FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT
PRAYER OF THE DAY: Bend your ear to our prayers, Lord Christ, and come among us. By your gracious life and death for us, bring light into the darkness of our hearts, and anoint us with your Spirit, for you live and reign with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
“Because you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.” Jesus of Nazareth, John 9:41.
What do you do when you run into two irreconcilable facts? Our brains don’t handle that very well. Psychologists call it “cognitive dissonance.” We have a need for order and intelligibility. When that order is challenged by data that conflicts with what we know and believe, it causes us psychic discomfort. That seems to have been the problem for the religious authorities in our lesson from John’s gospel this week. They have right in front of their noses a miraculous sign they cannot deny-a man born blind restored to sight. He insists that Jesus is the one who restored his sight. But the authorities know that Jesus is a sinner. He violates the Sabbath, he disrupts worship in the temple and teaches the people without proper credentials. How can a man who is a sinner open the eyes of the blind-an act requiring divine power?
I remember something of that same discomfort from my middle school years when, fascinated with biology, I first read about the theory of evolution. I had been brought up on the biblical account of creation in which all things come to be at the command of God. But now I was confronted with a very convincing explanation of our origins that worked fine without God. There were two options: I could simply dismiss science altogether and tell myself, “I don’t care what any wise guy in a white lab coat tells me. I believe the Bible and that’s that.” Some believers have resolved their cognitive dissonance in precisely that way. Of course, that position has become more difficult to maintain over the years as advances in biological research and technology continue to substantiate evolutionary theory and assume its basic tenants going forward. Denying evolution outright is becoming a little like denying that the earth revolves around the sun (which the founder of my church, Martin Luther, actually did).
My other option was to harmonize the two opposing truths in some way. That is the course I chose, but I cannot say it was an easy one. For a lot of years, I had to learn to live with cognitive dissonance. I was forced to hold two seemingly mutually exclusive propositions in my head as I struggled to arrive at an understanding big enough to accommodate both. I needed to learn different ways of reading the Bible. I also discovered that the evolutionary account of our origins was not as complete an explanation as it first seemed. As near as I could tell, evolutionary theory had little to say about the “why” of our existence. Perhaps there are people for whom such a question does not matter, but I am not one of them. So I turned to the scriptures for that “why” and learned that there are ways of “knowing” that do not involve empirically verifiable observations. There is truth that can only be recognized by the heart. What is true, what is beautiful and what is good cannot be measured by objective observation or experimentation alone. Bach’s Mass in B Minor is beautiful not merely because of its ingenious composition, but because it touches something deep within that defies objective definition. Some truths can only be grasped by the imagination.
In the end, I came away with a deeper faith and a more profound respect for the capacity of science to help us understand our world. I can’t say that everything is harmonized. I still find that my natural scientific inquisitiveness questions my faith. So also my faith informs and reframes the questions posed by science. That’s OK. A little bit of cognitive dissonance is required for a healthy, growing faith. The religious authorities in our gospel might have overcome their blindness if they had had the patience to live with a little cognitive dissonance for a while, look at the scriptures in a different light and spend some time actually listening to Jesus instead of just thinking up arguments to refute him.
We dare not assert that “we see.” What we see, the way we understand and what we believe is too often skewed by prejudice, self-interest and fear. Our judgments are superficial; our perceptions limited and our convictions clouded. Like the man born blind, the disciples and the religious authorities in our gospel lesson, we need Jesus to open our eyes. All of our lessons for Sunday speak in some fashion of knowledge and ignorance, light and darkness, blindness and sight. In our gospel lesson, the religious authorities cannot see past Jesus’ Sabbath violations to recognize him as the one sent by God, but a man born blind worships him for who he is. Samuel learns how inaccurate human judgments about people can be and that God alone knows a person’s heart. Paul challenges the church at Ephesus to walk in the light of Christ and the psalmist confesses his/her confidence in God’s readiness to sojourn with him/her into the valley of the shadow of death. These words remind us that however prone to blindness we might be, in Christ “there is no darkness at all. The night and the day are both alike. The lamb is the light of the city of God. Shine in my heart, Lord Jesus.” Evangelical Lutheran Worship # 815.
Israel was ever ambivalent about the institution of kingship. Samuel anointed Saul as Israel’s first king only reluctantly. He warned the people that their demand for a king to rule over them “like other nations” would come back to bite them one day. I Samuel 8:10-18. In the view of this particular biblical narrative, the election of a king to rule Israel was idolatrous. It amounted to a rejection of God as King. I Samuel 8:7. This, however, is not the only voice in the Hebrew Scriptures speaking to the matter of kingship. Some of the Biblical authors recognize the rise of the Davidic monarchy as another of God’s saving acts on par with the Exodus, God’s leadership throughout the wilderness wanderings and the conquest of Canaan. Psalm 78 is an example of that sentiment. The psalm recites Israel’s repeated failures to live up to its covenant responsibilities and the dire consequences that followed. But it concludes on a triumphant note with the rise of David to be “the shepherd of Jacob.” “With an upright heart he tended them, and guided them with skilful hand.” Psalm 78:70-72.
These two divergent views of the monarchy in Israel are woven together throughout the narratives of I & II Samuel. The pro-monarchy view comes to us from an early source probably compiled during the reign of Solomon, David’s son. This writer regards the establishment of kingship in Israel as divinely ordained for Israel’s salvation. Anyone who lived to see the rise of the Israelite empire from a lose confederacy of divided tribes oppressed by the militarily superior Philistines could not fail to be impressed by David, the architect of this great achievement. For the first time ever Israel lived within secure borders. Trade and commerce flourished under the protection of the new central government. Israel was beginning to be recognized as a power to be reckoned with among the other nations. Under these circumstances, it is not surprising that the monarchy was seen as an instrument of God’s blessing and salvation.
The later source was likely composed during the latter days of the Judean monarchy between 750 B.C.E. and 650 B.C.E. This author views Samuel as the true and greatest ruler of Israel. S/He views the monarchy as a sinful rejection of God’s rule over Israel. By this time, Israel had experienced civil war and the succession of ten of its twelve tribes from the house of David. Injustice, corruption and idolatry turned out to be the price of commercial success and military power under monarchy. The prophets gave voice to God’s displeasure with Israel’s kings and to the cries of those crushed under their oppressive yolk. Samuel’s warnings had come true with a vengeance. Nevertheless, this subsequent writer still views David in a positive light in spite of his having been elected to a disfavored institution.
The reading from this Sunday comes from the later anti-monarchy source. God chides Samuel for grieving over God’s rejection of Saul’s kingship and directs Samuel to go to Bethlehem for the anointing of a king God has chosen to replace Saul. Samuel is reluctant to take on this errand, fearing that Saul might find out his purpose and kill him. In order to avoid arousing suspicion, Samuel takes with him a heifer and goes to Bethlehem on the pretext of offering a religious sacrifice. It was probably well known to the people of Bethlehem that there had been a falling out between Saul and Samuel (I Samuel 15); hence, their fear. The last thing these villagers wanted was to get caught in the crossfire between these two powerful personages. Vs. 4.
There seems to be a deliberate contrast between this Sunday’s lesson and the acclimation of Saul as king in I Samuel 10:20-24 (also from the later source). In that narrative, Samuel presents Saul to the people and the writer notes that “when he stood among the people, he was taller than any of the people from his shoulders upwards.” Vs. 23. Samuel declares, “Do you see him whom the Lord has chosen? There is none like him among all the people.” Vs. 24. In Sunday’s lesson, Samuel looks upon Jesse’s oldest son, Eliab, and declares “surely the Lord’s anointed is before him.” Vs. 6. But the Lord rebukes Samuel warning him, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him.” Vs. 7. “[F]or the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Vs. 7. This rebuke to Samuel will become a constant theme throughout the books of I Kings and II Kings where each individual monarch is judged by the degree of his faithfulness to the covenant.
The theme of God’s choosing the younger son over the elder is a persistent one throughout the Hebrew Scriptures (e.g. Jacob over Esau, Genesis 27; Ephraim over Manasseh, Genesis 48:8-22). God’s proclivity for favoring the younger sibling is altogether contrary to the cultural and legal traditions strongly favoring the eldest son. One can perhaps hear an echo of this refrain in Jesus’ parables (i.e., The Prodigal Son; The Two Sons). The greater lesson here is that God seems to delight in irony. God chose Sarah and Abraham, the infertile couple, to be the parents of his people Israel. He chose Moses, the fugitive murderer, to deliver the Ten Commandments. It should come as no surprise, then, that God should choose the runt of Jesse’s litter as Israel’s king. As Moses reminded the people of Israel when they drew near to the promised land: “It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love upon you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples; but it was because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath which he swore to your fathers that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of bondage, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 7:7-8. Saint Paul sums it up nicely by pointing out to the Corinthian church that “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.” I Corinthians 1:27-29.
What can I say about the 23rd Psalm that has not already been said? Though this is obviously the prayer of an individual, the community of Israel is never far from the psalmist’s consciousness. The God of Israel is frequently referred to as “Shepherd of Israel.” See, e.g., Psalm 80. Thus, the Lord is not “my” shepherd only, but “our” shepherd. Clearly, nearness to the shepherd is closeness to the rest of the flock. So when we are led to the green pastures and still waters, we travel with the rest of the flock. When we pass through the valley of the shadow, we have not only the rod and staff of the shepherd to comfort us but the company of the communion of saints. It is important to keep this in view lest the psalm become nothing more than the pious ruminations of a lone individual.
“I shall not want.” This can be read either as a bold declaration of confidence in God’s willingness and ability to provide all that the psalmist needs, or as an expression of contentment with all that God has provided. These two understandings are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but the emphasis in our culture should be on the latter. If ever there was a people who wanted more, it has to be us. The amount of resources we Americans consume relative to the rest of the world is staggering. Still, we always seem to want more and, as I have pointed out before, it is this lust for more stuff that drives the so called economic recovery. Precisely because people have a tendency to buy bigger houses and more expensive cars simply because they can, jobs and money increase. Is there not a better and more sustainable way to live? Is it really necessary to keep on increasing our consumption at what is surely an unsustainable rate in order to live well?
“God leads me in the path of righteousness for his name’s sake.” Here again it is critical to understand that God’s leading is not simply for our own individual benefit. It is for the sake of God’s name; that God’s name may be hallowed. Too often Paul’s promise in his letter to the Romans (Romans 8:28) that “all things work together for good to those who love God and are called according to God’s purpose” is similarly misunderstood to mean “all things work together for my personal good.” Clearly, they do not. But that is because we are speaking not of people in general, but of people called according to God’s purpose. Thus, while one can be confident that God will achieve God’s purpose in one’s life, this affirmation does not translate into “everything will be alright for me.” To the contrary, Jesus warns us that we can expect no better treatment from the world than he himself received at its hands. John 15:18-21.
“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.” In a death denying culture such as ours, even these comforting words bring a chill. We seldom use the “D” word in polite conversation. We say, “she passed on,” “he left us,” “she has gone to her reward.” While no one can doubt that the so called enlightenment has given us many important conceptual tools for understanding the universe, post modern thinkers correctly point out that it also represents a colossal failure of imagination. Our commitment to empiricism has imprisoned us in a world no bigger than what can be proven through objective experimentation. Too often, theology has capitulated to this limited world view paring down the bold proclamation of resurrection and eternal life to fit within the confines of “authentic existence” (whatever that is). Small wonder, then, that fewer people are attracted to worship in mainline churches. Who would give up a bagel with cream cheese, a good cup of coffee and the New York Times on Sunday morning for “authentic existence”?
“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies.” This is a frank admission that being led by God brings us into the presence of enemies. Significantly, the enemies are not vanquished. Rather, the psalmist is able to find peace even in their presence. So how might we learn to live peaceably in the presence of our enemies? Can we trust the shepherd enough to disarm ourselves? To drop all of the defenses we put between ourselves and those we fear? To be more specific, are we sufficiently confident in the Lord’s ability to protect us that we are ready to shut down the alarm system in our sanctuary and remove the locks from our doors? Is that what it might mean to allow God to prepare the Eucharistic Table for us in the presence of our enemies?
Sunday’ lesson from Ephesians is yet another exhibit tending to substantiate my suspicion that the lectionary was put together by chimps with scissors. Not only have they severed the verses in our text from their context, but they have also sliced the very first verse in half! Before reading the lesson proper, one needs to read the introductory verses 1-2 of chapter 5. These sentences are the lens through which the rest of the chapter must be read. We are admonished to be “imitators of God.” How is this done? “By walk[ing] in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” This is what it means to “walk as children of the light.” Vs. 7.
It is critical to understand that the light spoken of here is the “light of Christ.” Not just any light will do. Exposing darkness is not simply muckraking. For example, you don’t necessarily expose the darkness or bring any truth to light by revealing that your neighbor was once convicted of a felony-particularly if you fail to mention that the crime was committed when your neighbor was very young, that she has since made restitution to her victims, become a productive member of society and an example to other people attempting to change their destructive behaviors. Facts that are taken out of context and blown out of all proportion so that they distort the whole truth are no different than lies. Consequently, when exposing the sins of ourselves or others to the light, it must be the Light of Christ that embraces the sinner, forgives the sin and reflects the infinite love of God.
The final verses of our lesson contain what appear to be the lines of an ancient Christian hymn celebrating the resurrection. Sullian, Kathryn, St. Paul’s Epistles to the Philippians, Philemon, Colossians and Ephesians, New Testament Reading Guide (c. 1960 Order of St. Benedict, Inc.) p. 69. It is interesting to note the metaphors of sleep for death; waking for resurrection; Christ for light. Though the resurrection is an event for which the believer hopes and to which s/he looks forward, it is also an event that occurs in the here and now. The proclamation of the good news creates a new reality: life in the light of Christ. It is this light which illuminates and transforms domestic life in the household into opportunities for “imitating God” through walking in love.
There is far too much content to unpack in these verses on a blog such as this. As Saint Augustine observed in one of his homilies on this text: “We have just read the long lesson of the man born blind, whom the Lord Jesus restored to light; but were we to attempt handling the whole of it, and considering, according to our ability, each passage in a way proportionate to its worth, the day would be insufficient.” Homilies on the Gospel of St. John, Augustine, Bishop of Hippo published in The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. VII, (pub. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) p. 245. Needless to say, if Augustine cannot exhaust these verses in the course of a day, I can hardly expect to make a dent in them with a single post. So my remarks will necessarily be scattershot and incomplete. Still, I hope that they will be somewhat helpful.
What I found compelling in my most recent reading of this text is John’s ingenious use of “darkness” and “light;” “blindness” and “sight.” The story begins with the disciples asking a “when did you stop beating your wife” sort of question. Was a blind beggar’s blindness brought about by his own sins or those of his parents? There is a kind of blindness here on the part of the disciples. They see not a suffering human being, but a theological riddle. Their reaction to the man’s blindness is not compassion, but theoretical speculation. I often think that my church’s years of discussion focused on human sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular ran amuck for the same reason. We find ourselves engrossed in theoretical doctrinal disputes over abstract principles ignoring altogether the real flesh and blood people impacted by these discussions. Jesus looks past the theoretical issues with compassion for the person. He is, after all, the Word made flesh.
Jesus assures his disciples that sin has nothing to do with the beggar’s blindness. The beggar was born blind so that God might be glorified through him. One commentator notes that Jesus’ explanation is no more “acceptable to modern humanitarianism” than the disciples’ attribution to sin. Smith, D. Moody, John, Proclamation Commentaries, (c. 1976 by Fortress Press) p. 34. True, but who gives a flying fruit cake for modern humanitarianism? It has been a peculiar ailment of human nature from the beginning to imagine that we are at the center of the universe and that everything exists to make us content. From such a myopic standpoint, it is impossible to imagine a purpose more important than one’s own personal self fulfilment. A good part of our blindness to what is true, beautiful and good results from our inability to get ourselves out of the center. So, I believe, St. John would say.
The miracle is performed with the use of clay and spittle. A similar use of spittle is found in the healing of the deaf mute at Mark 7:31-37. Some commentators see in this an echo of Adam’s creation in Genesis 2:7. See, e.g., Marsh, John, Saint John, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1968 by John Marsh, pub. Pelican Books Ltd.) p. 378. However that might be, it is also the case that, at least in John’s narrative, these materials are essential to the plot. Jesus is accused specifically of making clay on the Sabbath. He is not charged with healing on the Sabbath precisely because his adversaries maintain that he is not truly responsible for the blind man’s recovery of sight. If they were to accuse him of performing such a miracle on the Sabbath, they would be conceding that Jesus had in fact done something unheard of “since the world began.” Vs. 32. The man is told to wash in the pool of Siloam, meaning “sent.” This is an echo of Jesus’ repeated claim that he has been “sent” by the Father. See e.g., John 3:16. In a larger sense, the blind man is being “sent” to the religious authorities before whom he will give testimony to Jesus.
Upon learning that the blind man has received his sight, the people who know him bring him to the “Pharisees.” Again, it is worth pointing out that the gospel of John was written at least two decades after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. The Sadducees and the chief priests who were principally responsible for Jesus’ arrest and deliverance to Pilate are no longer a factor in the life of the church. The principal antagonist in John’s time is not the temple establishment, but the synagogue which replaced the temple as the center of Jewish life and worship. The ferocity of Pharisaic opposition to Jesus in John’s gospel is therefore reflective of this later stage in the church’s history and not so much the time of Jesus’ ministry. It appears that disciples of Jesus were initially participants in the life of the synagogue and all other aspects of the Jewish community. Indeed, they considered themselves to be Jews and understood their discipleship as a movement within rather than against Judaism. By the time John’s gospel was written, however, the relationship between the church and the synagogue had deteriorated to such an extent that followers of Jesus were threatened with being “put out of the synagogue.” Vs. 22. This was tantamount to excommunication. Brown, Raymond E., The Gospel According to John, I-XII, The Anchor Bible (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 374. Disciples in John’s faith community were therefore placed in the position of choosing between confessing Jesus and facing formal exclusion from Israel or denying Jesus in order to remain in good standing with the synagogue. As the gospel demonstrates, there were some who sought to have it both ways by keeping their belief in Jesus secret. John 12:42-43.
Throughout the dialogue between the formerly blind man and the religious authorities we see both the growth of sight and deepening blindness. The blind man receives his sight and declares that “the man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes.” Vs. 11. When he is first called to testify before the authorities, he says of Jesus, “he is a prophet.” Vs. 17. In his second appearance before the authorities, he testifies that Jesus is “from God.” Vs. 33. In the end, he worships Jesus as the “Son of man.” Vss. 35-38.
By contrast, the authorities become increasingly blind in the face of this remarkable sign they cannot deny. Though the blindness of the man from birth is attested by his parents, his sight is attested by the people who know him, and the attribution of this sign to Jesus is supported by all of the evidence, still the authorities stubbornly persist in their unbelief. The reader is left with the implied rhetorical question: Who is really blind here? Ironically, it is those who insist that they can see. Vs. 40.
John also employs the interplay between darkness and light. Jesus notes that “We must work the works of him who sent me, while it is day; night comes, when no one can work.” Vs. 4. The gathering darkness of the cross is foreshadowed here and, more immediately, the growing blindness and opposition of the authorities to the sign that Jesus is about to perform. Yet in the midst of this gathering darkness, Jesus is the light of the world (vs. 5) who is even now banishing the darkness through the miracle of restored sight and, even more, though the faith of the man whose eyes are opened.
Similarly, there is a battle of the “knows” going on. The man whose sight was restored speaks of what he knows: I was blind; Jesus put clay on my eyes and told me to wash; I washed and now I see. The authorities speak insistently of what they know: Jesus does not keep the Sabbath; Jesus is a sinner. There is one thing, however, that the authorities confess they do not know, namely, where Jesus comes from. “[A]s for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” No doubt they intended this inadvertent admission as a slight to Jesus and an insult to the man before them: How can you believe in a self-proclaimed teacher from the back woods of Galilee who has no teaching credentials? Unbeknown to them, they have revealed the fatal flaw in their position: their failure to recognize Jesus as the one “sent” from God. They know the Scriptures, but not the One to whom the Scriptures testify. See John 5:39.
This lesson, about which volumes more could be said, reinforces the central theme of John’s Gospel: that sight, light, knowledge of God, salvation and eternal life all grow out of one’s “abiding” in Jesus. If you take the time to read this marvelous gospel from beginning to end, you discover that all of the themes, images and metaphors used throughout the first twelve chapters of John are woven together in the “farewell discourse” in chapters thirteen to seventeen. These chapters unpack John’s vision of the love between Father and Son spilling out into the world through the Spirit of God poured out upon the disciples and reflected in the disciples love for one another.