore and transfigure fallen man, heals us body and soul. We’ve seen that theme in the Sunday Gospels prior to Lent (the exorcism of the possessed man in Capernaum, the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law and their neighbors, the healing of the leper). We see it again today.

Today’s Gospel is depicted in the 16th-century masterpiece by El Greco. Domenikos Theotokopouloscame from Crete, but he is better known by his Spanish name, “El Greco” (The Greek). He spent part of his life in Italy, where this work seems to have been painted ca. 1573, before moving to Spain, the country with which he is most associated and where his artistic powers reached their heights.   

It’s been said that El Greco’s style is sui generis: if you see an El Greco, you’ll know it’s an El Greco. El Greco blends East and West. In Crete, he learned to “write” icons, which is not just an artistic but, above all, a spiritual task. The figures in icons are not mere portraits: they are represented in their spiritual and mystical qualities, features especially expressed in their faces and bodies. We see those influences in El Greco’s particular style of faces, bodies and ethereal clothes. Later, when he came to Italy, El Greco also began to master Renaissance painting. He fuses the characteristics of Renaissance painting (perspectives, classical backgrounds, color schemes) with his own icon past. That synthesis is evident in his masterpiece, “The Cure of the Man Blind from Birth.”

The two central characters are Jesus and the blind man. Jesus stands over the man, supporting him with one hand while applying spittled clay to his eyes with the other. The focus is centered on these two in a variety of ways. For one, El Greco uses perspective to create depth in such a way that the diagonal line from the arch in the “rear” leads us directly to Jesus and the blind man. Two groups of people cluster to their right and left, appearing in some sense to be bystanders curious about what’s taking place in their midst. They also frame the central action. Two figures stand in the foreground, which one commentary suggests may be the blind man’s parents (see John 9:18-20). There is a certain resemblance between the older man and the blind one. They are clearly interested in what’s going on but, being “afraid of the Jewish leaders” who excommunicated Jesus’ followers from the synagogue (John 9:22-23), they maintain a certain distance. Those parents and the two people further back, sitting on the step, together with the crowds on the right and left, form a cross at whose center is Jesus and the blind man. 

(This painting appears in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. El Greco painted this scene two other times: one hangs in Dresden, one in Parma. A key variant of the paintings is the makeup of the crowds to Jesus’ left and right. One commentator suggests that some of the faces in the Parma crowd may in fact be portraits of the commissioning benefactor’s family). The whole event is dropped into a Renaissance landscape filled with classical architecture forms, much Renaissance costumery, and the color balances of that era’s painting style. 

Consider those hues as they would have first appeared to a man who had never seen colors! In his collection of poems, The Hundredfold Anthony Esolen ponders the man’s experience of light. Was it a sudden blast of previously unknown glory? Or was it more like sparks, like falling stars or snowflakes, shooting through his darkness until, like the creeping light of dawn, “there was light?” Esolen also suggests that, now that he can see the ground, this man can fly. Thanks to El Greco, we have a nicely tiled courtyard, but the real blind man, throughout his life, had to pay scrupulous attention to the surface beneath his feet. He had to mind the cracks and gaps lest, in his blindness, he fall. But now, thanks to the Light, he is no longer tethered to the ground. He’s a new Icarus, able to ascend not by the power of his own wings, made of wax fused together with fire “stolen” from the gods, but as the latest recipient of the true God’s first created gift: light. Our blind man can leap like a stag (Isaiah 35:6) and fly.