4th Sunday of Lent, John 9:1-41
If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, “We see,” so your sin remains.
How shocking it is that Christ our Light should declare, For judgment I am come into this world; that they who see not, may see; and they who see, may become blind (John 9:39). Blindness! The Light of the World tells us that he came to make blind they who now can see! What might this mean?
Were the Pharisees blind, Christ would have taken away their sin and brought about their salvation; yet, their sin remained insofar as they could see. Shall we say, then, that Christ blinded the Pharisees, while he gave true sight to the man who had been born blind? If blindness leads to redemption, ought we to desire to be blind? Or, rather, should we pray that we might see?
We have here, in this ninth chapter of John’s Gospel, a most eloquent discussion of the mystery of sin and redemption, but all hinges upon the metaphor of blindness.
Were the Pharisees blind? Or could they see?
Certainly, the Pharisees were not physically blind; but were they spiritually blind? We may at first be tempted to conclude that the Pharisees were already spiritually blind, even before Christ came upon then – this, however, seems to contradict the words of our Savior. The Good Jesus says, For judgment I am come into this world […] that they who see, may become blind (John 9:39). The Pharisees, it is clear, were among those who could see – and this is not merely physical sight, but includes even a certain degree of spiritual sight.
Before they encountered the Christ, the Pharisees could see: They understood much of the Law (though, of course, they did not accept the essence of the Law), they knew the Scriptures well, and it is probable that many of them were striving after holiness to some degree. However, the good that is in them is too little and they are not willing to accept the Savior. They are like the man whose one talent was taken away and given to the other who had ten – for even the little he has will be taken away from him! The Pharisees could indeed see, but they had only a partial vision. This slight sight was to be their downfall.
Christ, according to his own testimony, came into the world that these Pharisees who see, may become blind. Shall we conclude that the Savior willed the loss of these? Did he truly come in order that the Pharisees would be blinded and fall away into hell? Fr. Cornelius a’ Lapide comes to our aid: “The words that, therefore, &c., frequently signify not the cause, but the result or consequence. For Christ came not in order that the Scribes should be made blind; but their blindness was a result of Christ’s preaching, not from anything on His part, but from their own pride and fault.”
The Good Lord did not come in order that the Pharisees should fall (for even some of the Pharisees and Sanhedrin believed), but his coming truly did result in the fall and spiritual blindness of a great many. It was precisely this fact, that the Pharisees had some slight spiritual sight, that these were made blind by the coming of Christ – for, knowing something of the Scriptures and of the prophecies of the Messiah, they were yet too proud to accept the Christ when he came!
The blindness that leads to redemption
St. John Chrysostom, Theophylact, and Euthymius apply this saving “blindness” to bodily or physical blindness; in the sense that, “If you were blind in your bodies and could not see, you Pharisees would be less proud and sinful. Then, your physical blindness would lead you to true humility and salvation.”
St. Augustine, on the other hand, speaks better when he refers this “blindness” to a man’s opinion of himself; meaning, “If you Pharisees were blind in your own self-opinion, acknowledging yourselves to be ignorant and foolish in the things of heaven, you would not have sin. For, in your humility, you would seek a remedy from me, and I would heal you.”
However, Fr. Cornelius a’ Lapide is the most accurate and erudite of all: “If ye were blind through ignorance of Scripture and the law of nature, ye would not have sin, by acting according to this ignorance and not acknowledging Me as your Messiah. That is to say, If your ignorance were clearly without blame and invincible, ye would have some sin, but one which was less serious, and more excusable, and therefore ye might easily be enlightened and cured by Me, since My doctrine would dispel your ignorance. But now ye say to yourselves, We see, that is, ye think ye see, and are so wise as to be excellent judges of Christ’s advent and person. And therefore ye from your arrogant and evil thoughts continue in the sin of unbelief against Me; ye obstinately set your mind against Me, and thus refuse to believe in Me as the Messiah, though I have demonstrated that I am by very many signs and miracles. And therefore, ye cannot by any possibility be enlightened and healed by Me, because ye obstinately refuse to hear Me.”
There is indeed a spiritual blindness that leads to redemption: Those, who through no fault of their own do not recognize Christ and his Law, but who nevertheless strive to follow the light of their own reason (in accord with their conscience, as God directs them); such as these will most certainly be led by interior movements of grace to come to true and divine faith (whether implicit or explicit, I know not).
Either through the work of a missionary (as when the Lord directed St. Philip to the Ethiopian Eunich) or through some hidden interior movement (in a manner analogous to that by which Christ enlightened St. Paul), God will most certainly bring to salvation each and all of those who, through invincible ignorance and no fault of their own, are blind and know not Christ (explicitly) but who nevertheless strive to follow God with their whole heart.
Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. (Lumen Gentium 16)