Lectionary Commentaries for April 3, 2011
Fourth Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Gospel

Commentary on John 9:1-41

Meda Stamper

This week’s text is another in a series of encounters with Jesus in John with this one focused, along with the Old Testament text, on seeing rightly.

Blindness and sight are explicitly mentioned in 24 of the chapter’s 41 verses, including the first and last ones.  The details of the miracle itself are repeated four times — that Jesus put mud on the eyes of the blind man and then he regained his sight.  At the center of the narrative, standing before the healing and eternally after it, is Jesus, the giver of sight and the very light of the world in which true sight becomes possible.

The story is linked thematically to the Feast of Tabernacles, which is the setting for chapters 7 and 8.  The Pool of Siloam, where the man born blind is sent to wash his eyes, figured in water ceremonies at the festival, and Jesus has already invited the thirsty to come to him and drink on the great day of the festival in 7:37-38.  Light was also an important theme, and Jesus declares himself the light of the world at the festival in 8:12 and again here in 9:5.

Underlying the discussion of light and sight and blindness is a question about who Jesus is, the question that stretches across all the Lenten texts.  Alongside this in chapter 9 is the question of who is sinful and what constitutes sin.  Sinfulness as a secondary theme is introduced already in the initial question of the disciples when they see the man born blind and ask Jesus whose sin was the source of his blindness, his or his parents’.  Jesus rejects this interpretation of the man’s blindness, which he interprets instead as an opening for the glory of God to be revealed while it is day and the light of the world is active.  The coming night of 9:4 will arrive explicitly with the departure of Judas in 13:30.

The theme of sinfulness then runs through the episode.  The Pharisees discuss Jesus’ sinfulness in v. 16 and again in vv. 24-25 and v. 31.  In v. 34, they return to the sinfulness of the man born blind, with another reference to his birth in sin.  But the story ends with Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees, whose sin remains because unlike the blind man, who recognizes the grace of God in Jesus’ bestowal of sight and light in his blindness, the Pharisees insist that they see and know everything already.  They are closed to the gift of Jesus, the judge, who can only give sight to those who know they are blind.

Sight and water have also come into play in the encounter with Nicodemus in 3:1-5.  There, as here, Nicodemus, the Pharisee, is quick to say what “we know” about Jesus only to find that what he thinks he knows cannot begin to contain the enormity of the gift of God in Jesus, which will culminate in his lifting up on the cross.

This story about light in conflict with the opposing powers of unrelenting darkness is flanked and colored by vivid images of what that darkness will do — with the attempted stoning of Jesus immediately preceding the chapter and then the shepherd discourse, with its reference to Jesus’ laying down his life, immediately following.  The conflict with the Pharisees shapes the entire central section of the passage, first as they encounter the man born blind, then as they interrogate his parents, and finally as they interrogate the man born blind a second time and then drive him out. 

Then the shepherd discourse, which emerges directly from chapter 9 — Jesus is still speaking as one chapter ends and the next begins — is surely directed, at least in part, at the religious authorities.  They are perhaps among the thieves and bandits to whom the sheep would not listen or, at best, the hired hands who run away when the wolves come.

As the attitude of the religious authorities hardens and darkens, the man born blind grows in insight so that the narrative tells parallel tales of spiritual and physical blindness and sight.  The man moves from identifying his healer only as “the man called Jesus” to replying when pressed by the Pharisees that Jesus is a prophet and then, when further pressed, that he must be from God. 

Finally when the man has been driven out, Jesus (who we know from 6:37 will never drive out those whom the Father gives him) finds him and reveals himself fully to him as the Son of Man: You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.  And the man bows down before him in worship, the only time in this Gospel that anyone is said to do this. 

In the reference to being put out of the synagogue in 9:22, scholars have observed a reflection of occurrences in the life of the community out of which the Gospel emerged, so that the narrative reflects both the experience of the ministry of Jesus and the later experience of the comforting presence of the risen Christ in the community under threat. 

We also ask how the narrative reflects our lives today, the lives of the people in front of the text for whom the narrative is also life-shaping.  In some places even now, it is risky to be a Christian, and even in some contexts in the United States and Western Europe, where Christianity is often, sadly, too tame or too much in line with the prejudices and desires of the powers that be to be threatening to anyone, it is sometimes no longer socially desirable to be a Christian.  At the very least John insists, as do all of the evangelists, that we are living in an alternative reality that sets us apart. 

As the fruit of Jesus’ vine, we are on display and stand for something Other.  If we never find ourselves at odds at all with the powerful and the status quo, that perhaps should give us pause.  The blind man, unlike his parents, has the courage again and again to say what he knows, to speak truth to power, to tell what he can about the amazing grace by which he has been touched. 

This is fundamentally a story about grace, and the blind man sums it up beautifully for all of us: “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”


First Reading

Commentary on 1 Samuel 16:1-13

David G. Garber, Jr.

In the tradition in which I was raised, Bible study material often tried to present a “Central Bible Truth” for each lesson–the one thing that the biblical text said was important to “take home.”

In the reading for the fourth Sunday of Lent from 1 Samuel 16, that central Bible truth was usually the statement from verse 7 that humans “look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” On one level, this was a theological lesson: God loves you for your whole being, not as you outwardly appear.  On another level, it was an ethical lesson: try to view your peers as God views them.

While these are valuable lessons, to be sure, I often wonder how much we lose in our attempts to boil the narratives down to a single moral or theological instruction. What would happen, if instead of focusing on the future hero, we attended to the one performing the most action in the story?  What can looking at this text from the perspective of Samuel provide? In the introspective season of Lent, what might this text tell us about how we deal with transition, disappointment, and new possibilities for the future?

Samuel’s emotional state is important in this episode.  The first question the LORD asks the prophet is: “How long will you mourn?”  In the preceding chapter, Saul disobeyed the LORD’s instructions to put all of the Amelekites to death and destroy all of their goods.  Instead, he captured the king and claimed some of the livestock as booty.  Samuel refuses to walk with Saul any longer and when he turns to leave, Saul catches him by the robe, tearing a piece of fabric from it.  Samuel uses this incident as a metaphor, saying that the LORD is now tearing the kingdom away from Saul (15:27-28).  Despite their conflicts, Samuel still grieved over his long-time friend and king, knowing that God had rejected Saul (15:35).

The Hebrew verb for mourning here usually refers to mourning rites over one who has recently died.  It is the same verb form used when Jacob believes that Joseph had died (Genesis 37:34), when the wandering Israelites mourn those dead after a plague (Numbers 14:39), and when David mourns over the death of one son and the abandonment of another (2 Samuel 13:37).  Samuel knows that the man he had anointed and guided as the first king over Israel had failed. For all intents and purposes, the young Saul who came to the prophet searching for his father’s donkeys (1 Samuel 9) was dead to Samuel, and this fact grieved him.

Unfortunately, due to the Hebrew narrative’s terse tendencies, we have no idea how much time passes between Samuel’s mourning in 15:35 and the LORD’s rather blunt question (“How long will you grieve over Saul?”) in 16:1. It almost seems too soon to simply say, “get over it, get up, and go anoint the next king.” But God essentially commands him to do just that.

Notice the different emotional states Samuel experiences in this story.  In verse 1, he mourns the loss of his friend and perhaps the prophet’s own perceived failure at guiding him.  While in the previous chapter (and in chapter 13) he was bold enough to condemn Saul to his face, in 16:2 he feels fear: “If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” Even with his special connection to God as the prophet who anoints and rejects kings, Samuel still feels these vulnerable human emotions.

While the deity does ask Samuel how long he will remain in a state of grief, God does not condemn Samuel’s fear. Perhaps God does not condemn the prophet’s fear because it is not only a realistic response, it is rational.  The level of fear in the nation is heightened under the state of war, exemplified by the trembling city elders who instantly interrogate Samuel about his intentions (1 Samuel 16:4). Perhaps humoring the prophet, God suggests a ruse, instructing him to invite Jesse’s family to a sacrificial meal, without telling Jesse anything about the reasons for the meal.

After fears subside for all parties, Samuel begins his search for the new king based on the same expectations he had with his previous anointing.  Immediately when he sees Eliab, he assumes that he should be the next king.  After all, Saul’s physical stature was one of the distinctive attributes of the handsome first king who “stood head and shoulders above everyone else” (1 Samuel 9:2).

But God instructs him to unlearn his previous expectations.  While Samuel looks for a king based on the model of physical stature and poise, the LORD instructs him to suspend human logic and trust in Divine guidance. 

As each successive son passes before Samuel, one could imagine the prophet’s disappointment. He turns to Jesse, perhaps in bewilderment, and asks whether all of his sons were present.  When Jesse presents his youngest son, Samuel responds obediently to God’s voice, anointing David’s head with oil.  Then Samuel departs.

This is Saumel’s last real act in the story. Yes, after he dies in chapter 25, Saul consults with his spirit from Sheol (1 Samuel 28), but this marks the end of the prophet’s career. While his career was filled with disappointment and watching the unfulfilled potential of his first protégé, it ends in the hope for a future and new leadership under God’s next anointed, David. 

Biblical narrative will often not reveal the inner thoughts of characters, so when reading this text from the perspective of Samuel, we are left with many questions. How does the prophet face the disappointments of his career? The first prophetic word he ever uttered was a condemnation of Eli, perhaps the only father-figure he ever knew (1 Samuel 3:11-14). Even after he successfully led the Israelites against the Philistines (1 Samuel 7), the people came to ask him for a king, adding that his sons were as corrupt as Eli’s (1 Samuel 8).  After God reassures Samuel that the Israelites rejection is a rejection of God, Samuel anoints Saul as king over Israel, only to have his protégé fail at almost every turn.

Yet, in spite of Samuel’s grief and failings, the prophet remains open to God’s word and to new possibilities. While this may not provide a comforting “central Bible truth,” it does offer a realistic picture of the human condition and of the ways in which we might deal with disappointment. While we may often feel the grief, remorse, and guilt of past failings–real or imagined–God does not condemn us for them. Rather, God does provide God’s servants with guidance and new possibilities even when we may not see them.


Psalm

Commentary on Psalm 23

James Howell

The 23rd Psalm is a perennial favorite.

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.”1 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.”2  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.”3

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).
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1 James Limburg, Psalms (Westminster John Knox Press, 2000).

2 T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” in Four Quartets, 1943.

3 Isaac Watts, “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need,” 1719.


Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 5:8-14

Margaret Aymer

Ephesians focuses heavily on discipleship: how we should live in light of the grace that has been given to us in Christ Jesus.

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.

Some preachers will note that this passage is assigned for the Sunday closest to the forty-third anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., 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.