Gospel Reflection for the 4th Sunday of Lent - March 19th
Gospel Reflection Sunday March 19th 2023, Fourth Sunday of Lent
“This man cannot be from God: he does not keep the sabbath.”
Thus spoke the Pharisees in today’s Gospel. They used these words to condemn Jesus for restoring sight to a blind man on the sabbath. Imagine! Because he spat on the ground, made a paste of spittle and dust, daubed it on the man’s eyes and told him to wash it off in the pool of Siloam, he was considered to be ‘working’ on the Sabbath, and therefore he had to be condemned. “He could not…” as they said, “…be of God.” For doing good, giving a blind man sight and hope and a new life, he could not be “of God.”
What kind of a God did they believe in? How impossibly cruel is a God who would judge so harshly, and what unbelievable pride and arrogance to imagine that they could dictate to God who he must reject and why. Could the God, who the Pharisees believed created us in his own “image and likeness” actually want one of his cherished creatures to remain blind because Jesus happened to come across him on the wrong day?
Yes, we shake our heads in disbelief and amazement at this narrow-mindedness and petty jealousy, for that is what it was. Our God, we say, “holds us in the palms of his hands”. The psalmist wrote, “As a child lies quietly in its mother’s arms, so my soul is quiet within me.” How could the Pharisees not see this? Would this God – this loving mother/father – condemn their child for doing a good and compassionate act? The God the Pharisees knew about, and the God I believe in, would never…ever…condemn an action which is so obviously good.
Almost exactly ten years ago (November 2013) Pope Francis issued his first proclamation to the Church and the world. The “Joy of the Gospel” set out his vision for a missionary Church, active in the modern world. In it he wrote: “My hope is that we will be moved by a fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: ‘Give them something to eat’ (Mk 6:37).” (EG 49)
Now ten years later I find myself asking how far have we come in making this Church a reality? How many of us – and I include myself here – still hold on to “structures which give us a false sense of security.” If our experience of Covid-19 taught us anything, it has to be an awareness of our fragility and vulnerability as humans. Has it taught us to be more compassionate and open? How much more aware are we of the fragility and vulnerability of the homeless, the lonely, those who risk their lives and drown in our seas trying only to escape tyranny and look after their families? How loudly do we shout that structures which allow these things to exist are wrong? Surely we have to see that structures which allow this cannot be, as the Gospel says, “of God”?
How many of us try to hear the words of Pope Francis and become aware of the rules which make us “harsh judges” How easily do we say, or even think, “X,Y, or Z cannot be of God or go to Heaven, because they do not attend Sunday Mass?” And what of the divorced who remarry? How harshly do we judge them? How many of us say, “these people cannot be of God, because they are divorced, remarried, part of the LGBTQ community, are sinners?
Ten years on from the proclamation of Pope Francis, the poor and “starving are still at our doors,” and Jesus is still saying to us, “give them something to eat.”
None of this is intended in any way to instill a sense of guilt or doubt. Nor am I encouraging a kind of communal examination of conscience. That would be to do exactly what I warn against: judging harshly!
My questions are only to suggest that we pause and tread carefully.
The Pharisees who said in our Gospel, “This man cannot be from God: he does not keep the sabbath.” thought that they were doing what was right by protecting the Law of Moses and ensuring that exceptions were not made as to what constituted ‘work’ and what did not. The very fact that some Pharisees disagreed and there was disagreement among them indicates that those who condemned Jesus felt they could justify their opinion.
The reality is that they were wrong. The image of God they were using was a harsh one – judgmental, punishing, vengeful, demanding. Their views were based on individual texts from the Old Testament, but they were forgetting the overall portrayal of the ‘God of Israel’ as a loving, gentle, tender mother/father who cares deeply for his people. If I could quote Pope Francis again, “Whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realise that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms.” (EG 3). If we present this God to the world, then we avoid any possibility of becoming like the Pharisees because we too are “waiting with open arms” to welcome those who are most fragile and vulnerable among us.
Jesus challenged those who heard him to be open, tolerant, forgiving and compassionate. The Pharisees rejected his message and crucified him. Ten years ago Pope Francis challenged us to create a Church based on that same “Joy of the Gospel” – openness, tolerance, forgiveness and compassion. It is a challenge still before us, waiting to be heard.
Challenge can sometimes be perceived as a negative word, accusing us of failing or not trying hard enough. However it can, if we choose, also be seen as an invitation and that is the way Pope Francis asks us to see it: “Pastoral ministry in a missionary key must abandon the complacent attitude that says, ‘We have always done it this way’. I invite everyone to be bold and creative in this task of rethinking the goals, structures, style and methods of evangelization in their communities.” (EG 33)
We are ‘invited’ to be bold and creative in creating a society and a Church which is based on the ‘joy’ which is the Gospel. When Jesus restored sight to the blind man in today’s Gospel he was being bold and creative, refusing to be constrained by narrow rules which prevented good being done. As we see he was criticized and condemned for it.
Pope Francis called us in 2013 to be equally ‘bold and creative’ in our own world and in our own time. Sometimes it will mean standing against popular culture but maybe that is the cost of discipleship. Who knows, maybe Gary Lineker* has something to say to us! It’s worth thinking about.
* Readers outside Britain may have to Google reference to Gary Lineker!
If you have any comments, questions or thoughts on this scripture reflection, please feel welcome to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
|Gospel||John 9:1-41 ©|
The blind man went off and washed himself, and came away with his sight restored
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