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.