The Fourth Sunday in Lent (Year A), 22 March 2020
March 22, 2020 | by Russell Pregeant
|Reading 1||Reading 2||Reading 3||Reading 4||Reading 1 Alt||Reading 2 Alt|
|1 Samuel 16:1-13||Psalm 23||Ephesians 5:8-14||John 9:1-41|
Gospel: John 9:1-41
Like the story of Jesus and the Samaritan woman, The Healing of the Man Born Blind is an account of a person’s coming to faith. It differs from the former, however, in that, unlike the woman, this man makes an explicit confession of faith. When first questioned by the Pharisees about the one who healed him, he replies, “He is a prophet” (vs. 17). After Jesus discloses his identity to him, however, he not only says “Lord, I believe” but also worships Jesus (vs. 38).
What is it, though, that engenders his faith? The Samaritan woman was drawn toward faith by the fact that Jesus knew her so well. For this man, it was the fact of his restored sight that put his journey into motion. We can see this in his reply during his second questioning: “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” The man’s understanding, however, remains incomplete until he hears from Jesus’ lips his self-disclosure as the Son of Man in vs. 37. It is at this point that he knows Jesus as the full revelation of God. The one who healed him is not just a prophet, but the very light of the world, as Jesus has already testified to his disciples in verse 5: “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” We can thus see that the entire story is symbolic, illustrative of the Johannine understanding of Jesus as the incarnation of “the true light, which enlightens everyone,” as we read in John 1:10. The eternal Logos, who was “in the beginning with God” and through whom “all things came into being” (1:1-3) is also the light by which human beings can know true life. The moment of coming-to-faith is thus identical with the moment of full understanding, the moment when we recognize who Jesus is and therefore who God is.
The story is indeed a portrayal of a journey in faith. It has, however, a dark side that must not be ignored. Just as the term “light” is qualified as the “true” light in 1:9 and is contrasted with the darkness in which it shines, so also in this story the dualism of light/darkness reappears in the form of sight/blindness. Just as in 1:1 “the world” rejects the light, moreover, so now in this story the religious leaders reject Jesus, which gives the story a strong element of judgment. In fact, Jesus here actually defines his mission as judgment: “I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind” (vs, 39).
But what exactly does this paradox mean? At some points, Johannine language can sound deterministic, as if sight and blindness with respect to the truth were beyond a person’s control, and verse 39 is a good example. Verse 41, however, dispels this notion: “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” Jesus has come into the world to force a decision. There are people who believe that they have the light—which is to say, understanding of the truth—but who actually walk in darkness. By appearing among them as the light—that is, as the one who makes God known (1:18)—Jesus offers them a new possibility: they can exchange their false understanding for the truth. But this revelation of God has a double edge. With the truth fully available now to all who have eyes to see, those who choose to remain blind abide in sin, while those who acknowledge their blindness and accept the light are enabled to see.
And what exactly does it mean to “see”? We can easily answer that it means to understand. But to understand what? John 11:9 (from next week’s selection) gives us a clue; “Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.” If the Samaritan woman gains self-knowledge from her encounter with Jesus, the man born blind gains understanding of how to live life as a child of God (John 1:12). And we can think of these as two aspects of the answer to the most basic question life poses for us: What does it mean to be a human being? To stumble is to live falsely, to distort our human nature, which is defined only in our relationship to God. John 1:3 states that “in him [the Logos] was life,” and “life” (zōē) in John means not mere biological existence but authentic life, abundant life, joyous life. And 17:3 makes this clear by defining “eternal life” not in quantitative but rather in qualitative terms and specifically as knowledge of God: “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” To know God, moreover, is—as we learn from the Samaritan woman—also truly to know ourselves; and only when we know ourselves do we know how to live before God and our neighbor without stumbling.
The “blindness” of those who reject Jesus is evident above all in the double entendre the man’s questioners utter in vs. 29 regarding Jesus: “We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” The statement, “We do not know where he comes from” refers, on the literal level, to Jesus’s geographical origin. As with innumerable passages in John, however, it also has symbolic significance. Jesus tells his opponents in 8:23, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world.” In both cases, those who reject Jesus do so because they belong to the world “below,” the corrupted world of human society, whereas Jesus comes “from above,” from God. Those who belong to the world “below” cannot understand the truth because their thought-patterns are corrupted by that world. In order to know who Jesus is, a person must leave that world behind and think with a renewed mind. The world below, however, is not without some level of understanding. Jesus’s opponents in chapter 9 accept the revelation given in Moses, but they cannot see beyond it because they will not open their eyes to the full revelation that has come in Jesus.
The possibilities for sermons from this text are virtually endless. A preacher might want to focus on the stages of faith and understanding, exploring how attachment to limited grasps of the truth, perhaps those from our childhood or from theological perspectives that do not take sufficient account of advances in human knowledge, hold us back from letting the gospel penetrate all aspects of our lives. Jesus’s opponents accepted Moses but could not open themselves to newer revelations. Anyone who stresses this point, however, should avoid any hint of anti-Jewishness by focusing squarely on ways in which we Christians fail to open ourselves to the new. One might, for example, mention how modern science encourages us to read the Genesis creation stories non-literally, or how our increased knowledge of non-Christian religions helps us see beyond traditional Christological exclusivism. Another approach would be to focus on the words, “we do not know where he comes from” in order to flesh out the ways in which the above/below light/darkness polarities confront us in our daily activities and decisions. Negative cultural influences can be so strong that they prevent us from even understanding counter-cultural values such as nonviolence and self-sacrifice, which are utterly unintelligible to the mindset of the world “below.” One specific possibility would be to examine ways in which our culture offers deceptive paths to self-fulfillment through cults of success, winning, getting ahead, “having it all,” etc.
A more complex way of the treating the text for a Lenten sermon would be to bring into conversation the more usual emphasis on Christ’s death as salvific with the fact that in John the incarnation itself is the agent of salvation, which takes the form of enlightenment or in-depth understanding. The Johannine view invites reflection on the relationship between sin and ignorance. Although neither of these should be fully collapsed into the other, it is clear that they feed each other. One way to look at this issue is to think what a crucial role early experience plays in the development of values. Persons who grow up in environments in which lying, stealing, self-seeking, and hostility toward outsiders is the norm undoubtedly have great difficulty conceiving value-systems that involve honesty, concern for others, and any sense of the solidarity of all humanity. They are, in a word, ignorant of the truth about human nature and the universe itself that supports such thinking; and we can grant that social influence certainly limits a person’s responsibility. At some point, however, when people are confronted with a different set of values but refuse to give them a hearing, their ignorance becomes willful ignorance, for which they are quite responsible. And this ignorance gives rise to wrong actions, just as wrong actions give rise to ignorance of the truth. To think of sin in relation to ignorance, moreover, encourages us to look behind wrong actions to a person’s fundamental disposition. We act wrongly because we understand both the universe and ourselves wrongly. Salvation thus means more than mere forgiveness for individual sins. It is, rather, a whole new way of understanding life; it is, as we learn from John 17, the knowledge of God—knowledge in the specific biblical sense of an intimate relationship.
Second Reading: Ephesians 5:8-14
The dualism of light and darkness appears also in the reading from Ephesians, which could provide a bridge between understandings of sin as wrong action on the one hand and ignorance of the truth on the other. Although this passage does not mention specific sins, the injunction to “live as children of light” indicates that in order for understanding of the truth about life to be become effective, it must express itself in concrete deeds. Verse 10, however, can serve as an important reminder that obedience to God is not a mechanical process of merely following rules. The Greek participle dokimazontes, translated in the NRSV as “try to find out” indicates a process of discernment. The author of Ephesians is encouraging readers to puzzle out “what is pleasing to the Lord,” just as Paul counseled the Christians in Rome in Romans 12:2. I can imagine a sermon based entirely on Ephesians 5:10, stressing that the self-examination needed in the Lenten season should go much deeper than ticking off infractions of rigidly-conceived commandments; it should involve serious questioning of the ways in which we think we are doing the right thing! Another intriguing aspect of the reading is verse 14, which contains a quotation from an unknown source, possibly an early Christian hymn: “Sleeper awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine upon you.” Here the metaphor of light combines with an allusion to the metaphorical weight of the dualism of life and death: to live in darkness (and ignorance) is a kind of death, because in such a state we die to all that makes human existence meaningful and worthwhile.
First Reading: 1 Samuel 16:1-13
The reading from 1 Samuel can do double duty. On the one hand, Samuel’s anointing of David is a reminder that the Christian understanding of Jesus’s messiahship is unintelligible apart from the Jewish concept of ideal kingship—that is, the hope for a king in the line of David who will usher in an age of peace and justice. Kingship itself, however, has become a problematic concept in our day, so that it is crucial to pick up on another aspect of this passage. By anointing the youngest son, Samuel breaks a traditional paradigm, signaling that God is free to look beyond traditional concepts in exercising the divine will in the world. And this freedom, of course, is supremely expressed for Christians in the acceptance of Jesus—the nonviolent one who is despised, rejected, and crucified—as the one through whom God paradoxically redeems the world. An emphasis on the counter-cultural force of Samuel’s choice of the youngest son, together with a reference to Jesus’s paradoxical messiahship, could complement a sermon stressing the points made above about how thinking from “above” rather than from “below” runs counter to many aspects of our culture.
Although few of us, in all probability, tend to make such a connection, Psalm 23 is also a treasure trove of counter-cultural insight. Like many people raised in a Christian homes, I memorized it as a child. And, like most, I suspect, I long thought of it primarily as a very strong word of comfort. As an avid hiker in one period of my life, I have always found natural environments both calming and spiritually nourishing. To hike up a hill and then sit quietly, overlooking the land below and listening to the sounds of nature, is for me a truly ecstatic experience. And the references to green pastures and still waters in this psalm can call up a similar ecstasy, if only for a moment. There is, however, much more to Psalm 23 than imagery of peacefulness and contentment. In the context of a portrayal of God as a shepherd who leads the sheep through green pastures that provide food and still waters that provide drink (which is to say, the most basic necessities of physical existence), the declaration “I shall not want” is a bold affirmation that it is God alone who fulfills our needs. And to affirm this is to opt out of any value-system that advocates madcap scrambling for wealth and possessions rather that dependence upon God. The psalm is thus quite in accord with Jesus’s words about worry over food, drink, and clothing: “But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).
To interpret the psalm in this way is by no means to deny its spiritual reference. To begin with, to say that God leads us in “right paths” (NRSV) or “paths of righteousness” is to acknowledge God as spiritual guide. But it is also important to note that our typical distinction between the material and the spiritual is to some extent foreign to the Hebrew consciousness, which understood human beings as unitary creatures, not combinations of “soul” and “body” as distinct entities. The Hebrew word in verse 3 (nephesh) that is usually translated as “soul” would be better render simply as “life,” if we understand that term to embrace our whole selves in all their dimensions. So to declare that God’s goodness and mercy will follow us always is to say that God’s provision for our physical needs is an expression of a love that embraces our total well-being, a fact that is made clear in the affirmation in verse 4 that God is with us in the darkest of circumstances.
Despite the frequent and appropriate use of Psalm 23 at funerals, its focus is squarely on the present life, not life after death. Nor should the final phrase in verse 6 be translated as “forever,” as if it were a reference to such a hope. The NRSV translation, “my whole life long,” or the rendering in the Jewish Tanakh Translation, “for many long years,” are better representations of the Hebrew.
Russell (Russ) Pregeant is Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain, Emeritus at Curry College, Milton, Massachusetts, where he taught a variety of courses, including New Testament, Old Testament, Religion and Politics, and Contemporary Theological Issues. He was also frequently Visiting Professor in New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School. A native of Louisiana, he is an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church and has served as an associate pastor in New Orleans and as an interim pastor in Needham, Massachusetts. He now lives in Clayton, Georgia with his wife, the Rev. Sammie Maxwell. Russell is the author of nine books, most recently For the Healing of the Nation: A Biblical Vision (2016) and Reading the Bible for All the Wrong Reasons (2011). He has also completed a second edition of an earlier book on process-relational theology, Mystery without Magic, which is now under consideration for publication.