Fourth Sunday of Lent

By the Diocese of Wollongong, 19 March 2023
"The Blind Man at the Pool of Siloam" by Edmund Blair Leighton (1852–1922). Image: Public Domain.


Fourth Sunday of Lent

Readings: 1 Samuel 16:1, 6–7, 10–13; Psalm 22(23); Ephesians 5:8–14; John 9:1-41

19 March 2023



GOSPEL REFLECTION with Fr Mark De Battista

True spiritual sight

Today, St John takes us on a journey into what true spiritual sight consists of. As so often happens with the Gospel writers, the lesson that comes out is not what we might have expected. This event took place outside the Temple from where Jesus had just departed. The Pool of Siloam was nearby.

It was customary around the time of Jesus to associate those with a disability, whether from birth or during one’s life, as somehow being the result of sin. The Law taught that people should be kind to the lame, the blind and the poor, but this was not always the case. However, Jesus sets the record straight about disability and its origin, thus setting the stage for what was about to unfold. Moreover, the man remains anonymous throughout the episode—perhaps because he is symbolic of all those who come to spiritual sight in Jesus.

The making of a poultice with spittle was seen in some gentile areas as a form of medical treatment, but for the majority in Jewish culture, it would have been vulgar and therefore the man would have felt uncomfortable to undergo the treatment. According to the prevailing interpretation of the Law, the making of a mud poultice on the Sabbath would have been viewed as work, and thus breaking the Sabbath rest. Whereas, sending someone to wash had clear spiritual allusion to Naaman (2 Kg 5:1–27) or perhaps to the washing of purification common amongst the Jews.

The interrogation begins when his neighbours, and some previous onlookers from his begging days, disagree on whether it was the actual man born blind or just someone who looks like him. The man himself settles the dispute.

The key word over the next 22 verses (vv. 13–34) is “knowledge”, because those who are supposedly knowledgeable of the Law (the Pharisees) are shown to be ignorant, and the one who is supposedly ignorant of the Law (the man formerly blind) is shown to be knowledgeable. The word is used 10 times! Not surprisingly, however, the people are more interested in how it happened rather than in the fact that it happened, and so give praise to God.

The Pharisees on the other hand are the supposed bearers of knowledge, so the man is brought to them to verify the wondrous act that had taken place. Yet, even after seeing for themselves, they do not wish to accept the reality because they do not wish to believe. So, they send for the man’s parents to testify and ask them the same question. Once again, however, the supposed bearers of knowledge are still ignorant, because they do not wish to believe. Belief is ultimately a decision!

They treat the man harshly and unjustly even though the Pharisees had a scrupulous set of rules for questioning and cross examining a witness when establishing the truth in a dispute. The treatment of the man violates pharisaic ethical teaching when their prejudice about his “sinful” state (as a man born blind) comes to the fore and he is eventually expelled from the Temple (and presumably from the religious community.)

St John shows that faith in Jesus is the key to true knowledge of the Law. It is a decision. This is demonstrated by the man’s fullness of faith which leads him to an act of worship; something reserved to God alone. By contrast, the prejudice, insincerity, and refusal to believe demonstrated by the Pharisees result in an ever-deepening blindness which elicits a final judgment from Jesus that “their guilt remains” (Jn 9:41). True spiritual sight consists of faith in Jesus.


ARTWORK REFLECTION with Mgr Graham Schmitzer

The Blind Man at the Pool of Siloam – Edmund Blair Leighton (1852–1922).

“The Blind Man at the Pool of Siloam”, c. 1879. Oil on Canvas, 101.6cm x 127.6cm. Brigham Young University Museum of Art. Public Domain.

Now, in the second part of Lent, the Church presents us with the greatest of Christ’s miracles—today the cure of the blind man, and next Sunday the raising of Lazarus—remembering that these are the original readings for the final instruction of catechumens entering the Faith at Easter. Listening to them carefully should still fill us with awe.

Edmund Blair Leighton was an English artist, born in 1852. He was one of the Romantics of the late Victorian era who found great success with classical and medieval subjects popular at the time. The Blind Man at the Pool of Siloam, painted around 1879, is one of his early works. He had begun his career with monochrome illustrations for Cassell’s Magazine and its Book of British Ballads, but soon gave up black and white, working for the rest of his life in oil on canvas. He exhibited at the Royal Academy for 40 years.

St John has attached great symbolism to this account of Jesus’ cure of the blind man. The passage begins: “As he went along, he [Jesus] saw a man who had been blind from birth” (Jn 9:1). Jesus saw him, but he obviously did not see Jesus. It is Jesus who takes the initiative to enter into the life of someone who could not take the initiative himself. Jesus would later say to his disciples at the last supper: “You did not choose me, no, I chose you” (Jn 15:16). What is more, the man born blind knows that he cannot take the initiative. He is the epitome of those who know they can do nothing without the help of others—those who know they need God. The man’s humility sounds more loudly in Jesus’ ears than the clamour of the crowd around him. Human need always touches the heart of God. St Luke tells us of Jesus’ compassion for the widow of Nain (Lk 7:11–17)—the Greek literally says, “He was moved to the bowels”—and next Sunday, we will see him breaking down at the tomb of his friend. In all of the Gospels, Jesus seems to be drawn to people’s suffering like iron to magnet.

Again, Luke makes this obvious in his parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11–32). The father was “moved with pity” at his son’s return, even though the boy had humiliated him publicly. And when Jesus answers Peter’s question, “Lord, how many time must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me?” with “seventy-seven times”, (Mt 18:21)—i.e., infinity—Jesus is only telling Peter to do what God does. It is not only the physically sick who arouse God’s pity, but those suffering from the sickness of sin.

Leighton has captured not the moment of the healing, but the blind man’s act of obedience to Christ who had told him to “go and wash in the Pool of Siloam”. With cane in right hand, he has his left arm around the shoulders of a young girl who has come to help him. Notice that Jesus does not give an initial promise of a cure, simply the command to go and wash. The blind man accepts this without a word of protest, a sign of his great humility, for he could have been asking himself what good would that do. He had not protested either when Jesus made the seemingly humiliating gesture of rubbing his spittle mired with clay on the man’s eyes. How would you react if someone you’d never met before came up and covered your face with their saliva?

This is so similar to the story we hear on Monday of Lent’s third week of Naaman the leper who was told by the prophet Elisha to wash seven times in the Jordan River. But, unlike the blind man, Naaman felt insulted by being asked to do such a simple thing. “Here was I, thinking he would be sure to come out to me, and stand there, and call on the name of the Lord his God, and wave his hand over [me]” (2 Kg 5:11).

Finally, he thought better and did as he was told. But the point is that God works in our lives through the most simple of things—no thunder and lightning, but things as familiar and ordinary as water and oil, bread and wine. Lent is the time to re-invigorate our faith. The clay Jesus used to anoint the blind man’s eyes is, of course, a reminder of our nature as creatures. “God shaped man from the soil of the ground” (Gn 2:7). Now, Christ had come to re-create.

Most of the passage is not a conversation between Jesus and the man born blind. Jesus appears only at the beginning and the end (notice Leighton does not include the figure of Jesus in his painting.) Rather, John is concentrating on the record of the words of those who refuse to believe the testimony of the cured man (and thus the testimony of Jesus himself.) To call their words a conversation would be an insult, because they really have no interest in listening to the man or even addressing him. The blind Pharisees are really only talking to themselves. They have their preconceived ideas about God, and nothing is going to sway them.

This leads us to ask ourselves: are we entirely open to God? Do we allow him to break into our lives the way he chooses? Do we expect theophanies, or have we trained ourselves to see him in the ordinary rather than the extra-ordinary? It reminds me of the words of the poet Elizabeth Barret Browning: “Earth is crammed with heaven”. We have only to look.

But one great preconception St John addresses is our nagging fear that sickness and misfortune are punishments from God. The disciples themselves are operating on this premise. How could someone sin who was not yet born? So, the blame is thrown onto the parents of the blind man. Jesus emphatically declares the man free from sin and affirms that God sometimes allows a physical evil to afflict good people (such as Job in the Old Testament) to manifest a greater good. This particular man was born in darkness so that the light of God might shine on the world. St Paul would later write that he gloried in his weaknesses. They made God’s power more obvious.


Fr Mark De Battista migrated from Malta with his family in 1978. He completed his schooling in the Diocese of Wollongong and offered himself for the priesthood in 1988. He commenced his studies at St Patrick’s College, Manly in 1989 and was ordained priest in 1995, serving in various parishes across the diocese until 2002. From 2003–2007, he served in two assignments in the USA with university chaplaincy in the states of Illinois and Colorado. After some years back in the diocese, he undertook post graduate studies in Rome from 2010–2016 in the field of sacred Scripture at the Pontifical Biblical Institute (Biblicum), the Pontifical Gregorian University and the Pontifical Biblical Commission (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith). Since his return to the diocese, he has served in various parishes, and from 2018–2021, he was chaplain to the University of Wollongong. From 2018, he has also served in St Patrick’s Parish, Port Kembla, where he is now the parochial administrator. He is currently chaplain to Mass For You At Home broadcast on Network Ten and Foxtel each week.

Monsignor Graham Schmitzer is the retired parish priest of Immaculate Conception Parish in Unanderra, NSW. He was ordained in 1969 and has served in many parishes in the Diocese of Wollongong. He was also chancellor and secretary to Bishop William Murray for 13 years. He grew up in Port Macquarie and was educated by the Sisters of St Joseph of Lochinvar. For two years he worked for the Department of Attorney General and Justice before entering St Columba’s College, Springwood, in 1962. Mgr Graham loves travelling and has visited many of the major art galleries in Europe.

With thanks to the Diocese of Wollongong, who have supplied this reflection from their publication, Triumph – Lenten Program 2023Reproduced with permission.


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