Today's gospel centers on the analogy and distinction between physical and spiritual blindness, as do most of the Gospel miracle stories where Jesus heals blind people. The early Christians saw physical blindness as a metaphor for the spiritual blindness, which prevents people from recognizing and coming to Jesus. These stories testify, therefore, to the power of Jesus to heal not just the blindness of the eye but, above all, the blindness of the heart.
The clue that the evangelist intended this story to be read on these two levels, physical and spiritual, is found at the tail end of the story:
Jesus said, "I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind." Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, "Surely we are not blind, are we?" Jesus said to them, "If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, 'We see,' your sin remains." (John 9:39-41)
The mission statement that Jesus gives here is valid not only for the Pharisees but also for the men and women of our time.
To learn from Jesus we must first admit our ignorance, to be healed we must first acknowledge our blindness; to be forgiven we must confess our sins.
The I'm-OK-you're-OK mentality so prevalent today may in fact not be too far from the mentality of the Pharisees. The great archbishop Fulton J. Sheen used to say that in the past only Catholics believed in the Immaculate Conception but today everybody thinks they are immaculately conceived and, therefore, sinless.
From earliest times today's gospel story has been associated with baptism. Just as the blind man went down into the waters of Siloam and came up whole, so also believers who are immersed into the waters of baptism come up spiritually whole, totally healed of the blindness with which we are born. For, like the blind man in the gospel, we are all born blind - spiritually, that is.
Another reason why this story was used in the preparation of catechumens for baptism is that it spells out in a very dramatic way "what it takes to be a disciple of Jesus".
It is, in fact, a story of how a blind man who used to sit and beg became a disciple who went about witnessing to Jesus. As in last week's story of the conversion of the Samaritan woman by Jacob's well, this story of the healing of the blind man shows that "the one thing you need to qualify to bear witness to Jesus is not doing a certain kind of studies but having a certain kind of experience".
The crisis of faith in our time is not very different from the crisis of faith of the Pharisees, namely, thinking that true piety means knowing and following the Book. But Christianity has a lot more to do with knowing and following the Person, the person of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The crisis of membership and commitment we have in our churches today can be traced to the understanding in the past that being a Christian was a matter of following certain doctrines and rituals.
"The most important thing, bringing people into a relationship with Jesus was neglected". Not anymore!
The irony of the situation is that it is only after such a personal relationship with the Lord that people can begin to appreciate the importance of church worship and doctrine for the life of faith. Faith experience comes before theology. That is why the blind man arrived at the true faith in Jesus before the learned Pharisees.
So, when in our ministry we stress doctrine and ritual over personal encounter with the Lord, one begins to wonder whether we are not putting the cart before the horse.
Let us today admit our spiritual blindness and pray with St Augustine of Hippo in the spirit of Lent and today's gospel: "Lord that we may see." The Lord will give us light and spiritual insight.