A Story of Inclusion: Sickness, Sin, and the Man Born Blind

This homily was preached on the fourth Sunday of Lent at St. Ignatius Church, Chestnut Hill, Mass.

When St. Ignatius Loyola was coming up with the laws and rules for the Society of Jesus, he included some strange things. When he was writing about who to accept into the Jesuits he wrote in the Constitutions of the Jesuits, that no one should be admitted to the Jesuits who had, “in regard to the exterior, a lack of bodily integrity, illnesses and weaknesses or notable ugliness.” That’s right, there was a beauty requirement to become a Jesuit. No one could be notably ugly, or otherwise deformed. Ignatius goes on to explain why.

It is to be noticed that persons who have notable disfigurements or defects such as humpbacks and other deformities, whether they be natural or accidental, such as those from wounds and the like, are not suitable for this Society. For these defects are hindrances for the priesthood and do not help toward the edification of the neighbors…

Of course this sounds strange to our ears today, and in fact these rules no longer apply to candidates who present themselves for admission to the Society of Jesus. Being notably ugly is no longer an impediment for entrance in the society of Jesus.

Tonight’s gospel is a story about inclusion and exclusion, a tale about those who are left out of society and those who get to exclude them. The man born blind is excluded from his culture and his society because of his deformity, his blindness. The logic goes something like this, and we see it in the question of the disciples. “Who sinned, this man or his parents, that caused him to be blind?” Physical defects were seen to be the result of moral badness, moral defects. Of course we still have this sort of thinking in our own culture today. Many people who wind up in the hospital often ask, “What have I done to deserve this?” It’s embedded deep within our psyche to equate these things—physical illness, deformity, or notable ugliness in the case of Ignatius—with moral deviancy, sinfulness, bad behavior.

Jesus, in tonight’s gospel, turns this sort of thinking about sinfulness and sickness on its head. He asks us tonight to change the way we think about sin and sickness and the relationship between the two. On a deeper level, he asks us to change the way we think about who gets in and who is left out of our society, our culture, and our institutions. According to Jesus, the man is not blind because of his sin or the sin of his parents. This isn’t to say that they were without sin. No, we assume that because they are part of the human race, that they are sinful people. Jesus just wants us to stop thinking that physical defects are the result of moral evil, and therefore a reason for excluding people from our midst.

According to Jesus, the man was born blind so that he works of God may be made manifest in him. And then Jesus sets out to correct the deficiency by making a paste of mud, an ointment of the very earth from which the first Adam was fashioned. We learn here that Jesus has come to complete our creation—to bring all of us into the fold, to give all of us a complete life. Notice that nothing was required of the man. Jesus did not interrogate him to determine his worthiness for healing. It’s only after the healing that the man comes to believe in the power of God as expressed through Jesus’ miraculous healing of the man.

Sin really has nothing to do with this story, and that’s Jesus’ main point. Of course sin does separate us from the love of God and love of neighbor, and thus by our sin we exclude ourselves from the community of humankind. But this story is about how we pass judgment on those among us. Who among us do we exclude from society because of their so-called sinfulness? Who do we keep away from the table of the Lord because of their so-called sinfulness? While Jesus clearly wants all to be included at the banquet of the Lord, some sit in judgment over others. Who because of the way God made them are kept at arms length from the rest of us?

Jesus tells us tonight, that these so-called defects are not really defects, they are opportunities for the grace of God to be at work among us. Lent is a time for conversion, change of heart and mind. Our task tonight is to change the way we think about sin, exclusion and inclusion in our society.  Tonight we have an opportunity to end up on the correct side of salvation history—the side of salvation history that includes everyone at the Lord’s table. Perhaps as we go through our examination of consciousness at the end of tonight’s mass, we might ask God to show us how we have excluded people because of what we think is sinful yet God finds full of grace and light and hope.

No one is above the instinct to exclude—take St. Ignatius as a example of someone who fell into this way of thinking—and we need to open our hearts to the possibility of conversion.   So as we continue to make our Lenten conversion—our Lenten journey, let us pray for the openness to meet all of our brothers and sisters here at the table of the Lord.

Jeff Johnson, S.J.

2 Responses to A Story of Inclusion: Sickness, Sin, and the Man Born Blind

  1. M. says:

    Well..one way those who try to bring healing of the family tree connect with the incident is how the blind man could have an earlier ancestor , other than the parents , who was a cause !

    True, the incident asks us to focus more on what God can do .Yet , the effort to search for reasons for illnesses are often with the intent to find out what can be done for such , such as having Holy mass offered for ancestors etc :

    There is the real life confession of a widow whose husband was involved in an atrocious murder and charged it on a priest ; family was haunted by calamities and years later , a spiritual confessor showed them the connection ; they publicly owned up their guilt ,exonerating the priest !
    There is mystery in suffering and we may not know the reasons other than that they all can serve to show God’s power and mercy , which , if applicable can be asked for any and all involved – even generations past !

  2. Pete Lake says:


    Thanks for sharing your homily.

    I enjoyed reading it, but it has caused some cognative dissonance in me.

    You say that sin has nothing to do with the story in the Gospel, but then immediately you say that our task with the Gospel to story is to change the way we think about sin?

    I was with you that we should not exclude people because of physical defects, but then you completely changed course. You went from physical defects not being the result of moral evil, to saying who do we exclude for so-called sinfulness or who de we keep away from the table of the Lord because of their so-called sinfulness? Is there a connection there between physical defects being equated to a cause of sin and what you’ve termed as “so-called sinfulness?” Which begs the question: what do you mean by so-called sinfulness? It’s not clear from your homily, although I immediately thought of parents who abort children that will be born with down syndrome as an example, but I don’t think such parents do so because of any “so-called sinfulness.”

    Now, let me turn to another point. If what I think you mean are trying to say is that we exclude people whose behavior is clearly sinful as taught to us by through the teaching authority of the Church, then I would suggest that we should not exclude but rather pray for conversions. However, we should not be blind to sinful behavior. Is that not what St. Paul was telling us in the first reading: “Try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in fruitless works of darkness; rather expose them … Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”

    Let’s not be blind to the light because we are blinded by unrecognizable notions like “so-called sinfulness.”

    Finally, I resent the implication that St. Ignatius would exclude anyone. Just because not all are fit to be Jesuits doesn’t not mean that anyone should be excluded. After all, Ignatius himself was excluded in his early ministry until he finished at the University of Paris, was humiliated learning lessons with younger students, and himself suffered a physical injury. Ignatius was concerned with the salvation of all souls, and we should not think otherwise of such a great saint who had mystical experiences of the Trinty and our Lord and was so devoted to the Mother of us all.

    God bless you and all at BC. Can’t wait to read your next homily.

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