Lectionary Commentaries for March 30, 2014
Fourth Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 9:1-41

Robert Hoch

This text offers at least three or four related trajectories of interpretation:

  • the question of human suffering;
  • the absence of Jesus in verses 8 through 34, the longest absence of Jesus in the gospel1;
  • the incremental growth of the blind man’s testimony (12, 17, 33, 38); and
  • the irony of “seeing” and yet remaining blind and how a confession of, “I don’t know” may open our eyes to deeper wisdom.

According to Gail R. O’Day, this text resembles a Greek play. In this dramatic genre, each scene had no more than two characters speaking.The first three “scenes” might look like this:

Scene 1: John 9:1-5
Disciples and Jesus. Who sinned, thus leading to his blindness, this man or his parents? Jesus announces that, “I am the light of the world.” Exit Disciples.

Scene 2: John 9:6-7a
Enter Blind man. Jesus speaks to the man, applies “mud made with saliva” over his eyes and tells him to go wash in the pool of Siloam. Exit Jesus.

Scene 3: John 9:8-12
Enter Village/Neighbors. When asked “how” his eyes were opened, he tells what “the man called Jesus did” (verse 11). Those who had known the blind man, now do not know him or are uncertain that this is the same person. While they “saw” him clearly as the blind man they could not “see” him as sighted. All the while he says, “I am the man.” When asked “where” this man (“the light of the world”) is, he replies, “I do not know” (verse 12).

Using the text’s dramatic structure may help interpreters isolate a particular question or problem as it develops in each discrete scene. Whatever strategy employed, we should keep the beginning of this text in sight, namely, the question of the disciples: “Who sinned, this man or his parents?”

Significantly, the disciples take blindness for granted. It is a terminus, an end point in itself, the cause of his blindness being the only thing of interest to the disciples. This man amounts to his diagnosis, only. Yet, with Jesus, our diagnosis does not have the last word, as this text will go on to demonstrate.

Undermining the power of fears and prejudice is often easier said than done. Often it requires an indirect approach. For example, while teaching a poetry class to a group of children, ages 8 to 13, we experimented with acrostic poems. Asked what kind of food they disliked, one boy answered, “Octopus” — and we had our word and especially, perhaps, his distaste for seafood. And we all had a giggle.

However, as we worked through the different letters of the acrostic, the children in the class “helped” us to see this mysterious creature more richly, from its suction cups, to its ability to squeeze through small holes, to its association with other strange and mysterious creatures, such as the platypus, and even our fears, as one girl wrote for “S”: “Staring eyes looking straight at you!” In other words, at first, we had “seen” our distaste or perhaps our deepest fears — through the medium of acrostic our “sight” deepened into something like insight.

The challenge of this text will be to frame the sermon in such a way that the congregation participates in the deconstruction of commonly held views or opinions about the human condition — views that may be reinforced by deep-seated fears.

One topic of conversation might surface quickly in such an exercise, namely the question of human suffering. In John’s gospel, the characters have arrived at seemingly different explanations for his blindness: either he sinned or his parents sinned.

According to biblical scholar, Gerard S. Sloyan, the disciples debate the question of whose sin produced this suffering; they do not debate whether the presupposition behind this (that seeing suffering we can conclude sin) is valid; nor do they question whether suffering may, in fact, be anything more than a terminal diagnosis.3

Most listeners today will reject the sort of reasoning present among the disciples who, seeing suffering, conclude sin. We’re more sophisticated in this regard since we would probably look for physiological reasons. However, it is not at all unusual for us to fall into the trap of reductive explanations for suffering.

For example, we often hear the debate about whether personal troubles are attributable to nature or nurture. That’s a pretty well-established battle line but does it really help us navigate human suffering and what it means from the vantage point of God’s love for the world?

Sloyan believes that John writes neither about a flawless universe nor one “shot-through with miracle” but instead about a God who has sent his Son Jesus and “rendered deity” knowable through Christ’s love.4

While preachers should indicate that God does not make an instrument out of suffering, making it somehow necessary, John’s gospel does point to a God who stirs the stagnant determinisms of human suffering with unlikely and improbable gifts of insight which reveal God’s abiding love.

Michele M. Bilyeu is a textile artist in Salem, Oregon, who uses her medium to undermine our understanding of those who suffer with Alzheimer’s Disease. She entitles one piece, Mama’s Brain’s Got Tangles…But Mama’s Still Inside: “Like my mother’s memory, this art quilt consists of many layers, tangles, and threads…with spots of clarity and light hidden amidst the colorful (but often chaotic) surface layer.”5

That “surface layer” seemed to define the blind man for the surrounding community. To be sure, the blind man lived in a community, but it is striking how little his neighbors knew about him or even of him. They saw mostly his condition. And yet when he says, “I am the man” it seems they only hear their own doubts, their own circumscribed realities.

Interestingly, his words echo Jesus’ “I am” statements; even more suggestive, one may hear echoes of Jesus’ words about himself in John 8: 40a: “Now you are trying to kill me, a man who has told you the truth…”

Jesus discloses his identity as the Son of Man to the blind man: “‘You have seen him and the one speaking with you now is he’” (9:35).

While it may be implied by 7b (“he came back able to see”), the blind man had not “seen” Jesus until the end of this chapter, suggesting that Jesus doubles the meaning of the verb, “to see” in this text, recalling both physical sight and inward illumination.

Bilyeu seems to grasp the Johannine notion of “double illumination” when she offers the Alzheimer’s Prayer: “I pray that [caregivers and family members will care] for their patients and loved ones as the people they truly are . . . and not just who they seem to have become.”    


Notes:

Gail R. O’Day, “John” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. 9: Luke John, ed. Leander E. Keck, et. al. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 651.

Ibid., 651.

Gerard S. Sloyan, John, ed. James Luther Mays, et. al. (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1988), 115.

Ibid., 122.

5 Michele Bilyeu, “With Heart and Hands” (25 September 2012), http://www.with-heart-and-hands.com/2012_09_01_archive.html, accessed on 16 November 2013.

Ibid.


First Reading

Commentary on 1 Samuel 16:1-13

Roger Nam

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.

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.

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.

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.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 23

Rolf Jacobson

If you have never preached on Psalm 23 — or if you haven’t preached on it recently — this is the week.

Why? Glad that you asked.

Psalm 23 is one of the cannot-miss texts for living the Christian life Monday through Saturday. Simply put, the psalm is one of a small set essential texts for the daily living-out of the Christian faith.

A couple of years ago, I was part of a group at Luther Seminary that researched the complex issues of biblical illiteracy-literacy-fluency in our culture. As part of the research, roughly 1,500 people were surveyed and about 200 people were interviewed in two rounds of interviews in 12 locations around the United States.

One question the survey posed was, “Is there a text that is important for you in difficult times?” Not all people answered the question, but of those who did, 15 percent of respondents named Psalm 23 specifically. Another 10 percent named “the psalms” in general. The psalms, and especially Psalm 23, speak powerfully to and for God’s people in troubled times.

The message from the everyday saints to “walk the walk” of daily faith in our time, the message is clear: Psalm 23 is essential. The putter is the essential club for golfers. The chef’s knife is the essential tool for cooks. And Psalm 23 is the essential text for the daily life of faith. Sure, you can golf without a putter, cook without a chef’s knife, and live the Christian life without Psalm 23. But who would want to?

This is your chance to equip your congregation with this essential psalm.

So, Working Preacher, let’s say that I have convinced you to preach on Psalm 23 this week. What then? Well, the obvious question is, “What is a sermon on Psalm 23 supposed to accomplish?”

My answer to that question is related to what I have already written above. If it is true that Psalm 23 is an essential text for living the Christian life — and especially for living the Christian faith when the bridges have been washed out by a flood of troubled waters — then the aim of a sermon on Psalm 23 should be to render the poem available to congregants for their daily lives. The sermon should equip people to pray and confess the psalm in daily life — especially in times when, as Psalm 69 says, “the waters have come up to my neck … and the flood sweeps over me” (verses 1b, 3d).

The sermon should equip people to imagine themselves as the one speaking or praying the psalm.

In order to do this, of course, a person would need to understand both the form and the theology of this psalm.

Psalm 23 is usually described as a psalm of trust. Trust psalms presume a particular type of life setting and regularly include two types of language.

The Situation. Similar to the Psalter’s prayers for help (also called laments), trust psalms are spoken in the midst of dire crisis. Most prayers for help include expressions of trust, but these expressions are not usually the main emphasis of those psalms. In prayers for help the emphasis is usually on crying out in complaint and requesting help. As the name indicates, in the psalm of trust the emphasis is on trust.

The Language, Part 1. The psalms of trust regularly include metaphorical descriptions of the crisis in which the psalmist is stuck. In Psalm 23, the crisis is described as “the darkest valley” and “a table … in the presence of my enemies.” Other psalms describe crises as “an army [en]camped against me,” or “the foundations are destroyed,” or “the waters have come up to my neck,” and so on (Psalms 27:3; 11:3; 69:1).

Part of the power of Psalm 23 is the dynamic power of these metaphors for crisis — they can apply to many different situations.

Especially since this is the Lenten season, if you preach on the psalm, it might be appropriate to invite them into the rich metaphorical imagery of the psalm. When have they been the lost sheep, walked the dark valley, or sat at a table surrounded by enemies (readers and viewers of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones story might picture the Red Wedding here).

The Language, Part 2. In addition to metaphorical depictions of a situation of crisis, the psalms of trust also include language that expresses trust in God’s presence and deliverance. In Psalm 23, the person in crisis confesses: “the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” “he leads me beside still waters, he restores my soul; he leads me in right paths for his name’s sake” (more on God’s name momentarily), and “You prepare a table before me … my cup overflows.” Other psalms confess that God is “my light and my salvation,” “the Lord is in his holy temple … his eyes behold, his gaze examines humankind,” and “the Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge” (Psalms 27:1; 11:4; 46:7, 11).

The main aim of a sermon on Psalm 23 might be to make this language of trust available to God’s people, so that these or other words that confess trust in God might be words that they can speak in the midst of their daily lives — especially when they are in crisis.

One more word needs to be said. In order to make the language of Psalm 23 available to God’s people, the preacher also needs to address the theology of Psalm 23 — and more generally the Psalter’s theology of trust.

In a word, the theology of Psalm 23 assumes a divine promise.

Trust — whether we are speaking of the ancient trust of the psalmist in Israel’s God, or the contemporary trust of a Christian today — trust is evoked by a promise. And the only possible responses to a promise are to believe it or not to believe it. To trust it or not to trust to it. To live as if the promise is real and trustworthy or to live as if the promise isn’t real or trustworthy.

The promise to the ancient psalmist was simple. “I am with you.” In response, the psalmist confesses, “I fear no evil, for you are with me.” I may be surrounded by enemies, but “you prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies.”

Let God’s people know that God is still with us. The God who drew near to us in Immanuel is with us still. In spite of our lack of trust and our failure to follow. Jesus has promised, “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).


Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 5:8-14

Richard Carlson

To understand the thrust of this text it helps to understand the broad structure of the letter to the Ephesians written by an unknown author using Paul’s name a decade or two after Paul’s death.

Chapters 1-3 of Ephesians serve as an identity reminder. That is, in the first half of the letter the author is celebrating the audience’s common identity and status which God has fully accomplished in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (1:4-11).

They now participate in Christ as raised participants in God’s salvific designs and reality for the cosmos (2:1-10). He calls on them to remember how they have been made part of the single, new humanity as members of the household of God (2:11-22). In the closing section of chapters 1-3 the author prays that the letter’s recipients would be rooted and strengthened in the love of Christ so that they would be filled with the fullness of God (3:14-21). Then he finishes off with a doxology sealed with a closing “Amen” (3:20-21).

While chapters 1-3 thus serve as a theological “because” depicting the audience’s identity and reality in Christ accomplished according to God’s plan, chapters 4-6 serve as a theological “therefore” which calls the audience to enact their salvation in their conduct and relationships (note that the Greek work “therefore” literally stands in the opening words of 4:1). A crucial word which the author uses six times in chapters 4-6 to denote their called for conduct is the Greek word peripateo (4:1,17bis; 5:2,8,15).

Literally it means “to walk around” but is commonly used in the Pauline corpus to denote appropriate Christian conduct. It is akin to our use of the word “walk” in the phrase, “You can talk the talk, but can you walk the walk?” as a reference to how one lives their life in concrete ways. The six uses of peripateo in the second half of the letter build on its use in 2:10 where the author claims that Christians “were created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared ahead of time in order that we would walk in them.” (Translation mine) In this way chapters 4-6 elucidate appropriate Christian conduct and relationships as the battery of good works God has already prepared for us.

Our particular text follows a set of prohibitions regarding sexual immorality including the command not to associate with people who engage in such depravity (5:3-7). On the one hand, because 5:8 does not really begin an entire new section, the instructions regarding sexual conduct would seem to continue into this text. On the other hand, because the instructions of 5:8-14 are quite generalized it could also be assumed that the author is applying these instructions broadly to include all aspects of Christian conduct.

Ephesians 5:8a functions as a brief identity reminder where the author reminds the audience that formerly they were darkness, but now they are light in the Lord. Verse 5:8b is a call to action as a result of their light identity. They are to walk as children of light. So once again Christian identity and reality are the foundation and springboard for distinctive Christian conduct. Verse 5:9 elucidates of what such conduct entails. The fruit of our light identity involves conduct which is pervasive goodness, righteousness, and truth. Goodness recalls the good works God prepared for us (2:10) while righteousness and truth involve conduct, speech, and relationships as established in Christ (4:21-25).

While such conduct is quite general in character, 5:10 reminds us that this also involves the ongoing discernment of behavior which is pleasing to Christ. Quite often to post-Reformation ears, behavior which is pleasing to Christ smacks of works righteousness. That is not the case for this author. Good works and Christ pleasing behavior are important aspects of living the Christian life precisely because God prepared such good works for us to do and because we are to emulate God and Christ as indispensable components of our walk of life (5:1-2).

Christian conduct as exposure is the main thrust of the instructions in 5:11-14. In 5:9 he spoke positively of the fruit of light as part of our light identity. Now in 5:11 he warns the audience not to be co-participants in unfruitful works of darkness, i.e., behavior which is the opposite of goodness, righteousness, and truth. Instead, Christians are to expose such wrong behaviors for what they truly are.

In this case, exposure most likely includes engaging in the exact opposite behavior as well as verbally pointing out what would be appropriate conduct which pleases Christ (recalling the prior instruction to speak the truth to each other, 4:25). Ironically, in 5:12 the author instructs his audience not even to name the shameful, unfruitful works of darkness.

The author also assumes that exposure of negative behavior and lifestyles by positive Christian conduct and speech can become an evangelism tool. When the perpetrators of the unfruitful works of darkness see how the children of light walk their walk (5:8b-9) they have the potential to be converted so that they also become light (5:13 recalling Christian reality as light in 5:8a). To undergird this point, the author closes the unit in 5:14 by quoting what was most likely part of an early Christian hymn depicting the believers’ original conversion experience as awaking from sleep and arising from the dead because Christ illuminated them. This also recalls prior claims about conversion as moving from death to life and resurrection through God’s love and mercy in 2:1-6.

Finally, this reminder of their own conversion experience has a twofold effect. First, it helps them refocus on new conduct which fully reflects their new God-awakened and Christ enlightened reality. Second, it bolsters them to make their new conduct a public act of exposure so that it has the potential to impact others to awake from the sleep and deadness of their own negative conduct and be converted into light, as Christ now illuminates their lives through the proper conduct, speech, and relationships of God’s people in Christ Jesus.