Lectionary Commentaries for March 19, 2023
Fourth Sunday in Lent

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on John 9:1-41

Jennifer Garcia Bashaw

Jesus’ healing of the man born with blindness1 is either the fifth or the sixth sign in the Book of Signs, the first section of John. It is difficult to tell which sign it is, mainly because the author stops counting after the second sign and scholars disagree about whether Jesus walking on water is its own sign or is part of the feeding of the 5,000. If it is the sixth, then it is the sign just before the final and climactic sign of Jesus raising Lazarus (John 11).2 This penultimate position does not take away from its dramatic import or its crucial role in the overarching narrative of John.3

John 9 furthers several of the key themes that permeate the Gospel. As just mentioned, this healing is one of the signs John chooses to narrate—miracles that point to a deeper meaning about Jesus’ identity. In the same way that the wedding at Cana sign reveals Jesus as the abundantly generous host of the messianic banquet and the feeding of the 5,000 sign shows Jesus as a nourishing provider who gives not just manna but his own body and blood, the sign in John 9 demonstrates that Jesus is the giver of sight and revealer of truth. The details of the story describe the illuminating traits of Jesus, both in the literal and the figurative senses. Jesus physically restores sight to a man (9:7-8), he claims in a metaphorical sense to be “the light of the world” (9:5), and he reveals the truth of his own identity as the Son of Man (9:37) while challenging the Pharisee’s blindness to that central truth (9:41).

Jesus’ statement in 9:5, “I am the light of the world,” continues another theme that John weaves into the plot the Fourth Gospel—the famous “I am” statements. The first “I am” statement is in John 4 when the Samaritan woman at the well suggests that the messiah is coming and Jesus answers, “ego eimi” or “I am (he).” After that, Jesus makes seven “I am” statements that contain descriptions (“I am the bread of life”) and seven replies that echo his answer to the woman at the well (simply, “I am”). While these “I am” statements are literary devices, they are also making theological claims. The words “ego eimi” are the Greek version of the name God gave to Moses in Exodus 3, “I am (who I am).” Although the connection may seem subtle to English-speakers in the twenty-first century, it was obvious to the first audience of this Gospel. They would have easily picked up on John’s identification of Jesus with God. Jesus’ declaration here, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world,” (the second time Jesus has said he was the light of the world—see 8:12) highlights both the illuminating work of God and the temporality of Jesus’ time on earth. This statement immediately precedes Jesus’ very tactile healing of the man with blindness, and so his actions serve as evidence for the claim.

The topic of light and darkness, introduced in John 9:4-5, is a motif that undergirds the whole Gospel narrative. In John 1, the prologue informs us that the Word is the true light of all who was not overcome by darkness. During his conversation with Nicodemus in John 3, Jesus implies that he is the light who has come into the world to expose the evil deeds of those who love darkness (3:19-21). By chapter twelve, Jesus is warning his disciples, “While you have the light, believe in the light, so that you may become children of light” (12:36). Compared with these other passages, Jesus as the light in John 9 seems like a brief flash in a story, a light that burns out quickly.

In fact, if we were to envision the narrative in John 9 as a play (as several scholars suggest that John leads us to do), we would see Jesus appears in only three of the seven scenes that comprise the drama (the seven scenes are: Jesus heals the man in 9:1-7, the neighbors question the man in 9:8-12, the Pharisees question him in 9:13-17, the Jews question the parents in 9:18-23, the Jews converse again with the man in 9:24-34, Jesus revisits the man in 9:35-39, and Jesus challenges the Pharisees in 9:40-41). These four center vignettes form the longest passage in the Gospels without Jesus in it, aside from the infancy narratives. It is an odd omission for John, who has focused so intensely on Jesus’ presence and work—why would the light leave the stage for so long?

According to Jo-Ann Brant, a Johannine scholar at Goshen College, Jesus does not completely leave the stage here. She points out that John 9 employs a literary device called mise en abyme (also known as the “Droste effect”). Essentially, the story of the man with blindness serves as a miniature version of the larger story of Jesus. The narrative of the healed man parallels Jesus’ narrative in many ways, including the following: the crowd questions his identity (9:8-9), he asserts “I am” (9:9), he speaks frankly and logically throughout but is treated as an invalid witness (9:18), he is accused of being a sinner, and he combats the Pharisees with sarcasm and truth (9:34).4 This story within the story heightens the ironic punchline of the episode—that those who think they can see are blind to the truth while the one who was blind (and a “sinner” and accused of being an invalid witness) is the one who sees. The mise en abyme also provides the audience with a glimpse at how followers of Jesus might go on after he has left the stage of earth: like the healed man, they should imitate Jesus as a bold witness to the truth despite opposition.


  1. Disability scholars encourage commentators and preachers to use language that affords dignity to those with disabilities. So, rather than labeling the man by his disability (the blind man), it is better to call him the man born with blindness or, later, the man healed.
  2. The story in John 9 parallels another sign scene from John—Jesus’s healing of the man at the pool in chapter 5. They are both Sabbath healings, both involve a man disabled for a significant period of time, both take place at a pool, and both result in controversy with the Jewish religious authorities.
  3. Some scholars will count the raising of Lazarus as the sixth sign and Jesus’s resurrection as the seventh, but because the resurrection does not occur within the Book of Signs section, it is more consistent to conclude that Lazarus is the seventh sign.
  4. Jo-Ann A. Brant, John, Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011), 151-52, 154-59.

First Reading

Commentary on 1 Samuel 16:1-13

Juliana Claassens

1 Samuel 16:1-13 speaks a powerful word about the painful aftereffects of the failure of leadership. In verse 1, God admonishes Samuel, asking him how long he will grieve about Saul. The reference to grief signifies sorrow, the deep disappointment of what could have been. Indeed, there were such high expectations for Saul. Though right from the start, Samuel warned the people about the dark side of having a king rule over them (1 Samuel 8), giving numerous examples of what kings could do when they get their hands on power. The fact that Samuel fears for his life when God asks him to anoint Saul’s successor (verse 2) serves as a case in point of the failure of Saul as king, which moreover is evident in the cost of war upon war, and the stark divisions rampant in the young nation.

God’s position is clear. In the harshest possible terms, God asserts that God has rejected, or one could say, scorned or disavowed God’s former leader. No leader, no matter how mighty he or she thinks they are, is immune to losing their position of power and influence. Instead, God calls upon Samuel to take heart and to do what prophets are supposed to do: anoint whom God had selected. God even offers some helpful suggestions on how Samuel can do this without attracting the soon-to-be former king’s attention (see also in verses 2-3 the elaborate scheme of pretending to go sacrifice, as well as also the fearful response of the elders of the community that attests to the reign of terror Saul’s kingship had become). From the divine response, it is clear that despite the recent failure of leadership, God and also Samuel (and we) should not give up hope in finding leaders who can lead.

This week’s lectionary reading moreover reveals some surprising insights into leadership. For one, the chosen one (the anointed one) is not whom one would expect it to be. It is not the oldest of Jesse’s sons, not even the second in line, nor one of the seven sons who in quite dramatic fashion are paraded before Samuel but found not to be the chosen one.

When Samuel, rather despondently asks whether there is no one else, Jesse finally remembers David, the eighth son, and youngest of his brothers. This king-to-be is also not the one with the most imposing stature, nor one who looks like a king in terms of societal norms (verse 7). Samuel reminds the people: “God does not see as humans see; they look on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart” (verse 8).

The narrator further divulges that David is “ruddy,” in other words, reddish of color (verse 12); a shepherd boy (verse 11) who most likely, like shepherds in that time, was found in the fields and looked down upon and even viewed with contempt. David, as an unlikely character for a leadership position, is later confirmed in 1 Samuel 22:2 when David finds himself on the margins of society, together with the rabble-rousers, the malcontents, and the disenfranchised. We read, “Everyone who was in distress, and everyone who was in debt, and everyone who was discontented gathered to him; and he became captain over them.” Here on the fringes of society is the next leader of Judah to be found—a worthy predecessor for the Messiah who will be born in a manger and whose first visitors are the shepherds who were outside in the field (Luke 2:8-20). And yet this least valued of Jesse’s sons, a mere shepherd boy who was not even invited to the grand reveal of the next king and the ensuing anointment ritual, is recognized and included by Samuel. In verse 16, Samuel insists that David be called: “for we will not sit down until he comes here.”

The narrator’s comment in 1 Samuel 16:12 that David has beautiful eyes and that he is pleasant on the eye (handsome or, even better, “good-looking”) is, furthermore, quite an interesting observation by the narrator. It is telling that he is not celebrating David’s physical strength, his military might, or his ability to speak well, which are the typical qualities associated with the (male) leadership ideal of the time. Instead, he highlights different attributes in a leader, which echoes God’s earlier statement that God’s idea of a leader is different than that of the people. It is interesting to note that this unlikely leader, not the epitome of masculinity and strength, will outwit a giant with five pebbles (1 Samuel 17:40-50).

The theme of the unlikely leader is found throughout the Hebrew Bible. For instance, Moses stutters (Exodus 4:13-14), he has blood on his hands (Exodus 2:11-14), and his face is said to shine after his encounter with the Divine (Exodus 34:29). Also, in the book of Judges, one finds numerous unlikely leaders as evident in the left-handed Ehud (Judges 3), Deborah who leads the people despite being a woman (Judges 4), and Jephthah who is the son of a prostitute (Judges 11). Moreover, the suffering servant in Isaiah 42:1-7 (see also Isaiah 52:13—53:12), who is described as “a bruised reed” and “a dimly burning wick,” attests to the fact that God’s power is revealed through vulnerable leaders who embrace their vulnerability as a source of strength. Significantly, this week’s lectionary text ends with the reference that the spirit of God “came mightily” (New Revised Standard Version) upon David from that day onwards—just as the spirit in the next pericope departed from Saul (1 Samuel 16:14 and forward).

This line of thinking also helps us consider where the center of power lies in our own contexts and whether authentic leadership does not come from the margins and other unexpected places. Indeed, the king is judged by his ability to live up to what Psalm 72 imagined to be the ideal king. Whether leaders succeed or fail ultimately goes back to whether they may rule in justice, which includes defending the cause of the poor, delivering the needy, and upending the oppressor (Psalm 72:2-5).


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 of  essential texts for the daily living-out of the Christian faith.

Several 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 23and 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

Sammy Alfaro

This past winter I attempted to establish a new early morning running regiment. On the app, it looked like a great plan. However, at 5:30 a.m. the darkness outside was not very inviting. Though there are certainly activities more suited to the dark—like stargazing and sleeping!—let’s face it, running is more of a bright daylight activity. In Ephesians 5:8-14, the Apostle Paul similarly associates the Christian life as a pursuit better represented in terms of light rather than darkness.

To begin, Paul echoes Jesus’ “you are the light of the world” metaphor (Matthew 5:14) when he states emphatically: “now in the Lord you are light” (Ephesians 5:8). Like light and darkness cannot exist at the same time and place, Paul indicates the status of the believer has changed and a new nature opposite the old accords to their new identity. Literally, they “were darkness” but now “are light” (verse 8). Thus, based on their transference from the kingdom of darkness to the one of light, Paul commands them saying: “Live as children of light” (verse 8).

As running is an activity better suited for bright surroundings, so Christians are called to exhibit behavior that corresponds to the kingdom which they now represent. As children’s conduct could reflect poorly on their parents, so believers are exhorted to embody the light that has brought them from death to life. When we think of all the good activities one can do in life and the bad or evil deeds one might participate in, a general principle of living in the light rather than in the dark can be established. Job 24:13-17 explains how rebels of the light operate at night to kill, steal, and commit adultery when the darkness disguises them. In short, sinners are depicted as “friends with the terrors of deep darkness” (verse 17).

Another example of a treacherous act done in the dark is Jesus’ trial by night before the Sanhedrin. According to both Mark 14:53-65 and Matthew 26:57-68, Jesus was brought to trial after his arrest, following a time of prayer at night in the garden of Gethsemane. Fabricated charges were brought against him, and false witnesses testified, twisting Jesus’ words, unable to find fault with him (Mark 14:55). In the darkness of night, the Sanhedrin conducted an illegal trial and came to the decision that the Light who had brought life to the world (John 1:4-5, 9) was deserving of capital punishment! Such is the gravity of the biblical connection of sinful acts done in the darkness, and thus the significance of Paul admonishing the Ephesian church to live in the light.

As an alternative to living in the dark, Paul advises them to seek “the fruit of the light [which] is found in all that is good and right and true” (Ephesians 5:9). This is reminiscent of Paul’s instructions to the Galatians 5:16-25 where he contrasts the works of the flesh with the fruits of the Spirit, which are at war with each other. In a nutshell, Paul desires that believers should be modeling the type of Christian behavior that is worthy of placing in the light for all to see. In juxtaposition to the fruit of the Light, Paul doubles down by commanding his readers not to participate “in the unfruitful works of darkness” (Ephesians 5:11). The idea conveyed is that whereas the fruit of Light is virtuous and a source of life-giving goodness, the works of darkness are futile, sterile, and completely unprofitable for those participating in them and those who are the objects of evil deeds.

Rather than partaking in the deeds associated with darkness, Paul calls believers to expose the shameful secret activities of those who oppose the light (Ephesians 5:11-13). In other words, as children of the Light, followers of Jesus are called not only to live exemplary lives worthy of being put publicly on display, but also, they are charged with the task of uncovering evils and injustices present in this world. In fact, the apostle Paul seems to indicate that by virtue of their presence in the world as bearers of the Light.

Interestingly, Andrew T. Lincoln translates Ephesians 5:13 like this: “But everything exposed becomes illumined by the light, for everything that becomes illumined is light.”1 What Lincoln envisions through his commentary on this verse is both the negative and positive elements of being confronted and illumined by the Light, and especially the aspect of Christian witness, which is at the heart of being the light of the world (Matthew 5:14). On the one hand, believers have been transferred from the kingdom of darkness and brought into the one of light (Colossians 1:14; 1 Peter 2:9). On the other hand, as citizens of the kingdom of light, they carry the Light wherever they go, and become the catalysts for bringing others out of the darkness and into the Light.

Fittingly, this passage ends with an exhortation that appears to be a testimonial piece of worship: “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Ephesians 5:14). A double meaning seems to be intended by the exclamation. First, it serves as a reminder of having been awakened into the light of salvation. Second, it’s an exhortation to reawaken with new passion and rise to the baptismal call. In other words, it’s time for those who have been raised from the dead to arise to their call to be the light of the world. The mission is not to change the world through our own efforts or wisdom. But rather, believers reflect the light of the gospel into a dark world by allowing Christ, who is the Light, to shine on us! May this Lenten season lead us to a place of humility and self-denial where we desire nothing more than for the light of Christ to shine through us for a dying world.


  1. Andrew T. Lincoln, Ephesians, vol. 42, WBC (Dallas: Word books, 1990), 330.