Preaching on John 9:1-41 reminds me of the children’s book A Fish Out of Water,
not because of the moral lesson of closely listening to the instructions of persons who know much more than you do, but because Otto, the fish, was indeed a fish out of water. Because Otto is fed too much (the feeding instructions were not followed–“When you feed a fish, never feed him a lot. So much and no more! Never more than a spot, or something may happen! You never know what.”) he grows and grows and outgrows every bowl, pot, and container to which he is moved. He even becomes too big for the public swimming pool!
John 9:1-41 has taken on such a life of its own that putting it back into its narrative context is much like squeezing giant Otto back into his original fish bowl. Commentaries have neatly divided the chapter into an isolated drama of seven scenes narrating the aftermath of Jesus’ healing of the man born blind, who never asked to be healed in the first place. Interpreters have been content to let the meaning of the story reside in the miracle itself, when actually, Jesus himself comments on the healing in 10:1-21. Jesus does not stop talking in 9:41–he keeps on going and Jesus’ words in 10:1-21 function as the discourse that interprets the meaning of the healing of the blind man which is a recurring structural pattern in the Gospel of John. Jesus performs a sign (shmei/a in the Fourth Gospel) which is followed by dialogue and then commentary from Jesus that provides the theological framework through which to interpret the meaning of the sign. When the discourse on the healing of the blind man is ignored in the interpretation of John 9, the events in chapter 9 are not allowed their full meaning and impact.
Unfortunately, the lectionary significantly complicates the issue. 9:1-41 is the lectionary text for Lent 4 in Year A, but we must wait until Easter 4 in Year A to hear the first part of the discourse (10:1-10) and then Easter 4 in Year B to hear the rest of the discourse (11-18). Moreover, we do not read 10:19-21 where the division among the Jews over whether or not Jesus has a demon and if a demon can open the eyes of the blind directly connects Jesus’ words in chapter 10 to the healing of the blind man in chapter 9.
Interpreting 9:1-10:21 as a unit yields a number of insights for preaching on the healing of the man blind from birth. While a first interpretation of this narrative may focus on the importance of seeing, or “spiritual sight,” when it comes to the recognition of Jesus, when the story of the blind man is heard along with its discourse, we also note the importance of hearing. In fact, the blind man first responds to Jesus’ voice. Jesus tells him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam,” which the blind man does. He hears Jesus before he sees Jesus. The story also narrates his gradual sight, from seeing Jesus as “the man called Jesus” (9:11) to addressing him as “Lord” and worshipping him (9:38). In fact, in 9:37 Jesus himself reveals the importance of both sight and hearing when it comes to belief, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is that one.”
Yet, the importance of hearing and seeing comes into full relief when we ourselves hear Jesus’ words in 10:1-21 along with the healing of the blind man. It is in the discourse that Jesus interprets the meaning of seeing and hearing and believing. There, Jesus reiterates that those who know him, his sheep, hear his voice and follow him, and “knowing” in the Gospel of John articulates relationship. In the figurative language of the sheep and the shepherd, Jesus recasts the importance of seeing and hearing by creating new images for what has already occurred in chapter 9 between the blind man and Jesus. The blind man is more than one whom Jesus heals; he is one of Jesus’ sheep and a member of the fold. Like the sheep, the blind man hears Jesus’ voice. Like the shepherd, Jesus finds the blind man when he has been cast out (9:35). Jesus provides for the man born blind much more than sight–he provides for him what he, as the good shepherd, gives all of his sheep–the protection of his fold (10:16), the blessing of needed pasture (10:9), and the gift of abundant life (10:10). As a result, hearing and seeing are much more than ways by which one recognizes or believes in Jesus. They are, in fact, expressions of relationship with Jesus and relationship with Jesus means also relationship with the Father (10:14-15). Sight and hearing are critical for both the story and the discourse to recognize Jesus and God at work in the healing of the blind man. Without both chapters together, one sense is afforded greater significance over the other and the blind man’s “sight” is then reduced to mere example or miracle. In fact, he embodies that of which Jesus speaks in 10:1-18.
One of the primary messages of this story is that God is (yet again) providing for the welfare of the people,
just as God had previously provided deliverance from Pharaoh; manna water, and the law in the wilderness; a land during the settlement; and guidance and leadership during the period of the judges.1 At the start of 1 Samuel 16, God says to Samuel: “I have provided for myself a king among [Jesse’s] sons.” The Hebrew word that is translated here as “provided” literally means “to see” (h)r); as in English, Hebrew uses “to see”–“I have seen to it”–idiomatically with the sense of “to provide.”2 This Hebrew term provides the key to this story. It signals that God has “seen” the people’s need even before they are aware of it. As God had done in the past, God was again venturing out ahead of the people, authoring the scroll of their story before it had yet been unrolled.
God’s guidance is usually not as discernable in the moment as it is in hindsight. We may not sense what God is doing in our midst or how God is leading us. Even the great prophet Samuel did not know what God was doing. This story, with so much of the Old Testament, affirms that God’s “providence” operates beyond the spectrum in which our sight operates, but even so we remain within God’s view. Note also that God’s eye here is on the flock and not just the individual sparrow. In our age we tend to individualize so many of the messages of the Bible. Here, it is important to note that it is the community of faith that is under God’s care. Neither Saul nor David’s older brothers might have understood the way in which God was providing for Israel as a good way, but God’s eyes were on the people as a whole and not merely the individuals.
The central drama in 1 Samuel 16 is a much-loved story. Jesse brought each of his first seven sons before Samuel to see which son would be anointed as king. When the eldest son Eliab, who was tall and fair, passed before Samuel, the prophet thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord.” God’s response has echoed down through the ages: “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” (v. 7). Jesse then paraded Abinadab and Shammah in front of Samuel, but each time God said, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” Jesse brought four more sons forward, but none of them were chosen either. There was one more son, but he was the youngest and of such little account that Jesse had left him out in the field tending the sheep. In the ancient Near East, the shepherd was a symbol of the king. Ancient audiences would have been touched by the irony that the one who was thought too insignificant to be considered for the role of king was actually already fulfilling his future vocation: shepherding the flock. When David was brought forth, the Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.”
This brief narrative drama–beautiful in its use of irony, suspense, and reversal of expectations–plays upon the contrast between seeing and hearing. The chapter’s key word “see” (h)r) is again in play, especially in v. 7, where it occurs five times. The problem is that Samuel is relying on his human sense of vision, which will not do for the work of God. Back in 1 Sam 9:19, Samuel had even referred to himself as a “seer,” literally a “see-er” (h)ero). But as 1 Sam 16:3 emphasizes, Samuel’s job was not so much to see as to listen: “you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” As the above summary of the story indicates, the text uses this same verb “say/name” in each case when Eliab, Abinadab, Shammah, and David are presented. The message is rather clear. When dealing with matters of God’s actions and will, human sight is an inadequate tool. The human sense of hearing–if we are listening to God–is preferable.
This dimension of the text rings out loudly in our cultural context. We rely for almost everything on our sight, but it often proves untrustworthy. Advertisers know that the quickest way to get their fingers into our wallets is through our eyes–by bombarding us with images of sexuality and excess. Do we really think that wearing the same watch as Heidi Klum or Tiger Woods will make us more attractive and successful? Apparently, since we buy the watches. And the cars, hamburgers, and light beer.
We also tend to pick our leaders–politicians, principals, coaches, celebrities, and so on–based on our society’s norms about appearance. For the last century or more, the taller of the two final presidential candidates has almost always won. And lest we in the church think we have risen above this shallow horizon, take a look at the leaders of the church– pastors, elders, bishops, college and seminary presidents–and ask yourself, “Are we really any different?”
What a powerful, countercultural, evangelical message that this text has to offer us and our times! Thus says the Lord: “The Lord does not see as mortals see: they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
1Parts of this article appeared in my essay, “Preaching the David Story,” Word and World 25 (Fall 2003) 430-38. Used with permission.
2See Bruce Birch, “The First and Second Books of Samuel: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998), 2:1097-1100.
In the midst of a group of complex lessons (not in sequence) from Romans, this pericope from Ephesians suddenly appears.
It accompanies the dramatic Johannine story of the man healed of blindness (John 9:1-41). The first reading (I Samuel 16:1-13) tells the story of God’s choice of David as a young boy to be king of Israel. This lesson might not be the obvious choice for preaching, but it amply rewards the one who takes it up.
First and foremost, this passage is about the present lives to the people to whom it was addressed. Loaded with verbs in the imperative moods, verses 10 and 11 begin with commands to baptized believers. “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord,” on the one hand and “Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness,” on the other are the two identical callings of Christians. For those concerned that kind of language does not proclaim the gospel, rejoice. The first verse, the rubric for engaging this particular passage, declares clearly and firmly that once the hearers were children of darkness, but now in the Lord (note: not by their own power), the hearers are “children of light.” This entire passage is about what that means for daily life. Perhaps, Lent is a good time to consider that question, phrased cogently in Luke’s narrative, “How then shall we live?” “Live,” says Ephesians, “as children of light.” (v.8)
The letter to the Ephesians seems to have been a baptismal sermon circulated in letter form in Asia Minor. It is not clear if originally it was designated as for persons living in Ephesus. If it were, however, all the better for us. For Ephesus was a large city of diverse populations, home to numerous shrines and deities, and especially to the great temple of Artemis. In this sophisticated, pluralistic city, Christians would have been a distinct minority. Perhaps many of those among and for whom we preach these days feel the same way in this diverse, “sophisticated” world. Yet, the way of living does not call for fear, crouching in safe places, keeping things quiet. The way that children of light are called to live involves being awake.
The lectionary cuts off the reading before Ephesians concrete examples come up, but preachers should have them in mind. Verses 15-20 have some very clear suggestions, as do the better known verses following 5:21. Being awake involves “understanding the will of the Lord,” being filled with the Spirit (rather than wine), “singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts,” and “giving thanks to God at all times.” These suggestions include activities, but even more they delineate a way of life, a transformation of the person and the community. Refraining from debauchery is simply a precondition of an ability to focus on God’s gifts with thanksgiving and energy.
These verses from the fifth chapter of Ephesians highlight being children of light, one among a family of adopted kin, living in community. In Ephesians 1:17-18, the author prays that all the community might receive a “spirit of wisdom and revelation” in order to recognize “what is the hope to which [God] has called you.” This community is made up of persons who have been totally renewed as the body of Christ. They have been given to one another as “citizens with the saints” (2:19) and “members of the household of God.” (2:20). Their reality has been re-created, as has been the reality of all the baptized, now as much as when this letter was first written.
In exhortations to live as children of the light, these children are expected to care for one another as family. Not just any family at that. The body of Christians and especially the church, is called to “speak the truth in love” as a means to grow and as a goal for growing (4:15). Only in this way do we mature into the body of Christ we are enabled to be. Therefore, we pay attention, listen to one another, seek one another’s well-being–even those who do not “deserve” this kind of attention.
This life style is not a mystery. Its been described in all kinds of literature from poetry to self-help to the Bible over and over again. We know what it looks like, even if only in glimpses. I wonder why it is so hard to trust that such life together is a gift from God rather than a demand. For truly, when we are told in Ephesians (4:7) that “each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift,” we know that the grace is for something, for salvation, for being knit together, for growth in truth-telling with love, for living awake, children of light, for gratitude to God.
Thanks be to God for this vision, this home for all our yearnings, and the gift of grace to know it in Christ Jesus.