Lectionary Commentaries for March 22, 2020
Fourth Sunday in Lent (Year A)
Commentary on John 9:1-41
Commentary on 1 Samuel 16:1-13
You can have one of the most unforgettable dining experiences of your life at the Nalaga’at Center in the area of Jaffa in Tel Aviv, Israel.1
You can have one of the most unforgettable dining experiences of your life at the Nalaga’at Center in the area of Jaffa in Tel Aviv, Israel.1
The Center fosters engagement between the deaf and blind community with the greater public through artistic and cultural experience. Among their various activities at the Center, they run the Blackout Restaurant, completely staffed by visually-impaired service workers. They operate the restaurant in pitch darkness, and allow seeing people to experience the complexity of a meal from the experience of the blind.
Aside from the rave reviews of the food, one of the striking observations about those who experience the Blackout Restaurant is the way that the loss of sight allows for one to experience food in completely new ways. Without the crutch of vision, textures, flavors, temperatures, and nodes of taste are enlightened. It is amazing how the deliberate restriction of sight may enhance a dining experience!
A similar handicap of sight plays out in the narrative of the rejection of Saul in 1 Samuel 16:1-13. The failures of the judges and the encroaching Philistines set the conditions for the installation of monarchy over the tribes of Israel. As the inaugural king over the nation, Saul perfectly fits the prototypical characteristics of an ancient Near Eastern ruler. He was a military leader, and enjoyed wide populist support.
The typically laconic text redundantly emphasizes the physical characteristics of Saul: tall, majestic, strong, and handsome, characteristics much in line with the general understanding of ancient Near Eastern kingship as displayed in visual examples such as Naram-Sin and Ramesses II. Most significantly, before his rise, he was humble in spirit, despite his characteristically tall and physically attractive traits.
But the humility of Saul soon gives away to disobedience, and he consequently loses his favor with God. But kings do not have term limits in the ancient world. In particular, Samuel is despondent over the presence of the continued reign of Saul and the fate of Israel with his continued reign.
But God shows Samuel a different way. The opening verses show a remarkable dialogue between Samuel and God. God is empathic yet also challenging to the prophet, “How long will you grieve” (1)? God specifically instructs a way to worship, and assures the prophet “I have provided” (1).
Verse two shows a candid moment of authenticity as the prophet admits his physical fear. The response from God does not ignore the real feelings of terror. In fact, it is a completely justified feeling, as any hint of insurrection would bring unmitigated reprisal from the powerful king. But instead, God specifies his instruction. The prophet, with all his despondency and all of his fear, responds appropriately in verse four: “Samuel did what the Lord commanded.” The obedience of Samuel does not neglect all of the heaviness of the reign of Saul.
After traveling to Bethlehem, in the presence of Jesse and his sons, Samuel realizes and affirms the presence of the Lord’s anointed. There is no explanatory verse between verses six and seven, but surely, the subtext of the passage implies an inner thought bubble like “And Samuel beheld the sons of Jesse and sarcastically thought, ‘Really, Lord … really?’”
But by addressing this bewilderment, God delivers a magnificent response, “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” (3).
What follows is a painful audition for the king of Israel. Each one of Jesse’s sons comes before Samuel, and each one is quickly rejected. The text suggests that the tempo of the rejection as both swift and ruthlessly efficient. Samuel is confused and asks if there are any left.
Reluctantly, Jesse answers, “Well, there is the little one, but he is tending the sheep” (11). It appears that the inspection of Samuel is now following the heart of the Lord. He does not see with human eyes, but in congruence with God, he is looking at the heart. The sons of Jesse are not selected, and it is not a difficult decision. Either a son is anointed or he isn’t. And clearly none of them were anointed.
At the request of Samuel, the youngest finally comes. Naturally, he has small stature, as he is still a “boy,” a term repeated by Goliath in the following chapter. But despite the small stature, Samuel realizes that the youngest son, David, is the one anointed by God. Samuel ceremoniously anoints David in front of some surely perplexed brothers. And “and the spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward” (13).
The following chapters through the end of 2 Kings, show the four hundred year history of one of the longest singular familiar reigns in world history. Like the process of selection, it was a reign surely developed by God by eschewing the typical characteristics of kingship, and focusing on the heart that truly matter to God.
I wonder how much our own sight blinds us to God’s wishes, and prevents us from truly experiencing God’s intent. Perhaps the occasional experience of blindness can remind us how the gift of sight may prevent us from seeing the heart of God. Of course, you do not need to travel all the way to the Nalaga’at Center in Tel Aviv. Instead, 1 Samuel 16 implores us that sometimes we only need to deliberately close our eyes to see what God wants us to see.
- Commentary first published on this site on March 30, 2014.
Commentary on Psalm 23
The 23rd Psalm is a perennial favorite.1
And yet for all its familiarity, there may be some nuances to the Psalm we have missed, some reflections scholars might share to deepen our sense of the most comforting words ever composed.
Consider one four letter word in verse four: thou. The second-person pronoun “thou” is old English, a relic from the 1611 King James Version. The vast majority of the time we prefer modern translations of the Bible—but Christians cling to a 400-year-old translation of Psalm 23. Why is this? Could it be that elevated language, words with some lineage and dignity, are appropriate to the grandeur, the majesty, the immeasurable grace of God who is indeed our shepherd?
And here is a fascinating item: James Limburg points out that, in the original Hebrew of Psalm 23, there are exactly twenty six words before and after, “Thou art with me.”2 Perhaps the poet was boldly declaring that God being with us is at the very center of our lives.
God is with us. We are not alone down here. The whole Gospel is that God is with us. Jesus was called “Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.” John Wesley’s dying words were, “The best of all is, God is with us.” God doesn’t shelter us from trouble. God doesn’t magically manipulate everything to suit us. But the glorious with is unassailable, unchangeable, the only fact that matters.
This marvelous news draws our attention again to the Thou. For the first three verses of the Psalm, God is spoken of in the third person: “The Lord is my shepherd… he leads me… he restores my soul.” But with the Thou, the third person shifts to second person: “for Thou art with me, thy rod… thou preparest a table…” Instead of talking about God, the Psalmist begins to talk to God; instead of God in the head, God is a friend in the heart. A conversation happens, a relationship grows. This is faith, the only true comfort.
If we genuinely and in the marrow of our being believe that God is with us, then the only logical consequence would be, “I shall not want.”
We’ve read it, uttered it, delighted in it: but have we thought about it? Or lived it out in reality? I shall not want? Our whole life is about wanting: I want, I shop, I look, and when I have it, I want new stuff. In our consumer culture, I shall want, I shall always want. I shall never stop all my wanting because the mall entices me with ever new, shiny, unnecessary objects, and I am instructed from childhood on to want—and not merely to want, but to have.
I shall not want? “The Lord is my shepherd.” If the Lord is the shepherd, then I am a sheep, and the reason sheep need a shepherd is simple: sheep nibble themselves lost.
Sheep are not brilliant creatures, and we cannot be flattered that the Psalm thinks of us as sheep. Leave a sheep without a shepherd, and he nibbles a bit of grass here, wanders over there for some more, sees a patch just past that rock; and before you know it the sheep is lost, or has fallen into a ravine, or been devoured by a wolf.
The Hebrew original is perhaps better translated, “I shall lack nothing,” or “I shall lack no good thing.” What do I lack? Well, I lack an iPhone or a house at the coast. I lack a fully-funded pension and I lack… We can fill in the blank endlessly.
But it is more to ask “What do I lack?” in the sense of “What really matters that I do not have?” What, at the hour of death, would I dare not lack? The answers aren’t iPhones or vacation houses. Jesus spoke with the rich young ruler (Luke 18:18-30), who claimed to be good, and had plenty of stuff. What did Jesus say? “One thing you still lack.”
We don’t lack lots of things: we lack just one. The one thing we lack is intimacy with God. The one and only thing that can cause us to say, “I shall not want,” or “I lack no good thing,” is God. Nothing else. Just the Lord who is a good shepherd to his sheep.
God is our satisfaction. God is good enough. Or, to be truer, God exceeds whatever we may think we desire.
If “Thou art with me” is the focal point of the Psalm, and if “I shall not want” is the beginning of a new life of being satisfied with God, then the end of our life with God is this: “I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”
Why do we want stuff like iPhones and vacation homes? Is it sheer coveting? I don’t think so. We want communication devices because we long to connect. We want a house, or a better house, because no matter how far we travel, no matter how happy or sad our nuclear family might have been, we carry inside a yearning for home. In our mobile society, we may be clueless about where that might be, or if it really exists. But we still want, above all else, to go home.
Perhaps T.S. Eliot was right: “The end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”3 Or consider this: if you are lucky, you have fond memories of summertime junkets to the home of your grandparents. For me, it was a house that is factually small, but as a child it was large in love, in special treats, in cousins and fun. It was another home, one without problems or homework or chores, a special place of a more unconditional kind of love.
Does God give us such places in our memory so that we will learn to desire the home for which God destines us when this life is over?
Isaac Watts often recast Psalms into slightly different language. His metric version of the 23rd Psalm is eloquent, elegant, and moving: “The sure provisions of my God attend me all my days; O may Your House be my abode, and all my work be praise. There would I find a settled rest, while others go and come; no more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.”4
Like a child at home. Yes, some children bear the misfortune of a home that is more warfare than peace, more division than love. But the fact that we recoil at the idea of any child anywhere not enjoying peace and love at home is evidence that God has wired into our hearts a keen sense of a proper destiny, which looks like me as a boy at my grandmother’s table or on my grandfather’s lap.
Various happenings in our life strike us as urgent. They make us anxious, or perhaps we have some fun or face trials. But it is all a preparation for a grand homecoming, when we will “find a settled rest… no more a stranger or a guest, but like a child at home.” Or as the Psalmist sang, “And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (23:6).
- Commentary first published on this site on May 3, 2009.
- James Limburg, Psalms (Westminster John Knox Press, 2000).
- T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” in Four Quartets, 1943.
- Isaac Watts, “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need,” 1719.
Commentary on Ephesians 5:8-14
Ephesians focuses heavily on discipleship: how we should live in light of the grace that has been given to us in Christ Jesus.1
The author of Ephesians, whose identity is a source of great scholarly debate, spends much of this circular letter to the churches counseling the churches on the ethics that follow from the ecclesiology in which the church is adopted into the family of God.
In today’s proper, those ethics entail how one should walk, or in as some translations read, how one should live. The author contrasts what it means to walk as children of light and as children of darkness. Light should be understood, here, as the opposite of “this present darkness” (Ephesians 6:12). “Darkness,” the current state of affairs under which the Christian churches find themselves, is a state of affairs not so much dictated by persons and personalities but by “cosmic powers” and “spiritual forces of evil” that work to the detriment of the early church. Note that the author to the Ephesians does not choose to vilify any particular human being as the source of the church’s troubles, but rather sees the difficulties that Christians faced as a battle between forces of good and evil. Indeed, two verses after this proper, the author warns the early churches that “the days” in which they do ministry “are evil.”
Ephesians is an example of advice to communities trying to find a third way between the realities of Gentile paganism, the majority religiosity of the ancient world, and the church’s foundation of monotheism. A majority of scholars hold that this letter is written by a pseudonymous author in place of Paul; if this is the case, then the primary struggle to bring together Jew and Gentile in Paul’s early letters has been resolved and a new culture has been born, a culture that is an amalgamation of the two previous cultures. The author counsels his audiences to turn toward this culture rather than to be influenced by the external culture of the world around them, which the author calls “darkness.” The advice, here, seems particularly aimed toward Gentiles who have become Christian, those more likely to be wooed back into the “mainstream” of life.
Instead of being wooed back into life, the author of Ephesians seeks to set boundaries and ethics for life together as a community of faith, boundaries that call community members to pursue goodness, justice (or righteousness) and truth. Part of that pursuit includes not only following truth, but truth-telling: exposing that which is false or secretive to community discernment. One can understand, in light of the likely fragile nature of a community built around multiple ethnicities and cultures, the need for honesty, forthrightness and transparency in community dealings. Such an ethic would be critical for the survival of the “blended family” of the early church.
Critical to the author’s argument for a community ethics of transparency, honesty, justice and goodness, is the assertion that the entire community are a part of the same family: in this case, “children of light.” There are many other places where the author uses kinship imagery in Ephesians to refer to the members of the churches: adoption (1:5); inheritance (1:11); members of God’s household (2:19), etc. This is but one example. In this instance, the author argues that if your parent is light, you should resemble your parent in how you live: exposing what is secretive and false and showing what is good and just and truthful to the world.
In addition to the metaphor of family, the author also uses a metaphor of resurrection, one that speaks to a current state of resurrection rather than a future resurrection. The children of light are also called those who have been resurrected out of those who are dead, presumably their non-Christian context. Again, the author is pushing the churches to turn toward the community of faith for a source of ethics, rather than turning toward the world in which they live.
Preaching this epistle requires a delicate balance between uncritical Christian insularity and a complete refusal to admit the evils of this present age. Many Christians err on the former side, fearing any substantive interaction with the contemporary age, lest its scientific disciplines call into question the pre-modern understandings of the created order in the Bible.
Many others err on the latter, unable to critique a culture into which they are so immersed that they see all of it as normative and wholly good. The author of the Ephesians clearly leans toward the first of these groups, but the household codes (slaves obey your masters, etc.) that end chapter five and continue in chapter six belay an accommodation with the world that some today will find to be surprisingly uncritical.
For the preacher, the balance may be found in understanding that “children of light” is but one metaphor for the church, akin to that of “citizen with the saints.” That is, the author of Ephesians is arguing that being a Christian in a non-Christian (or today a post-Christian) world should cause members of the church to act differently: to tell the truth, to push for justice, to uphold goodness regardless of the norms of the society at large. Members of the church are to live as those who have already been raised from the dead in a world focused on prolonging youth and life.
This passage will be heard 14 days in advance of the 52nd anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. (April 4, 1968). King was one who called the church to repent not only for the actions of those with evil intentions but for the “appalling silence of the good people.” Like King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” today’s proper challenges preachers to ponder what it might mean for “good people” not to be silent in “this present evil age,” but rather to live openly as children of light called to goodness, justice and truth-telling.
- Commentary first published on this site on Apr. 3, 2011.
This story, filled with strange conflicted sayings, involves a healer who gives a blind man sight and then disappears.
He leaves behind questions that the other characters struggle to answer by asking the wrong question. Everyone in the scene—the religious leaders, the parents of the now-sighted man, and the man himself—speak without connecting with each other.
When the religious leaders ask for the fifth time a question using the word “how”—“How did he open your eyes?”—we see that they are fixated on method rather than going to the deeper question: Who is this healer? (Actually, it may be that the “how” questions are meant to obfuscate what they really want to know in order to trip Jesus up.) The formerly blind man answers, in what ends up being one of those rare places in Scripture that is actually comic, whether the religious leaders want to know what Jesus did because they want to become his disciples. We know they are not interested in becoming his followers. They want to trap a threatening rabbi (teacher) and healer who confronts them with their unmerciful rules, like not being allowed to do a holy work on the Sabbath.
The religious leaders even turn against the now-sighted man with disgust that he, a sinner, would deign to tell them how to think about Jesus. You can almost smell the vainglory dripping off these affronted religious types. We know them in our own time. They often get caught offending in just the way they accuse others of sinning.
Jesus’ absence for most of the story gives the ignorant and threatened people time to try to find someone who will blame Jesus rather than giving him credit for a good gift. When he reappears, he perfectly depicts in double meaning the point of his healing: “I came into this world … so that those who do not see may see” (John 9:39).
Giving sight to a blind man, repeated references to light––these images are also found in the other readings for this day so that the preacher might be drawn to the role of vision in how we live. In the readings appointed to accompany the healing of the blind man, we are told that we see “as mortals see … the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). In the Epistle (Ephesians 5:8-14), light exposes what is done in secret, making visible what was not visible, bringing out the fruits of what is “good and right and true.” We need light to illumine our way, because we cannot see with our eyes in the dark. This is true for all people, all races, and for most creatures (exceptions are some fantastical beings that live in the deepest, darkest parts of the oceans).
Abiding “in darkness”—as the Epistle contrasts that place with being “in the Lord”—has to do with orientation, perspective, and goals. Consider what you learn from a visit to an underground mine, for instance, when the guide turns off the lights for a brief moment.
(OK this may be a little dramatic, but if you’ve been in a mine without light, you know I’m telling the truth!)
On the other hand, when you are living “in the Lord,” the scope enlarges.
These are conditions for an orientation that can lead to “what is pleasing to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:10).
When Jesus returns to the story at the end, he pulls out from God’s word the deeper meaning of having vision. He enlarges the meaning of the light that God gives so that it becomes a kind of interior seeing. Having vision becomes a way to connect with others.
The healed man doesn’t get caught up in the obfuscating questions of the religious leaders like whether Jesus is a sinner. The healed man says what he knows to be the flat truth: he healed me. And he is gutsy. He sounds exasperated at the religious leaders when they want to hear it again and he says, “I have told you already, and you would not listen.” His vision has brought him a clarity that we might all admire. Vision brings wisdom.
This story has all the people you can find in any religious or secular group:
The only one who truly receives light is the blind man. He’s the only one who is healed. He’s the only one who names Jesus appropriately.
The story of the blind man’s healing in John can be recounted in three parts:
This movement of events mirrors our world in every age:
Jesus, the light of the world, is a mystery, except that while the whole world around the blind man is confused, the blind man is quietly abandoned by everyone but Jesus.
Finally, notice Jesus’ most telling action. Jesus comes to the man in his blindness and gives him vision. He does not quiz the blind man about anything. Only later, when Jesus returns, does he use the word “believe.” His healing makes no conditions.