The Blindness of the Pharisees
(Readings: 1st Samuel 16:1, 6-7, 10-13; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41)
Introduction to Mass
The long gospel passage in the Mass this Sunday makes a contrast between the physical blindness of a man whom Jesus heals, so that he can see again, and the spiritual blindness of the Pharisees, who in spite of their very obvious and showy religious devotion, are actually far from being genuinely converted to God.
Let us begin Mass by acknowledging the times when we've fallen into the same attitudes as the Pharisees, and ask God for his pardon and healing, and for the grace to change.
The gospel passage we just listened to follows on from last week's gospel reading in terms of the theme that it addresses: in the person of Jesus God makes his salvation available to us.
Jesus reveals God to us more fully than ever before, and he announces that the time of separation from God is over. Last week Jesus described this offer of salvation as "living water" which wells up to eternal life. The gospel passage ended with the Samaritan woman and many of her fellow Samaritans accepting Jesus as the authentic carrier of the message of salvation: "We have heard him ourselves," they said, "and now we know that he is the saviour of the world".
This Sunday, as I say, the theme is the same, but in this instance St. John is showing us the attitude, or the complex of attitudes, behind the refusal to accept Christ and his message. This week the images used to describe God's salvation are light, vision, the ability to see. Refusal means blindness and remaining in darkness.
As ever the villains in the gospel - the examples of spiritual blindness - are the Pharisees. The Scribes and the Pharisees don't come out very well in any of the gospels, it's fair to say. St. Matthew and St. John give a particularly damning picture.
We know from what the scripture scholars tell us that historically, or in real life, if you like, a lot of the Pharisees weren't as bad as the gospels make out.
But of course, the purpose of the scholars who go into a lot of detailed historical research is different from the purpose of the gospel writers. They weren't writing the social history of the Jewish people. They were telling the story of Jesus' life and death and resurrection, and they were telling it in such a way as to strengthen the faith of the communities they belonged to, and to have something to help persuade other people to join the community.
Within that overall purpose the Scribes and the Pharisees had a special function. In the gospels, the Scribes and the Pharisees are always presented as examples of a diseased spiritual attitude, a diseased attitude towards God. With a few individual exceptions, they're presented as spiritual snobs, men who were self-satisfied spiritually. They were presented as men who thought they were in communion with God because they were keeping certain rules and performing certain rituals. Their lives were already sufficiently converted and reformed in their own opinion and they looked down on other people as less advanced spiritually than they were.
St John, in the ninth chapter of his gospel sums up that collection of attitudes as a spiritual blindness. "We're not blind, surely?" say the Pharisees, full of very genuine indignation. And of course Jesus replies, in a very chilling judgement of them: "Since you think you can see, your guilt remains." St John, as I was saying, isn't giving a historical picture of the Pharisees. He's warning the members of the Christian community - us, in other words - don't fall into this diseased way of thinking. Don't start thinking that spiritually you've done enough, and that you don't need to be converted any further.
I dare say very few of us would say openly: "I'm already sufficiently converted. I'm as holy and as virtuous as I need to be". But actually, in our communities, a self-satisfied and self-congratulatory attitude is often more common than we might like to admit.
After all, when we read the gospels, or when we listen to the gospels, we don't, by and large, identify ourselves with the Pharisees. We might identify ourselves with the disciples, we might identify with the people in Jesus' parables who take the right attitude. But we're not very fond - are we - of identifying with the people Jesus criticises.
What we can fall into very easily is an attitude of: we're the one's who come to Mass, we give a lot of money to CAFOD, or we put in a lot of work for the bishop's committee on such and such. And what we're saying, really is: "we're not blind, surely? It's all these other people who don't belong to any organisations or any committees who aren't contributing to the Church's work. They need to be more like us."
It's very easy to externalise Christ's call, or the gospel demand, for conversion: to see the demands of repentance as applying to everyone else except ourselves. The Church needs to change, the Pope needs to change, the liturgy needs to change. You don't hear so much along the lines of "I need to change".
But the point is, if we don't acknowledge our own need for conversion and reform, it's no good going around trying to reform everything else outside of ourselves. The conversion God wants, first of all, is conversion of our own hearts. I don't want your sacrifices, he says all the time in the Bible: I don't want fancy ceremonies or grand schemes that supposedly give me glory but really glorify the people taking part in them. I want a pure heart and a contrite spirit. That's the offering I want you to make me.
On the positive side there are maybe two things we can interpret as signs of genuine conversion, or two basic attitudes we can deliberately try to cultivate within ourselves.
One is a kind of dissatisfaction with the level of our response to God, a desire for change. That's got nothing to do with being neurotic or feeling guilty for no reason. It's more a sense that there's an invitation into a relationship on God's part, an invitation to place ourselves under the influence of his holiness - and just as in human relationships, if there's no response on our part, no participation, the relationship won't progress, it'll stagnate. Real contact with God makes us restless with ourselves, rather than self-satisfied.
And the second thing we should be able to discover or notice in ourselves as a sign of on-going conversion is: more and more of a concern with God himself, rather than all the substitutes for God - especially the masses of religious activities that can be the most subtle distraction from God himself, which was the big mistake the Pharisees made. "Try to discover what the Lord wants of you, " says St. Paul in the second reading, "having nothing to do with the futile works of darkness, but exposing them by contrast" with the light of God.
I'll finish with a prayer written by St Augustine, who resorted to the same imagery of light and darkness to describe his own experience of finding God, and the desire for further conversion that finding God gave him.
"Look upon us, O Lord, and let all the darkness of our souls vanish before the beams of your brightness. Fill us with holy love, and open to us the treasures of your wisdom. All our desire is known to you, therefore perfect what you have begun and what your Spirit has awakened us to ask in prayer. We seek your face, turn your face to us and show us your glory. Then shall our longing be satisfied, and our peace be perfect."