Years ago the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, long persecuted by the crass Peronist bureaucracy because of his antifascist leanings, was finally granted one of the great honors of his life. In 1955 the same government that removed Peron from power, appointed Borges director of the National Library and professor of English Literature at the University of Buenos Aires. Earlier that year Borges had lost his eyesight to a form of congenital blindness. In typical borgesian fashion he wrote:
Do not reduce to tears or reproach this
My extolling of God’s awesome irony
Of giving me at once
Darkness, and a vast library…
Knowing he was going to loose his eyesight just like his father did, Borges hurried up to read everything available to him in Spanish, Latin, Greek, English, French, Italian, Old Norse, and German. Everyone’s impression at the time was that he had read every existing book. His blindness was credited also with being the cause of his original style of writing. He was the first of the realismo mágico school of writing that would dominate Spanish literature for years to come. Sometimes a curse can be turned into a blessing.
I thought of Borges’ blindness last Sunday when we read the story of the blind man of Jericho at Mass.
“And taking the twelve, he said to them, “Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written of the Son of man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered to the Gentiles, and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon; they will scourge him and kill him, and on the third day he will rise.” But they understood none of these things; this saying was hid from them, and they did not grasp what was said. As he drew near to Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging; and hearing a multitude going by, he inquired what this meant. They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” And he cried, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And those who were in front rebuked him, telling him to be silent; but he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus stopped, and commanded him to be brought to him; and when he came near, he asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, let me receive my sight.” And Jesus said to him, “Receive your sight; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he received his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God.” Luke 18:35-43
Balaam the “seer”
Jericho is in the plains while Jerusalem is located higher up. That is why Jesus goes up from Jericho to Jerusalem. Jericho was also the first city in the Promised Land to be conquered by the Israelites lead by Joshua, while Jerusalem was conquered by David many generations after the arrival of Israel to Canaan. In the parable of the Good Samaritan, the road from Jericho to Jerusalem provides a backdrop to the story and it is an apt metaphor for the history of Israel. Jesus starts to climb towards Calvary right there at that moment.
According to Jewish tradition, Balaam the “seer” perished when the walls of Jericho collapsed. Balaam the “seer” is also ironically an example of spiritual blindness. He was hired by the Canaanite kings to put a curse on the people of Israel. And yet God makes sure to let the “seer” know that God is still in control. In the following text, please notice who can see and who cannot.
“And God came to Balaam at night and said to him, “If the men have come to call you, rise, go with them; but only what I bid you, that shall you do.” So Balaam rose in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab. But God’s anger was kindled because he went; and the angel of the Lord took his stand in the way as his adversary. Now he was riding on the ass, and his two servants were with him. And the ass saw the angel of the Lord standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand; and the ass turned aside out of the road, and went into the field; and Balaam struck the ass, to turn her into the road. Then the angel of the Lord stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side. And when the ass saw the angel of the Lord, she pushed against the wall, and pressed Balaam’s foot against the wall; so he struck her again. Then the angel of the Lord went ahead, and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left. When the ass saw the angel of the Lord, she lay down under Balaam; and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he struck the ass with his staff. Then the Lord opened the mouth of the ass, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” And Balaam said to the ass, “Because you have made sport of me. I wish I had a sword in my hand, for then I would kill you.” And the ass said to Balaam, “Am I not your ass, upon which you have ridden all your life long to this day? Was I ever accustomed to do so to you?” And he said, “No.” Then the Lord opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, with his drawn sword in his hand; and he bowed his head, and fell on his face. And the angel of the Lord said to him, “Why have you struck your ass these three times? Behold, I have come forth to withstand you, because your way is perverse before me; and the ass saw me, and turned aside before me these three times. If she had not turned aside from me, surely just now I would have slain you and let her live.” Then Balaam said to the angel of the Lord, “I have sinned, for I did not know that thou didst stand in the road against me. Now therefore, if it is evil in thy sight, I will go back again.” And the angel of the Lord said to Balaam, “Go with the men; but only the word which I bid you, that shall you speak.” So Balaam went on with the princes of Balak.” Numbers 22:21-35.
God grabs Balaam’s attention by making an irrational animal reason with the “seer.” When we look at the whole scene it is obvious that God is calling attention to the asinine conduct of the “seer” who is willing to put a curse on the people of Israel for the benefit of the Canaanite kings who will pay him for the service. This prophet is a self-serving prophet but he is also blind. Why? Because he and the nations around Arabia heard of the liberation of Israel from Egyptian oppression, and then witnessed forty years of miraculous survival of over a million people in a parched and lifeless desert. To any person with some power of deduction, it was obvious that a supernatural force was supporting the people of Israel. This is a good analogy for the situation we see today when some consider the destruction of the Christian faith. Shouldn’t it be obvious that something that survives twenty centuries under all kinds of cruel and pernicious persecution is more than likely to enjoy some kind of supernatural support? Yet those “illuminated” intellects are as blind as the “seer” Balaam. The Church has survived the Roman Empire and all the religions and heresies of the ancient world. The patriarch that starts the adventure of this faith, Abraham, lived at the most ancient edge of the Iron Age. Over and over his simple perception of the world has been proven right over the “settled science” of the day, and yet some go on insisting that the Christian religion is a dark, irrational superstition.
Saul of Tarsus
Far from Jericho to the north of Jerusalem is the country of Syria. That is where Saul of Tarsus was traveling to persecute the Christian community of Damascus. Many centuries after Balaam, Saul was about to encounter a similar experience.
“It is hard for you to kick against the goads” was then a common proverb familiar to anyone living in an agricultural society. Beasts employed in plowing the fields were prodded with an iron goad. The more the animal resisted the prodding the deeper the goad would be driven into its flesh. Jesus is thus showing Saul that resistance is not only futile but will result in painful harm.
“But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he journeyed he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven flashed about him. And he fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? It hurts you to kick against the goads.” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting; but rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.” The men who were traveling with him stood speechless, hearing the voice but seeing no one. Saul arose from the ground; and when his eyes were opened, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. And for three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank.” Acts 9:1-9 see also Acts 26:12-18.
The conversion of Saul is remarkable. The man, who traveled far from Jerusalem with letters of authority, and chains to bind the Christians, ended up in chains writing letters to edify the Christian congregations around the ancient world. Such is the power of Jesus.
This is the same Jesus that opened the eyes of the blind beggar of Jericho but now He is closing the eyes of the future St. Paul. A Christian man will restore his eyesight three days later in a house located “in the street called Straight.” Obviously the Lord wants poor Saul to associate the straight and narrow path with his ability to see, which is returned to him by a Christian. That was a big lesson for the proud and learned scholar Saul of Tarsus.
Three kinds of blindness
Balaam was blinded by his own avarice and ambition, Saul of Tarsus by his own pride, Borges and the beggar of Jericho by mere genetics. Balaam stupidly remained in a path of collision with the purpose of God, Saul of Tarsus —who later became St Paul— got the point and changed his life showing his repentance with fasting and penance right away. In the case of the disciples, unwittingly walking with their Master towards the painful lesson of Calvary: “they understood none of these things; this saying was hid from them.” They were not allowed to see what was really going on because they were still too weak to know the truth.
It seems to me that the beggar of Jericho had the best disposition. He heard the noise, he was attentive, and as soon as he knew that it was Jesus passing by, no one in the world was going to stop him from seeking the famous prophet! He threw away his cloak (how was he going to find it back?) because he had that rare kernel of pure faith. He moved forward forcing his friends to take him to Jesus. When he finally hears “What do you want Me to do for you?” he humbly asks and receives the ultimate prize. The first thing he gets to see is the face of God.(Matthew 5:8)
 One interesting case is the matter of the immanence of the Universe. From ancient days the Hebrews and later all Christians have affirmed contra mundum that the Universe had a beginning. Yet from the ancient philosophers all the way to the early 20th century all scholars have affirmed that the Universe had no beginning. That of course does not resist much of an analysis since the days of Newton. Only after the discoveries of Edwin Hubble and the mathematical verification by Georges Lemaître the scientific community realized that the sons of Abraham were right all along. Yet no one apologized to the “ignorant, superstitious” Jewish and Christian believers. See Abraham’s Certainty.