4th Sunday in Lent – April 3, 2011

Reading 1: Reading 2: Reading 3: Reading 4: 
1 Samuel 16:1-13Psalm 23Ephesians 5:8-14John 9:1-41

By David J. Lull

Focal theme:
The Gospel (John 9.1-41) suggests a focal theme: Let Lent be a time to meditate on those times when we refused to see the works of God in the world and to “give glory to God.” Let Lent also be a time to meditate on, and practice, seeing God’s works in the world through Christ-given “sight.” In 1 Samuel 16.1-13, the prophetic author tells this story from the perspective of one who has confidence that God’s purposes can be discerned (“seen”) in history and that, nevertheless, human agents of God’s purposes are frail, have their faults, and have to be persuaded to recognize (“see”) and obey God’s purposes. Psalm 23 is full of images of—ways of seeing—the character of a powerful, protective, providential God from the perspective of confidence/trust in God’s protection of the people—their community and nation— in the context of national crises. According to Ephesians 5.8-14, those whom the transformative power of Christ has made “beloved children” and “children of light” are empowered to discern (“see”), in each situation, “what is pleasing to the Lord.” For, Christ is the measure of—shines light on—and is the “good, right, and true.” In Christ we see “what is pleasing to the Lord.” It is love!

1 Samuel 16.1-13
What a story this is! God pressures an unwilling Samuel, a prophet/priest, to engage in a charade as an accomplice in God’s selection of a successor to Saul, with whom Samuel has had a love/hate relationship. God’s choice of David is unexpected by any standard of royalty at that point in Israel’s history: Jesse’s sons are of unknown pedigree—certainly not from a line of blue-bloods. Jesse is of the tribe of Judah, a rival of Saul’s tribe of Benjamin. And David is not only not the firstborn son; he’s the eighth and the youngest. To top it off, David is a mere shepherd boy. This is not a promising beginning for what was to become a royal dynasty God will establish “forever”! So, what’s up with this story?

First, some background: Before there was a unified Israel, twelve independent tribes formed a loose federation. Before there was a monarchy, “judges” and prophet/priests governed this loose federation. The need to protect economic developments within this federation from external imperial, expansionist threats from the Philistines—a threat that David would bring to an end with his deadly sling-shot—led to a transition to more centralized power in institutions and structures that would become a monarchy. Saul was the first king of a united Israel, and Samuel was the last of the judges and the first of the prophets of Israel. This transition met with resistance, as is evident in 1 Samuel 1-10, at least in part because it raised questions about Israel’s fidelity and obedience to God, and to God alone. Those questions persist right up to the present in the modern state of Israel.

Our story is a prophetic introduction to the history of David’s rise to power. The actual history begins with 16.14-23, which seems to be unaware that Samuel has just anointed David and that “the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward” (verse 13, which is the prototype for the baptism of Jesus in the Synoptics and Jn 1.32). Here a “mentally ill” Saul chooses David to minister to him with music therapy and to carry his armor. But David is no mere court musician and boy-servant, for he is also described as a “warrior,” which is demonstrated in the next chapter, where he boasts of his skill at killing wild beasts to earn his right to slay the Philistine “giant” with his sling (1 Samuel 17, which does not seem to know that David had been chosen to be king in 16.6-13). There is no hint of that side of David in 16.1-13, where he is described as a lowly shepherd boy. The Davidic traditions combine both images: he is a shepherd-king and a warrior-king.

Another oddity in our story is that, at first, God tells Samuel, “…the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (16.7). Then, just before God points to David and says, “…this is the one,” we are told “Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome” (verse 12)! Earlier, Saul, whom God chose as Israel’s first king, is also described as “a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else” (1 Sam 9.2).

Ok, now I’m really confused. Does God regard a person’s “outward appearance” or not? Besides, if God looks only “on the heart,” why didn’t God foresee the sexual desire that would rise up in David’s heart at the sight of the naked Bathsheba and his murderous plot to kill her husband, so that he could have her for himself? What is the character of this God? If we read these stories as literal, “true history” from a modern perspective of positivistic historiography, we are left with a God who has a twisted character, or at least a twisted sense of humor. But that’s not the only way to read such stories.

What we are dealing with here is a prophetic interpretation of history. On one level, history is the story of larger-than-life human beings doing big things that chart the course of events. On another level, history is the story of God’s purposes eked out in the course of events. Both levels are real. Without human actions, God’s purposes would have no agents to carry them out. Without God’s purposes, human events would be a story of just one damn event after another, devoid of direction and value. Samuel didn’t “have to” play along with God’s charade. In the prophetic author’s telling of this story, we can see the confidence that God’s purposes can be discerned in history and the conviction that human agents of God’s purposes are frail, have their faults, and have to be persuaded to recognize and obey God’s purposes. And we can see how difficult it is to discern God’s purposes in the course of events, even when we are confident of their presence (see Eph 5.8-14 below).

The cycle of stories in the David saga give us occasion to reflect on how all of God’s “agents” are imperfect human beings, with whom nevertheless God works God’s purposes. Not only are they imperfect, most, if not all, of them are little known, nobodies, on the margins of society. That’s true not only for those who “made it big,” like David and Jesus, but also for ordinary people. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians (1 Cor 1.26-29 NRSV):

Consider your own call, brothers and sisters: not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.

It is also interesting to think about this story’s author’s ambivalence toward outward appearances and God’s attention to what’s in a person’s heart. Our culture’s fixation on outward appearances has become idolatrous. The advertising industry and Hollywood have known that for a very long time. People magazine knows that. Politicians know that. Current standards of outward beauty are oppressive and harmful to one’s self-esteem, sometimes with deadly consequences. The antidote to this idolatry is to view others through God’s eyes “on the heart.” As Martin Luther King, Jr. so poignantly said in his “I have a dream” speech, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”

Earlier I chided God for looking on a person’s heart but failing to know how David’s heart would betray God and God’s people in the story about David, Bathsheba, and her husband Uriah. I was playing with classical and popular theism’s assumption that God knows the future as if it were not open and contingent. That’s one of classical theism’s fallacies. Unlike the past, which is actual, and the present, which is in the process of becoming, the future is pure possibility, open and contingent. God knows in each moment what has been and is in a person’s heart, but God knows what will be in a person’s heart only as a possibility among many possibilities. In our story about God’s selection of the anointed one of Israel, David had not yet become the David whose heart’s desire for another man’s wife violated her and her husband. In response to who David became, God overlooked his “outward appearance”—namely, his royal status—and judged him for what was wrong in his heart and in his actions arising from what was in his heart. Then, Davidic tradition made a contrite David pen Psalm 51.

Psalm 23
Next to the Lord’s Prayer, this psalm is one of the best known and most loved passages in the Bible. I doubt many of you need help engaging its captivating images, though its popular use as a funeral psalm has restricted the frame within which it is read today. So, we need a fresh perspective to read it “again for the first time” (to use the wonderful phrase Marcus Borg has used in his book titles). To help us with that, I offer the following suggestions based on Marti Steussy’s Psalms (in the Chalice Commentaries of Today series).

This psalm “speaks of God’s ongoing care in life and not simply of God as protector in the passage through death” (Steussy, Psalms, 100, italics added). For Phrases like “all the days of my life … my whole life long” in verse 6 refer to life on this side of the grave. Also, the “house of the Lord” in verse 6 refers to real-estate on earth: land and temple. All the terms and phrases from the beginning to verse 6 are about life here and now: The term “shepherd” is a common metaphor for gods and kings. Many terms and phrases have connections with the exodus and wilderness traditions: God “lead[s]” the people as their “shepherd”; the people “lack nothing”; and the term “still” refers to a place of rest and refreshment. God’s preparing “a table” for the people also has a connection to exodus and wilderness wanderings, as Psalm 78.[12-]19-20 indicates: “They spoke against God, saying, ‘Can God spread a table in the wilderness? Even though God struck the rock so that water gushed out and torrents overflowed, can God also give bread, or provide meat for God’s people?’” The phrase “for the Lord’s name’s sake” (Psa 23.3) appears in only one other place, and that is in connection with the exodus: “Our ancestors, when they were in Egypt, did not consider your wonderful works; they did not remember the abundance of your steadfast love, but rebelled against the Most High at the Red Sea. Yet God saved them for God’s name’s sake, so that God might make known God’s mighty power” (Psa 106.7-8). Finally, walking “through the darkest valley” (23.4) could be a reference to national defeat (see “deep darkness” in Psa 44.19 and “darkness” in Psa 107.10, 14). So, the context for this psalmist’s expression of confidence/trust in God’s protection of the people—their community and nation—is the presence of national crises. The popular use of this psalm for funerals and individual, personal piety obscures its communal, national, and political context.

This psalm is full of images of the character of a powerful, protective, providential God: a shepherd/king (verses 1-4) and a gracious host (verses 5-6). Don’t forget that many shepherds in the Bible are girls! How would that change or affect your image of a powerful, protective, providential God? What images would you use for such a God?

Finally, instead of the NRSV’s “goodness and mercy shall follow me” a better translation of the Hebrew verb in Psa 23.6 is “pursue” (as in the NET, NAB, and Tanakh), whose subject is God’s “goodness” and “faithfulness, graciousness, mercy” or “[steadfast] love” (as in the updated ASV, NIV, NAB, and Tanakh). God, whose very character is “goodness and mercy,” will pursue and chase after God’s people. God will seek God’s people until God finds them and captures them with God’s “goodness and mercy”!

Ephesians 5.8-14
If this letter came from Paul’s hand, it is strange that it is so devoid of its occasion and mutual personal knowledge and affection, typical of his letters. Also, Paul nowhere says that he had established a community in Ephesus, which was his home-base for a significant time. That would make this the only letter, other than Romans, to a community of which he was not the founder. Then there is the absence of the words “to the Ephesians” in several important ancient manuscripts and witnesses to this letter, indicating that this designation was added to an otherwise “catholic” letter circulated among several communities, eventually including Ephesus. For these reasons, and many others, about 70% of all scholars do not think this letter came from Paul’s hand. It is better to think of it as having been written in the spirit of Pauline traditions, adapted for second or third generation Pauline communities in Asia Minor.

This passage, with its exhortation to “live as children of light,” could lead to the moralization of Lent. Don’t let it lead you down the path of Christian legalism! Fortunately, the lectionary helps deflect some of the energy for moralizing Christian life by obeying the admonition not to mention the list of vices in our churches (5.3, 12) when it excluded verses that do mention them (5.3-5) and the instruction to shun the disobedient (5.6-7). But, the problem with the lectionary’s custom of cutting up texts is that it severs the connection between verse 8 and the preceding verses, for which verse 8 introduces an explanation. For that reason, and others, we should read the excised verses 1-7.

The form and content of verses 3-7 provide a contrast to the form and content of verses 8-14. The list of unmentionable vices is traditional and thoroughly conditioned by ancient Greek moral philosophy. The list is derived neither from specifically Jewish law nor from the Gospel; rather, it draws on the wider culture’s common sense about decency. Also, the list of unmentionables is very specific, in contrast to verses 8-14, where what is “good, right, and true” is not specifically defined; rather, they are to be learned by discerning “what is pleasing to the Lord” (5.9). No appeal is made to cultural expectations or to the interpretation of the law as the basis for discerning “what is pleasing” to God. What is required is the discernment of what God finds “good and right and true” in each situation.

It might be tempting to take the easier path of living by the culture’s common sense of decency and the moral guidance codified in the law. Instead, we are urged to take a more difficult and higher path: “Discern what is pleasing to the Lord.” Or, as the opening verses say, “Therefore be imitators of God.” How are we supposed to do that? This path begins with the affirmation that “in the Lord you are light” (5.8), which is repeated in the concluding promise that “Christ will shine” on those who turn from moral laxity (“sleep”) to new life in Christ (5.14). Or, as verses 1-2 say, “…as beloved children,… live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (5.1-2). Being “in Christ” is at the heart of the new life to which we are called. Because the transformative power of Christ has made us “beloved children” and “children of light,” we are empowered to discern, in each situation, “what is pleasing to the Lord.” For, Christ is the measure of what is “good, right, and true.” In Christ we have seen “what is pleasing to the Lord.” It is love (5.2)!

John 9.1-41
This Gospel is fond of lengthy narratives! This one begins with Jesus’ healing of a man who had been born blind. What follows next is a series of scenes filled with comical irony and sarcasm, in which neighbors and Jesus’ opponents engage in polemical interrogation about what happened and who did what. In typical Johannine fashion, the final scene resolves the controversy with Jesus’ revelation of his identity as the “son of man” who is “from God,” and who “came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind” (verse 39). With this disclosure (hinted at in verse 3), we see that Jesus’ giving sight to the man who was born blind is, in Johannine vocabulary, a “sign”—a parabolic metaphor—of Jesus’ identity and mission (compare verse 5). Belief in Jesus is the ability to see the “works” of the One who “sent” Jesus. “Seeing” Jesus and his works and refusing to believe in him is “sin,” because those who deny that Jesus’ works are the “works” of God refuse to “Give glory to God” (verse 24).

Let Lent be a time to meditate on those times when we refused to see the works of God in the world and to “Give glory to God.” Were they times when things didn’t turn out the way we wanted them to? Were they times when our own interests prevented us from seeing what was going on around us? We they times when a rival, opponent, or enemy did something good, right, or true? Were they times when…? You fill in the blank.

Let Lent also be a time to meditate on, and practice, seeing God’s works in the world through Christ-given “sight”: works of healing and other forms of transformation, works of liberation and justice, works of courage, works of comfort and solidarity, works of love.

Now here are brief comments on this narrative’s seven scenes:

Scene One, the healing (verses 1-7): Whether the denial that someone’s sin caused the man to be born blind is a general statement about everyone who has infirmities, or whether this denial applies only in this particular case, the narrator made it clear that was not the issue in this story. This story reveals “God’s works in him”—namely, in the one who receives “sight” and believes Jesus is “the light of the world” (verse 5) and is “from God” (verse 33).

Scene Two, neighbors question the man (verses 8-12): In typical Johannine style, the story begins with the man receiving physical but not spiritual vision. This scene also reveals something about the social reality of persons who are blind: they are marginalized and reduced to beggars. Our healthcare system is outrageously pretty much the same centuries later! How different would it be if people and institutions saw with vision enlightened by “the light of the world”?

Scene Three, Pharisees question the man (verses 13-17): The eyes of the law, even religious law, are indeed blind[folded]. Those whose lives are based on observance of the law often are, or can be, blind to God’s works in the world. Sabbath observance is not a bad practice. Its purpose and goal is to praise God and to show one’s fidelity to God alone. The problem with the law is that, by codifying specific practices to do or not do, it sometimes thwarts its very own purposes and goals. In this case, observance of the Sabbath prevents these characters from fidelity to doing and honoring God’s work in the world. Giving sight to the blind—whether physical vision or spiritual sight that leads to faithful belief—is God’s work and, therefore, is observance of the Sabbath. Also notice that the man who received sight moves closer to spiritual vision when he identifies Jesus as “a prophet.”

Scene Four, Pharisees question the parents (verses 18-23): Now the story gets comical! Invite your youth—and adults, if they are willing to suspend their inhibitions to laugh with the Bible—to act out scenes four and five as comedy. First the Judeans—earlier identified as Pharisees sent by Levite priests from Jerusalem, an indication that Jewish opposition to Jesus was limited to a small circle of temple authorities—don’t know if this sighted man was the same as the man who was formerly blind. Now who is blind? Then the parents, not the most loving parents on the block, whom we learned in scene two let—or put—their own blind son out on the street to beg, quickly point out that they have no responsibility for their son, since he is “of age” and can legally speak for himself. You can play this scene as comedy revealing underlying tragedy: Out of fear, parents, who are supposed to love and protect their children from harm, even when they are “of age,” become accomplices in injustice. They risk their son’s safety to save their own skin. Their reasoning is understandable, perhaps even excusable, but elsewhere Jesus taught his disciples, “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mk 8.35).

Scene Five, Pharisees question the man (verses 24-34): This has to be one of the funniest scenes in the New Testament! In typical Johannine fashion, it begins with irony: The interrogators unwittingly speak the truth! “Give glory to God!” Yet, they cannot believe Jesus works the works of God and “give glory to God.” Then the man who had been a marginalized blind beggar stands up to the interrogators. When they again ask what Jesus did to “open” his eyes, his sarcastic retort gets the best of them: “So, you don’t want to become his disciples, do you?” On one level, his sarcasm is a reaction to their persistent questions about Jesus’ works. On another level, though, their question—“How did he open your eyes?”—points to his conversion, his coming to belief in Jesus. For an instant, the interrogators’ rebuke appears to regain the upper hand, but in the next moment the formerly blind beggar counters with a brilliant theological challenge (verses 30-33)! Now the formerly blind man is gaining true spiritual [in]sight, for he sees that Jesus’ works proves he truly fulfills Sabbath observance, for which the proper response is “Give glory to God!” This man at the bottom of the social ladder has pinned his elite interrogators to the wall!

Scene Six, Jesus questions the man (verses 35-39): Finally the formerly blind man comes to full spiritual vision. With this scene we come to what is called situational irony. The interrogators have unwittingly led the former blind man to do precisely what they had been trying to prevent (see verse 22): he confessed “Lord, I believe!” and worshiped Jesus. In typical Johannine fashion, that occasions a self-revelatory speech. Though usually the longest part of the narrative, here it is brief and to the point (verse 39).

Scene Seven, Pharisees question Jesus (verses 40-41): Again using irony, the narrator ends the story with the interrogators asking a question with which Jesus is going to convict them. The form of their question expects Jesus to respond negatively: “No, of course you are not blind.” Jesus obliged. But, whereas they were thinking literally of physical blindness and sightedness, Jesus’ retort is on the level of metaphor and “sign.” They have seen with their eyes what their belief system tells them—“sees”—is the work of God, but they refuse to “give glory to God,” so their “sin remains.”

David J. Lull is Professor of New Testament at Wartburg Theological Seminary in Dubuque, Iowa. He co-authored Romans with John B. Cobb, Jr. He is also the author of a revised edition of William A. Beardslee’s 1 Corinthians.