The Fourth Sunday in Lent, 30 March 2014

I Samuel 16:1-13
Psalm 23
Ephesians 5:8-14
St. John 9:1-41

Background: David

Which David shall we talk about?  Is it the David of folk legend, the killer of Goliath?  Is it the guerilla David, harassing the Philistines, and later troubling King Saul?  Is it David the family man, struggling with the all too familiar family problems that beset his life?  Is it David the musician and poet, who contributed to and inspired the psalter?  Is it David the sinner, who reveals a tainted and fragile side to human leadership?  Or, is it David the symbol – the first of a dynasty that would serve as the locus of Jesus’ heritage and destiny?  For our purposes it seems to be the latter, and the first reading will be sufficient grist for our mills.  David seems to be bigger than the “empire” that he actually ruled, and like other ancient leaders becomes a giant in our historical and liturgical imaginations.  Interested readers might want to consult Robert Alter’s excellent book: The David Story – A Translation with Commentary of I and II Samuel.  Here he introduces to us the various layers of this man’s story, and those who wrote about him and remembered him.  Characters sometimes become lost in the symbols that they become.  Thus to truly understand the symbol and to see the influence on or coloring of later referents, we need to be familiar with all that has been said or written.

1 Samuel 16:1-13

The Lord said to Samuel, "How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons." Samuel said, "How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me." And the Lord said, "Take a heifer with you, and say, `I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.' Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you." Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, do you come peaceably?" He said, "Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice." And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, "Surely the Lord's anointed is now before the Lord." But the Lord said to Samuel, "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart." Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, "Neither has the Lord chosen this one." Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, "Neither has the Lord chosen this one." Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, "The Lord has not chosen any of these." Samuel said to Jesse, "Are all your sons here?" And he said, "There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep." And Samuel said to Jesse, "Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here." He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, "Rise and anoint him; for this is the one." Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

God’s participation in this transaction is much more direct than that with Saul.  Here God speaks directly to Samuel, and the directions are unambiguous and given with authority.  God has either “seen”, or “provided” for an appropriate candidate amongst the sons of Jesse.  This is no myth absent of human reality.  Samuel sees that the situation is a threat, a political threat, to his existence.  God isn’t interested in this, but rather in a sacrifice that will provide the ritual platform upon which the decision will be made.  Samuel, it seems, is not the only one made anxious by the circumstances – the elders of the city “come trembling” fully aware of the risk that they are all taking.  They are not the only ones who are depicted as faltering in what has been asked of them.  Samuel himself does not seem up the job, as he repeats the mistake made with Saul, by suggesting Eliab, judging only his appearance.  And so it continues as Samuel is forced by God’s direction to run a gauntlet of decision when it comes to the remainder of the sons. 

Despite the God imposed direction to ignore the superficial aspects of Eliab, the introduction of David is ripe with appearances, “Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.”  The choice is God’s, however, with the words, “Rise and anoint him.”  The anointing, however, is not a public event, but rather a tribal event, and perhaps not even that.  It is done in the context of the family alone.  There is however another determining factor, namely the Spirit of the Lord.  This Spirit “comes mightily upon David.”  Thus the same prophet that has called and enlightened prophets now anoints a king.  The language and scene here seems borrowed in Jesus’ baptismal language, and further ties the image of Jesus to the legacy of David.

Breaking open I Samuel:
  1. What do you think were Samuel’s emotions during this episode?
  2. What causes the sense and fear and foreboding that surrounds the scene?
  3. How does God make God’s will known to you?

Psalm 23 Dominus regit me

The LORD is my shepherd; *
I shall not be in want.

He makes me lie down in green pastures *
and leads me beside still waters.

He revives my soul *
and guides me along right pathways for his Name's sake.

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; *
for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.

You spread a table before me in the presence of those who trouble me; *
you have anointed my head with oil, and my cup is running over.

Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, *
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

This psalm is so familiar and largely committed to memory, that it is difficult to comment on.  That has a great deal to do with its straightforward language and vision.  To look on God as a shepherd would not have been novel at the time it was written.  Most ancient near eastern gods enjoyed this analogy.  The author, however, is consistent with following the image through the entirety of the psalm.  There are some points that might be lost in our memory of the King James version.  “He revives my soul”, is a bit of a stretch, for the Hebrew word nefesh does not mean “soul” but rather “breath” or “life.”  Thus the phrase is much more radical.  God does not spiritually refresh me in my soul, but rather restores life itself.  Some terms, readily transferable to the shepherd metaphor, and the sheep themselves, are also quickly taken into the human experience: a) the fear of death, b) the need for justice, and c) the protection from harm.  Some images are not spiritual at all, but rather a comment on the goodness of the day.  The usual phrase, “you have anointed my head with oil” misses the mark in that the verb is not to anoint, but rather to “moisten.” The signs of a good life are abundant at the end of the psalm, coifed, fed, and given wine – such are the signs of God’s presence with us – for eternity.

Breaking open Psalm 23:
  1. Is there anything still startling for you in this psalm?  If so, what?
  2. How are you a shepherd?
  3. How are you one of the sheep?

Ephesians 5:8-14

Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light-- for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true. Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to mention what such people do secretly; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,

"Sleeper, awake!

Rise from the dead,

and Christ will shine on you."

The reading for today comes from a section of ethical discourses that aim to differentiate the Christian way, and to unite those who follow in The Way.  Thus the literary device of “light and darkness” that Paul uses here, is most effective.  Commentators note the similarities of this section with other material from writings that are truly attributed to Paul, as in Romans, and some likeness to the language of the literature from Qumran.  For Paul, those walking and working in the light (the Christians) are clearly distinct from those who do not (all others).  The light opens up our senses to see what is useful and fruitful.

Breaking open Ephesians:
  1. To what in this world are you blind?
  2. To what in your faith are you blind?
  3. What will cause you to see?

St. John 9:1-41

As he walked along, Jesus saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Jesus answered, "Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God's works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world." When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man's eyes, saying to him, "Go, wash in the pool of Siloam" (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbors and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, "Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?" Some were saying, "It is he." Others were saying, "No, but it is someone like him." He kept saying, "I am the man." But they kept asking him, "Then how were your eyes opened?" He answered, "The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, `Go to Siloam and wash.' Then I went and washed and received my sight." They said to him, "Where is he?" He said, "I do not know."
They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, "He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see." Some of the Pharisees said, "This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath." But others said, "How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?" And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, "What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened." He said, "He is a prophet."

The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, "Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?" His parents answered, "We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself." His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, "He is of age; ask him."

So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, "Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner." He answered, "I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see." They said to him, "What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?" He answered them, "I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?" Then they reviled him, saying, "You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from." The man answered, "Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing." They answered him, "You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?" And they drove him out.

Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, "Do you believe in the Son of Man?" He answered, "And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him." Jesus said to him, "You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he." He said, "Lord, I believe." And he worshiped him. Jesus said, "I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind." Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, "Surely we are not blind, are we?" Jesus said to them, "If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, `We see,' your sin remains."

The Gospel for today is also a fine example of the “light and darkness” theme that we saw in the second reading for today.  The story is tightly written to elucidate the theme that Christ is the light.  A brief outline may help:

1.     The setting (verses 1-5)
2.     The healing itself (verses 6-7)
3.     Questions asked of the blind man (verses 8-34)
a.     Questions asked by neighbors and friends (8-12)
b.    Questions asked by the Pharisees (13-17)
c.     Questions asked of the Parents of the man (18-23)
d.    Questions asked again by the Jews (24-34)
4.     Jesus’ “homily” on spiritual sight.

There is almost a cosmic sense to this pericope with no stone, no inquiry, and no insight left “unturned”.

The initial question of the disciples really sets the theological scene.  They wonder as to the causality of the man’s condition, and assume that it is one of sin.  In addressing their question, Jesus sets a whole new framework around the man and his condition, “It was no sin on this man’s part, nor on his parents’ part.  Rather it was to let God’s work be revealed in him.”  What follows is an expansion of this reframing of the situation.  John has Jesus repeat the central them before the theological points are reviewed, “I am the light of the world.” 

Jesus use of spittle is not confined to John, but is also found in Mark (7:33, and 8:23).  Matthew and Luke both omit these traditions.  It was a stumbling block to Jews, who saw it as magic.  For Jesus, I think, it was a device to draw the attention not only of the crowd but also the man himself by allowing multiple senses to know Jesus’ presence.  The series of questions seem to center around the authentication of the deed.  The question of neighbors, a recital of the actions that Jesus did, all of these allows the reader or hearer to revisit the deed itself. 

The Pharisees enter the picture, and John in a soto voce comment notes how this sign was done on the Sabbath day, an offense in its own right.  It is this dishonoring of the day that invalidates the miracle for the Pharisees.  Their conversation amongst themselves leads the man to admit that “he is a prophet,” a similar profession to that made by the woman at the well last Sunday.  Given his sight, the Pharisees now cast doubt upon his actual condition, and confront the man’s parents.  In a return interview with the man after the parents assertion that the man (their son) was born blind, the Pharisees utters a key phrase that describes John’s attitude toward the Jews in general and the Pharisees in particular, “I told you once and you didn’t pay attention.”  This common pattern of not understanding would not only be assigned to the Jews but was in evidence amongst the disciples as well (see the opening verses). 

There is an amazing speech on the part of the man (verses 30-33) in which the man seems to speak to the disciples’ initial question about causality.  The man understands the righteousness and grace of God, “(God) does listen to someone who is devout and obeys (God’s) will.”  The argument doesn’t work, and the man is expelled from the scene.  Jesus notes his expulsion (soon he will be expelled as well) and makes theological hay from what has gone on before.  It is a conversation that bears some similarity to the Woman at the Well pericope: “Who is he sir, that I may believe in him?” “You have seen him.”  What follows is an aside to the man (but also aimed at the audience of readers and hearers) about Jesus’ mission of judgment of reversal – blindness to sight, and sightedness to blindness.  This is then applied by Jesus to the Pharisees who oppose him.  The man is an example of sight and light, and the Pharisees an example of blindness and darkness.  “Your sin remains,” says Jesus, returning our attention to the initial comments.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. In what sense might you agree with the disciples’ proposition that the man’s blindness was caused by sin?
  2. How would you describe his parents’ attitude?
  3. What role do the Pharisees play?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2014, Michael T. Hiller


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