Lectionary Commentaries for March 26, 2017
Fourth Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 9:1-41

Osvaldo Vena

John 9 functions as a commentary on Jesus’s claim in 8:12 (“I am the light of the world”).

Verse 5 ties John 8 and 9 together. As in John 3 and 4, religious instruction is conveyed through dialogue, a literary devise present in Rabbinic and Hellenistic documents as well as in the Jesus tradition.

This chapter can be divided into three sections: introduction to the healing (1-5), description of the healing (6-7), and reaction to the healing (8-41). Like in John 4, there are several characters: the blind man, Jesus, the disciples, the Pharisees, and the blind man’s parents.

Punctuation and interpretation

How John 9:3 is punctuated makes a difference in the way one interprets this incident. The NRSV, by adding he was born blind, which is not in the Greek text, suggests that the man’s blindness is an “excuse” for God to show God’s power (see also 11:4). A more accurate translation would be “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. But in order that God’s works might be revealed in him it is necessary for us to work the works of the one who sent me … ”

This translation conclusively affirms that, at least in this case, there is no connection between sickness and sin (but see 5:14). Therefore, Jesus must do the work of God and heal the man.

In the Jewish tradition, there were two causes for sickness: the sins of the parents which produced the suffering of the children (Exodus 20:5) and prenatal sin committed by the fetus. The latter was an older tradition from the Rabbinic period. But in Israel there were differences of opinion on this matter, as suggested by Ezekiel 18 and Jeremiah 31:29-30. In this passage, Jesus seems to side with the prophetic traditions that affirmed that people were individually responsible for their sins.

The symbolism behind the man’s story

In reading the Gospel of John, ancient as well as contemporary readers are used to expect more than the obvious. So, when it comes to understanding what the blind man stands for, there are a variety of possible interpretations.

Since the purpose of signs in John is to teach about Christology, the giving of sight to a blind man teaches people that Jesus is the light of the world in a similar fashion that the multiplication of loaves in chapter 6 shows that Jesus is the bread of life.1 The only way people can approach the light of God shown in the person of Jesus is acknowledging their own blindness. Approaching Jesus pretending to know (Nicodemus) or to see (Pharisees) amounts to spiritual blindness. This chapter, but also the Gospel in general, exemplifies the movement from unbelief to belief. With his declaration in verse 38, “Lord, I believe,” the man demonstrates the kind of faith that is required for salvation. The same kind of confession is shown by Martha in 11:27.

The man is a foil for the blindness of the Pharisees, a poignant example of the irony of the Fourth Gospel and the humor of the region: a blind man who sees what the religious authorities do not (cf. 39-41). The chapter starts with a man born blind assumed to be a sinner (verse 2) and ends with some of the Pharisees who are declared sinners because they pretend to “see,” which shows their unbelief (verses 39-41). As the chapter progresses, “blindness” moves from a physical to a spiritual level. By the end, the blind man not only sees in a physical way but also believes, receives spiritual light (see Ephesians 5:8-14). Again, we see the amazing piling up of symbolisms in John’s rhetoric.

Sending the man to wash himself in the pool of Siloam recalls the incident in 2 Kings 5:10-14, where Naaman the leper is sent by Elisha to bathe in the river Jordan. It also emphasizes the healing power of water, since the man is healed only after he washes himself, an act of trusting obedience. That is why, in the early church, this story was read during the baptism of new converts. Some scholars even believe that verses 38-39 were added later for precisely that purpose. In fact, this story appears in early catacomb art most frequently as an illustration of Christian baptism.2

There is evidence in the gospel that the evangelist had in mind a baptismal motif. The name of the pool means sent and in John Jesus is the one who was sent from God. Also, the water of the pool was the source of the water used in the celebration of Tabernacles and the reader has learned from 7:37-38 that Jesus, during the last day of the festival, declares himself to be the source of living water, thus symbolically replacing the water of the festival with his own person.

One of the most popular interpretations of this chapter is that the man is not a real historical character but a literary construction reflecting the situation of the Johannine community when it was forcefully separated from the synagogue. This is based on 9:22 and 34, but also on 12:42-43 and 16:2. Being as it may, the separation does not have to be understood in terms of expulsion but perhaps as a voluntary separation. This possibility takes the responsibility for the rift off the Jewish people and puts it on the community (also Jewish), which found it impossible to remain in communion with their brothers and sisters in the synagogue because of their developing Christology, an example of which can be seen in the man’s progressive understanding of who Jesus was (see 9:11,17, 33 and 38).

As we ponder about the appropriateness of this text for contemporary audiences we need to consider several things. First, the text seems to combat the idea that sickness is related to sin. In an age that has seen the spread of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, which for many people represent a sinful lifestyle, it would be wise not to make this mistake ourselves.

Second, the man was a social outcast on the assumption that his physical and social conditions were the consequence of his or his parents’ sin. He was put in this position by a culture that did not give him enough opportunities to support himself in a dignified manner. But Jesus is about to change all that with a miracle that speaks of the healing power of the marginalized. Both Jesus and the man were considered sinners by popular culture (9:2, 24,34) and yet they are the protagonists of a liberating event.

Third, the text seems to reject also all kinds of determinisms, that is, the idea that one’s race, culture, social status, education, among other things, determine one’s moral standing. One example of this was the 2010 earthquake in Haiti which brought about a great devastation in that country. Some conservative preachers interpreted it as a divine punishment for their practice of Voodoo and other nature religions, instead of seeing it as a natural catastrophe that affected thousands of people, especially the poor. Another example is the fact that most of the inmates in the US prison system are African Americans and Latinos. This should not be seeing as a commentary on their morality but rather as proof of the racial prejudices of our society when it comes to decide who goes to prison and who doesn’t.

Lastly, a Pharisaic attitude is not the domain of Judaism alone, but of any religion going legalistic. We need to avoid equating the Pharisees with the Jews, who in the gospel of John refer not to the Jewish people in general but to the Jewish religious authorities who were bent on prohibiting new ways of interpreting the traditions of Israel.


 Notes:

Talbert, Reading John, 162.

Brown, John, 380.


First Reading

Commentary on 1 Samuel 16:1-13

Patricia Tull

The story of David’s anointing in 1 Samuel 16 follows a traditional biblical storyline in which God shows unexpected favor for a younger sibling, singling out an unlikely candidate.

This passage also occurs in Year B’s semi-continuous readings from 1-2 Samuel, where the larger context can be more thoroughly examined.

On the surface this may seem a sweet story affirming the value of “the least of these.” At least, that is the way it has often been read. But readers should not minimize the conflicts into which the young David is thrust by God’s choice and Samuel’s actions. As the story demonstrates, God’s call on individuals can appear straightforward and even optimistic in the beginning, but can develop in unexpected and even tragic ways over the course of a lifetime.

The passage’s first verse looks backward to what has already happened: When the people of Israel ask for a king, Samuel anoints Saul, who appears at first to exhibit some leadership qualities. But almost immediately his authority is undermined by a string of clashes, confusing to readers as well as to Saul, with both Samuel and God. In these clashes, Saul falls victim to unclear instructions, unmanageable circumstances, and a zero-tolerance policy in which his failure seems both inscrutable and inevitable.

Saul’s exact offence is unclear, and commentators struggle to reconstruct it, augmenting the impression that he has been given tests with no correct choices. Latitude for decisions and grace for mistakes are not given to Saul. In these conditions his psyche unravels, and we watch him stumbling painfully along until, by 1 Samuel 15, he is decisively rejected by God for, of all things, showing mercy to an enemy. His downward slide continues until his death in 1 Samuel 31.

But the problem for David is somewhat different. Samuel secretly anoints him as God’s chosen future king while Saul is still reigning, and for the next fifteen chapters, that is, most of the story, the conflict between the two kings Samuel has anointed, a conflict neither of them created, balloons from rivalry and jealousy to deadly hostility: the recognized king of Israel, who still had a following, periodically determined to destroy his hidden heir, who time after time eludes his grasp. Saul’s dynasty is doomed and his reign blighted. We flinch, watching him seesaw back and forth between rigidity and humility, between savagery and nobility, losing ground not only in God’s eyes but in those of his family and readers. We pray never to be Saul.

At the same time as Saul’s story lurches to its tragic end, David’s story unfolds with what seems at first to be naïve zeal, and soon becomes mixed with crafty and even morally objectionable behaviors. Unlike Saul, David is gifted with favor by nearly all who meet him, including Saul’s own family members. He is pressed into Saul’s service, living at the palace, and even when forced to flee he escapes with several hundred supporters.

He tries to extort a “protection” payment from Nabal, and marries the widow his actions create. He takes refuge with Achish, the king of Gath in Philistia, and proceeds to double cross him by decimating villages of other peoples while pretending to raid Israelites. He is spared going into battle against his Israelite kin only because the other Philistine leaders, fortunately, mistrust him.

David’s scramble toward leadership over Israel continues with Saul’s death. It takes him seven years and much political maneuvering to gain control of the king’s domain. And just at the point that everything seems to be smoothing out, just as the story comes to a resting place, his acquired taste for conquest leads him to disgraceful actions that will shadow him for the rest of his life and beyond, relentlessly destroying his own family. Two entire kingdoms and several surrounding nations are time after time upended by his and his family’s actions. The insignificant shepherd boy, overlooked even by his own family, seems very long ago and far away.

The story of David’s anointing as Israel’s future king, beset as it is by tremendous ambiguity both human and divine, is by no means simple. The lessons to be drawn from it can range widely, depending on interpretive context. Most often, the story and its psychological depth are taken on their own terms, with sympathy for an aging, disappointed, and fearful prophet, on the one hand, and on the other hand for a hitherto unknown youth who has been left behind in the field while his father and brothers attend a sacrificial feast.

There is a symmetry to this moment: Samuel himself was once a youth to whom divine favor had unexpectedly passed, forsaking the family of his own mentor Eli. Samuel’s story, like David’s, like that of most adults, was also characterized by early promise that became more ambiguous as his life events unfolded.

Darkness and dread shroud the story’s beginning: Samuel is despondent over his failure and conflict with Saul, and even afraid for his life. The God of light and truth suggests a ruse in order to get a job done whose real value is somewhat unclear. Most kings are anointed as they ascend to the throne, not years before. So why put a boy in danger by making him into a rival, except perhaps to suggest to readers that, through all the tangled episodes that follow, God’s thumb is on the scale in his favor?

Bethlehem’s leaders likewise express apprehension when Samuel arrives, though we aren’t told why. What do they know or sense about the prophet? What worries them? How do they react when they see what Samuel does? We aren’t told.

The story’s climactic line is heard only by Samuel: “The LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart” (verse 7). What is lacking in each of Jesse’s other seven sons is never stated, and except for a brief and none too complimentary role for Eliab in 1 Samuel 17:28, we never see them again. Reading forward through David’s life, we do see that, whatever his faults may be, they are not those of his predecessor Saul or of his contemptuous older brother. In fact, his extraordinary gift for charismatic leadership evoking loyalty and trust seems to be felt by most who surround him. Whether that gift ends up benefiting anyone, including David, remains an open question.

For better or worse, Samuel’s seemingly straightforward action changes an ordinary youth’s world. It tickles a hidden ambition that will grow in magnitude throughout his life, and in all history that follows. Ancient Israel’s self-understanding, and consequently that of both Judaism and Christianity, flow from this moment of David’s first affirmation from the outside world.


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.1

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).


1. Commentary first published on this site on March 30, 2014.

 


Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 5:8-14

Amy L.B. Peeler

Like many authors in the first-century world, Paul often trades in opposites: Sin and Righteousness, Death and Life, Light and Darkness.

Ephesians 5:8-14 focuses upon the last pair where Paul reminds the Ephesians of the radical transformation they’ve undergone, and the subsequent radical life that transformation demands.

A Bright Identity

To begin reading in verse 8 is to pick up in the midst of Paul’s thought. Since verse 3, he has been talking about the habits of life they should not practice — impurity, greed, course speech — and harshly reminding them those whose lives are characterized by such things do not have an inheritance from God but instead an expectation of God’s wrath. Do not, Paul says, be fellow participants with people who do such things. This is the background that leads to his dualistic statement in verse 8 about darkness and light. It is rather striking in its succinct comprehensiveness: formerly, you were darkness, and now (understood “you are”) light. Not that they are in darkness or light, but these descriptors are fitting to their very identity.

The Light Family

The transformation happens because now they are “in the Lord.” Since Christ is a source of light — he is the one who shines upon them (Ephesians 5:14) — and they are now in him, it follows that they can now be called children of light. This is closely related to the earlier statement in verse 1 that they should imitate God because they are in his family.

Stephen Colbert, the over-the-top media personality character of The Colbert Report in an interview with Bart Ehrman, a New Testament scholar who expressed doubts about Jesus’ divinity queried, “What is the son of a duck?” The answer being, of course, a duck. Paul is drawing a similarly obvious familial connection here. If they are in the Lord, they are children of God and children of light. Light is the nature of their identity, and that should determine how they walk about (peripatew) — in other words, how they live, what they think, feel, say, and do.

Fruit of the Light

Paul lists several aspects of this way of living, and he describes them as the “fruit of the light,” an intriguing mixed metaphor many scribes replace with the more familiar “fruit of the spirit,” but the unusual reading is in all likelihood the original. Paul imagines the reality of being light issuing forth in the fruit of goodness (a quality he connects to the Christian life in several of his letters: Romans 15:14; Galatians 5:22; 2 Thessalonians 1:11), righteousness (one of his favorite and most important theological terms), and truth (frequently associated with the life of and in God).

Even Paul recognizes the intangible quality of such lofty ideals, for he follows this list with the affirmation that the person who is light will need to test out what is pleasing to the Lord. In other words, “What is goodness, righteousness, and truth?” are not simple questions. They must be discerned with the aids God has provided: the Spirit, the Scriptures, and the Church.

Non-Fruit of Darkness

The mixed metaphor works on the other side as well: darkness produces unfruitful works. It is not simply the case that darkness produces no fruit, but even more dangerously it produces works that are the antithesis of fruit. In this instance, there exists not simply the absence of the good but the presence of the corrupt. Paul instructs the Ephesians not to fellowship with such things.

In addition to avoiding unfruitfulness, Paul asks his readers to reprove — to speak against — such works. His is not an instruction for passive avoidance, but for active critique. This action might be one way in which Paul envisions the fruit of goodness, righteousness, and especially truth becoming ripe. To speak against the non-fruit is, itself, a demonstration of healthy fruit.

The group Paul has categorized as darkness, whose work produces non-fruit, does things in secret which are so shameful they are that-which-cannot-be-named. When the people who are light reprove these things they move out from under the cover of secrecy and darkness into the state of revelation. Back-room deals that result in oppression, any kind of exploitation, or deeds that result in shame come to light when they are reproved.

Christ is Shining

In a fascinating turn, then, Paul declares that everything which has been revealed (everything which has been named in reproof) is now light. The transformation of verse 8 is repeated. Darkness is now light. I can’t help but see a redemptive possibility here. If the people of the light expose the deeds of those in darkness, that reproof can result in those people’s transformation. Paul’s citation of a poem (from where this citation comes, scholars do not know), makes it more likely that salvation is in fact in view.

Beautifully captured in Bach’s cantata 140, Wachet Auf , a voice has called the sleepers (and most people sleep in the dark) to rise, and, even more, the same voice has called those who are among the dead to resurrect. As the closing line of the poem declares, the chief one to reprove, to expose, the falsity of belief and the deeds of unrighteousness (think of Jesus’ exacting critiques in the gospels of both disciples and opponents), Christ himself is turning his light on them.

Because the light of Christ has come, the Ephesians have been radically transformed, and they have a call, a responsibility, to usher in the shining of his light upon others so they too can be transformed. Moving into the light brings initial pain to the eyes, and the cultivation of fruit takes effort, but the transition is worth it. For who would not relinquish the secret and shameful darkness of death in order to walk in the light as children of the God of light?