The Fourth Sunday in Lent, 26 March 2017

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


Background: Sin

In the Hebrew Scriptures, sin moves from epic proportions in the stories of Genesis (3-11) to a more personal and individual mode. Sin seems to be related in these materials to individual lives and events. In his Old Testament Theology, Gerhard Von Rad gives an excellent overview, “The Old Testament prefers the form of expression which is most appropriate for the phenomenon called sin, namely confession.”[1] There seems to be no on-going contemplation on the nature of sin or its origin, at least not of the kind that engaged the early Church.  What is evident is God’s will and how that will was subverted by individuals and events in the stories and histories recorded in the books of the Hebrew Scriptures. The primary story that gives us a platform from which to observe the phenomenon of sin is the story of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is in that knowing that we begin to confront the problem. So our knowledge moved beyond a simple knowledge and relationship with God, to a knowledge of many things and a relationship that was compromised by such knowledge. What forms the theological viewpoint in the Hebrew Scriptures is God’s reaction and response to our knowledge and our muted relationship to God’s will. This understanding of a progression of events or deeds that result in sin will be helpful when we read the Gospel for this day. Jesus comes to the problem with a different point of view, one that challenges the traditional understandings.

First Reading: I 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.

The previous chapter of I Samuel revolves around the idea of listening to the voice of God. This ability is what calls Samuel in the first place, and it is Saul’s reluctance to listen to God’s voice that causes his fall from favor. In this chapter, however, perception is tied to the art of seeing and observing. The theme is best expressed her as, “For not as man sees does God see. For man sees with the eyes and the Lord sees with the heart.” Thus each of seven sons (perfection) passes before both Samuel and the Lord, but none can pass the muster. It is the forgotten one, the one out in the wilderness, the one tending the ship – responsible for the lives of his flock, it is this one that the Lord sees and approves of. The observation of the author of David falls in line with this “seeing” metaphor, “And he was ruddy, with fine eyes and goodly to look on.”

The anointing of David is an intimate and yet a rebellious act, hidden from a jealous and resentful king. The ritual of the anointing was the human measure of choice and selection by God, but the reality of God’s choice is in the spirit that follows. The spirit of the Lord comes mightily on David, and at the same time turns away from Saul. Here the ritual turns into the reality of God’s presence with those chosen as leaders. This, I think, is the preaching moment – the presence of the spirit with those we have chosen to lead us, and their ability to both listen and see as God does.

Breaking open I Samuel:
1.     How do you listen for God?
2.     What do you see God doing in your life?
3.     How has God gifted you with the Spirit?

Psalm 23 Dominus regit me

       The Lord is my shepherd; *
I shall not be in want.
2        He makes me lie down in green pastures *
and leads me beside still waters.
3        He revives my soul *
and guides me along right pathways for his Name's sake.
4        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.
5        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.
6        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.

The familiarity of this psalm will work against us, as we read it in the context of these readings, and in the season of Lent. We most often read it in the context of “Good Shepherd Sunday”, the Fourth Sunday of Easter. Its choice here is related most especially to the first reading – the anointing of David, the shepherd. At least that is what it looks like from a first glance. What might it be like to read the psalm from the viewpoint of the man born blind? All the caring and protecting verbs of the psalm find their natural object in the Gospel for today, and in the prayer lists in our parishes.

Breaking open Psalm 23:
1.     Whom do you know who might need the care of a shepherd?
2.     How can you be their shepherd?
3.     Who has been a shepherd to you?

Second Reading: 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.”

Here the author continues his discourse on ethics, and how to live in Christ. It is interesting in that a very loose way it connects with the second theme of Samuel, the skill of seeing. The hindrance to such vision is the darkness and “the unfruitful works of darkness.” He argues for a life that is lived in the light of Christ. Some of the language here is redolent of the Qumran community, which might add an eschatological flavor to this exhortation. Not only is the present life to be infused with Christ’s light, but all of eternity as well. The injunction to “try and find out what is pleasing to the Lord,” can inform how we live daily life, but can also set us on a trajectory to God and with God.

Breaking open Ephesians:
1.     Where is darkness in your life?
2.     Where is light in your life?
3.     What makes the difference?

The Gospel: St. John 9:1-41

As Jesus walked along, he 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.”

This healing story falls in John’s section on Jesus and the Festivals of Judaism (5:1-10:42). Here we are present at the Festival of Tabernacles, and at the sixth of the “signs” that John points to in Jesus ministry. Tabernacles, or the Feast of Succot, was originally a harvest festival (see Exodus 34:22ff) and later became a festival celebrated with a pilgrimage to the Temple. The festival also celebrates the liberation from Egypt (see Leviticus 23:42-43).

Here, again, we will deal with themes of light, along with the theme of water – the healing waters of Siloam (a reference to the Tabernacles theme). The introductory material is of interest here in that it rehearses the notion of sin as an inherited problem, outlined in the disciples’ question to Jesus, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus quickly disabuses them of that idea, substituting the notion that the blindness gave opportunity to see God’s glory. The sight of the man is “recreated”, the saliva and mud alluding to a newly created sight for the man (and existence as well, I presume.)

The narrative quickly drags us back into the old ways of thinking as the man is questioned by both neighbors and Pharisees. The dialogue in this section circles around the man, with neighbors and Pharisees attempting to reattach the onus of sin on him. Despite this, he grows in his knowledge (sight) of what has been done for him by Jesus (whom the Pharisees accused as being a sinner). John may reflect the experience of the early Church in telling us of the fate of the man born blind, “And they drove him out.”

The final scene is about blindness and sin, and new sight and light. The man sees Jesus for the first time, and sees in him something worthy of worship. The context of the man's own statement earlier in the pericope becomes important here. “We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will.” In this way he becomes a sort of new Adam, created with a new vision to see God’s intentions for all humankind. The Pharisees are not convinced and continue in their disbelief.

Breaking open the Gospel:
1.     In what ways are you blind?
2.     From where does your blindness come?
3.     What kind of new vision would you like to have?

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 © 2017, Michael T. Hiller

[1]Von Rad, G. (1962) Old Testament Theology, Volume I – The Theology of Israel’s Historical Traditions, Harper & Row, New York, page 154.


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