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.
“And don’t call me a racist!” Generally speaking, I have learned that this is exactly what people who are racist frequently say-and often when no one in the room has even suggested to them that they are racist. For some reason they feel the need to defend their lack of racial bias, point out how some of their best friends and co-workers are people of color, that they don’t even see skin color, that they have never discriminated against anyone on the basis of race and so just shut up about it!
I think something of the very same kind is going on when Jesus’ critics in our gospel lesson for this Sunday ask him, “So, are you saying we’re blind?” Of course they know very well what Jesus is driving at. They have been confronted with an event that does not fit into their theology and morality: a sinner, Sabbath breaker, blasphemer has just given sight to a man born blind-something that has never been known to occur before. They have tried every way from hell to breakfast to get around Jesus’ miracle. They tried to discredit the formerly blind man’s story. They question his parents, hoping to disprove his blindness. Then they try intimidating the man into retracting his testimony. When these measures fail, they denigrate the man’s character and expel him from the synagogue. But the stubborn facts remain: the man was born blind; Jesus put clay on his eyes and told him to wash. He now sees. To Jesus’ critics, however, the facts don’t seem to matter. They remain deliberately and stubbornly blind to what is standing right in front of them.
Understandably, then, Jesus’ opponents are a little touchy about his teachings on blindness and specifically his declaration that he has come in order that the blind might see. “Are you calling us blind?” they say in what I suspect was a slightly menacing tone. Jesus responds, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see’ your guilt remains.” John 9:41.
As every recovering addict will tell you, one’s return to sobriety begins with the acknowledgement of one’s addiction. Until that happens, there is virtually no hope for regaining and maintaining sobriety. Nobody had to tell the man born blind that he could not see. His blindness so defined him that we never even learn his actual name from the narrative. Yet he is the only one in the story able to recognize Jesus for who he is. For all their 20/20 vision, moral rigor and theological training, Jesus’ opponents see only a sinner, a blasphemer and a deceiver of the people.
That brings us full circle back to the topic of racism. Like addiction, those of us afflicted with it are the last to recognize it, name it and take responsibility for it. We firmly believe that we are without biased attitudes or behaviors-and yet wonder why our churches continue to be overwhelmingly white. We insist that we are welcoming congregations and we just don’t understand why people of color seldom stick around on those rare occasions that they happen to darken our doors. “What’s wrong with them anyway?” we ask ourselves. As long as we continue to feed the illusion that we are free from the false narratives about race that have been woven into our national historical consciousness; as long as we remain blind to the structural supports for white privilege within our schools, workplaces and churches as well as the ways in which they operate to hurt and dehumanize people of color, we can never hope to see rightly. As long as we continue to insist that our sight is just fine and needs no adjustment, we will continue to stumble blindly into the same destructive and hurtful behaviors that reinforce racial injustice and oppression.
Admittedly, “racist” is a strong word that none but the most deplorable of individuals would ever willingly own. Most of us who identify as white don’t support overt segregation or violence against persons of color. We probably do not harbor any conscious feelings of malice against them. Yet, as I have said previously, all of us have benefited from societal conventions that historically have favored people like us. With all the anxieties that come with a job interview (and I have gone through more than I can count) I have never given a thought to how an interviewer might view my racial identity, my sir-name, my accent, my clothing style or my religious preference. It is easy for me to say that race is not a factor in how I view other people because no one has ever made an issue of my race. I have never had to view the world through the eyes of someone for whom race is an issue-every day, every hour, every minute. I am frequently blind to the effects of systemic racism and the ways in which (knowingly or not) I reinforce them.
So I can’t say with impunity that I am not a racist. At best, I am a recovering racist. That is to say, the stories of racism’s victims, like the clay with which Jesus anointed the eyes of the man born blind, are gradually opening my eyes. I am somewhere between “was blind” and “but now I see.” Or as Saint Paul would say, “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” Philippians 3:12. That’s about where I find myself.
Here’s a poem by Elizabeth Alexander telling a “story about race” and its inescapable influence on work, socialization and family
Sometimes I think about Great-Uncle Paul who left Tuskegee,
Alabama to become a forester in Oregon and in so doing
became fundamentally white for the rest of his life, except
when he traveled without his white wife to visit his siblings—
now in New York, now in Harlem, USA—just as pale-skinned,
as straight-haired, as blue-eyed as Paul, and black. Paul never told anyone
he was white, he just didn’t say that he was black, and who could imagine,
an Oregon forester in 1930 as anything other than white?
The siblings in Harlem each morning ensured
no one confused them for anything other than what they were, black.
They were black! Brown-skinned spouses reduced confusion.
Many others have told, and not told, this tale.
When Paul came East alone he was as they were, their brother.
The poet invents heroic moments where the pale black ancestor stands up
on behalf of the race. The poet imagines Great-Uncle Paul
in cool, sagey groves counting rings in redwood trunks,
imagines pencil markings in a ledger book, classifications,
imagines a sidelong look from an ivory spouse who is learning
her husband’s caesuras. She can see silent spaces
but not what they signify, graphite markings in a forester’s code.
Many others have told, and not told, this tale.
The one time Great-Uncle Paul brought his wife to New York
he asked his siblings not to bring their spouses,
and that is where the story ends: ivory siblings who would not
see their brother without their telltale spouses.
What a strange thing is “race,” and family, stranger still.
Here a poem tells a story, a story about race.
Source: Antebellum Dream Book (© 2001 by Elizabeth Alexander, pub. by Graywolf Press, St. Paul, Minnesota). Elizabeth Alexander was born in Harlem in 1962. She grew up on Washington, D.C., however, where her father, Clifford Alexander, served as United States Secretary of the Army and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission chairman. She earned her Ph.D. at University of Pennsylvania. Alexander is chancellor of the Academy of American Poets and a professor of poetry at Yale University. She composed and read her poem “Praise Song for the Day” at President Barak Obama’s inauguration in 2009. You can find out more about Elizabeth Alexander and read more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation website.
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 skillful 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 loose 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? Professor Walter Brueggeman has said that commenting on the 23rd Psalm is almost pretentious. Nonetheless, this admonishment has not stopped me from trying. Given the frequency with which this psalm appears in the lectionary, I am fairly sure that I have said about everything else I have to say at my posts for Sunday, July 19, 2016, Sunday, April 26, 2015,Sunday, October 12, 2014, Sunday, May 11, 2014, Sunday, March 30, 2014, Sunday, April 21, 2013 andSunday, July 22, 2012. I also encourage you to read the commentary by Kelly J. Murphy, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Central Michigan University, the commentary by James K. Mead, Associate Professor of Religion at Northwestern College, Orange City, IA and the commentary by Joel LeMon, Associate Professor of Old Testament at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia, all on workingpreacher.org. Finally, Saint Augustine’s profound reflections on this psalm in his commentary are well worth rereading.
Sunday’s lesson from Ephesians is yet another exhibit tending to substantiate my suspicion that the lectionary was put together by chimps with scissors and paste. 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-fulfillment. 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.” John 9:29. 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.