I Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41.
The God who knows the hearts of mortals sends an Anointed One to bring sight to those who have not seen.
The readings for this Sunday in Lent are about humans coming to know and coming to see; about darkness as not-knowing, dissipation, and disbelief; and about light and sight as God’s gifts.
I Samuel 16:1-13.
The reading from the Prophets is the story of the anointing of David by Samuel. This is the first appearance of David in the historical books, though the story of how Israel got kingship has already involved the complex and somewhat tragic story of Samuel and Saul (I Samuel 1-15). Our reading is the point at which God moves to take up another candidate for kingship in Israel, one whose career will bring success and triumph for Israel. David will be the true and original Anointed One (“Messiah” in Hebrew, “Christ” in Greek).
The emphasis in our story is on God’s knowledge of the inner person, and God’s choice of the – outwardly – least likely candidate for great office.
Samuel is sent on a secret mission to Bethlehem, told that he will be guided in what to do. He knows that a new king is in the making. Bethlehem is a small town and Jesse with his several strong sons is clearly the leading figure in the community. Samuel comes as the officiating priest of a religious observance, which is a scary thing to the local folks, who come trembling to ask, “Do you come peaceably?” (verse 4, NRSV).
As the ceremonies progress, Jesse’s eldest son is introduced and Samuel is sure this handsome and impressive young man must be God’s choice for the next king. God’s response – which makes this text particularly appropriate to Lent – is, “Take no notice of his appearance… for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (verse 7).
The selection process continues until – all candidates have been rejected! The person sought is not present! There must be someone else – somewhere. After questioning, Jesse reports that there is one youngest son who does only shepherd duties, not yet having reached warrior status. When this handsome teenager has been brought, God says, “Rise and anoint him, for this is the one.” (verse 12).
The figure of destiny for Israel has been selected, and David becomes the Anointed One of God.
The Psalm reading is an affirmation of faith by the shepherd boy who became king.
This revered text by which ages of Jewish and Christian persons have hallowed moments of danger and death, regains some of its older Israelite aura if we keep the personal name of God in the translation. Here is the translation from the New Jerusalem Bible.
Yahweh is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
In grassy meadows he lets me lie.
By tranquil streams he leads me to restore my spirit.
He guides me in paths of saving justice as befits his name.
Even were I to walk in a ravine as dark as death
I should fear no danger, for you are at my side.
Your staff and your crook are there to soothe me.
You prepare a table for me under the eyes of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup brims over.
Kindness and faithful love pursue me every day of my life.
I make my home in the house of Yahweh for all time to come.
The Epistle reading is a classic text setting darkness and light in unqualified moral opposition.
In the psalm, the speaker envisages the sheep passing through the “valley of the shadow of death” (King James Version), but being saved by the shepherd-like God. In the Apostle’s letter the early believers are told that they “once” were the darkness. However, now that they are “in the Lord,” they are light. They should live accordingly. All kinds of shameful things go on in the dark, but the light exposes all of that. Those who now live in the light should produce “all that is good and right and true,” which is what is pleasing to the Lord (verses 9-10).
The Apostle clinches his argument with a poetic quotation, which he assumes the hearers will recognize. All of modern scholarship, however, has not found its source. It is not from the Jewish scriptures or from literary Greek poetry, as far as that is known. There is a consensus of scholars who think it is a quote from an early Christian hymn.
Rise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you. (Verse 14.)
The hymn proclaims the resurrection as waking up from sleep (see Isaiah 26:19 and Daniel 12:2), and this awakening was probably a major theme at the baptism of new confessors of Christ (see Romans 6:4). Baptism was the time new believers began to live in the light of the Lord.
During Lent, this is the vision of the light ahead for the believer who passes through the present darkness!
The Gospel reading is another very long selection from the Fourth Gospel.
This is the story of the healing of the man born blind. The healing happens immediately, at the beginning of the story. The real focus of the narrative is on all the spun-out consequences of the healing. Though the story begins as a Jesus story, it develops as a story mainly about the blind man and his discovering real sight.
The story develops through the questioning from his friends, opponents, and Jesus himself. Among the many bypaths of the text, we will follow only this movement to sight of the man born blind. (The Christian fiction writers Bodie and Brock Thoene have made the blind man of this story a young hero of faith in the series “A.D. Chronicles,” the first volume of which climaxes with this miracle of sight: First Light, Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 2003.)
At the beginning the disciples ask about the social and religious significance of this congenitally blind person. Who sinned, that he was born blind, punished before he even had a chance to commit his first sinful act? Jesus’ answer repudiates this as a general question about persons born with disabilities. He answers that it is only a case of this particular person, this blind man begging in the neighborhood of the pool of Siloam. “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (verse 3, NRSV).
To hear this answer fully, it is important to remember that blindness is the condition of all persons before faith. Moving from blindness to sight is the salvation God’s Anointed was sent to bring about. This movement is possible only in the presence of that Anointed One. “We must work the works of him who sent me…” (verse 4). This blind man is an embodied parable, and we will now hear the meaning that he acts out.
The details of how Jesus does this healing are repeated several times through the narrative, almost as a litany – “He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed [in the Siloam pool], and now I see” (verse 15, for example). These details are out there as a distraction from the real point. People interested in magic and generally curious about the secrets of the world (such as how miracles really happen) will seize upon such matters and miss the larger meaning.
Our formerly blind man is questioned first by his neighbors (verses 8-14). They debate whether this seeing man is really the same man who was blind. They ask him how it happened, and get the first recycling of the story. Apparently wishing to get the facts from the real source, they say, “Where is he?” to which the man replies, “I do not know.” This is stage number two of the man’s real move from blindness to sight. He was blind, can now see, but doesn’t know where his benefactor is.
The man is then taken to the learned religious authorities (verses 13-17). Before pursuing the identity of the doer of the good deed, they proclaim that he can’t be a good guy in any case, because he did “work” on the Sabbath. (Apparently making the mud out of his spit in the dust constituted “kneading,” as if working dough for bread.) They ask again for an exact report of the healing, and the story is repeated. Though they are pretty clear that the healer is to be condemned, there is some doubt, and they ask the man, “What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.” The man now answers, “He is a prophet” (verse 17). Our man has advanced to stage number three; he recognizes that the healer must have come from God.
The religious authorities must get behind this position and they accuse the man of being a hoax, of not really having been blind. Call the parents (verses 18-23). They appear, and under questioning realize that they have to sail very carefully among these high powers. They affirm only what they know indisputably. “We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind, but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself” (verses 20-21). Back to the-man-who-now-sees they go, and call upon him to “Give glory to God” – by admitting that the man with the mud was a sinner and that only God can heal. The man says he only knows what happened, whether they will believe him or not. Do they want him to keep telling them about it so they can become disciples of the healer? (verse 27).
The authorities now read this as a challenge to their status. “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from” (verses 28-29). To this the man makes an answer full of irony. “We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing” (verses 31-33).
After hearing this, the religious authorities drive out the seeing man. He can no longer share communion with them. (See Special Note below on Jewish Christians expelled from the synagogues.)
This exchange has prepared us for the final stage in the man’s development – worshipping the Lord. Jesus reappears in the story in order to complete the seeing man’s movement to full sight. Jesus asks whether the man believes in the Son of Man. The man asks who this Son of Man is. “Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” Jesus says to him, “You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.” The seeing man completes his faith movement, saying, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him [prostrated himself before him] (verses 35-38).
The gospel writer sums up with a Jesus saying. “It is for judgment that I have come into the world, so that those without sight may see and those with sight may become blind.”
The man born blind is a walking embodiment of the disciple who has come to full faith – and lived through the consequences of his confession.
Special Note on Christians Expelled from the Synagogue.
In recent decades, specialists in the Gospel According to John have concluded that the faith journey of the man born blind reflects the actual progression of Jesus believers in the decades after the death of Jesus.
The story of the man born blind speaks of “the Jews” expelling from the synagogue those who confess Jesus as the Christ. “His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.” (verse 22). More literally, anyone who confessed Jesus became an apo-synagōgos [beyond-synagogue-person], a term similar to apo-state, one who has deserted the community of faith, in this case the community of the synagogue.
There are two other references in this Gospel to such expulsion from the synagogue, one in John 12:42: “Nevertheless many, even of the authorities, believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they did not confess it, for fear that they would be put out of the synagogue…” Also, in Jesus’ farewell discourses he says to the disciples, “They will put you out of the synagogues” (16:2).
Scholars recognize that these references to expulsion from the synagogue make no sense in Jesus’ own time. There were no organized communities of Jesus confessors then against which such synagogue policy was needed. Also, according to Mark, Jesus was not publicly confessed as Messiah by any humans, until near the very end. These references to Jesus confessors expelled from the synagogues are informed by conditions long after the time of Jesus, long after even the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans (70 CE). These references are to the time when Rabbinic Judaism was re-forming itself after the disaster of 70 CE. They reflect the actions of Palestinian Jewish communities to protect themselves and consolidate their self-definitions.
The wording of 9:22 – “for the Jews had already agreed” – sounds like some official or semi-official action had been taken against the Jesus confessors. J.L. Martin (History and Theology in the Fourth Gospel, Harper, 1968), and many others in the following decades, concluded that such a ban on Christian confessors had been promulgated from the Rabbinic authorities of Yavneh (=Jamnia), the center from which the re-forming of Judaism was initiated after 70 CE.
An important change was made in the standard daily prayers of observant Jews. Three times a day, a fully observant Jew recited the Eighteen Benedictions – which by the time of Yavneh actually had nineteen blessings in it. (Note that “blessing,” in this case, is in fact a euphemism for “curse.”) The twelfth of these benedictions concerns heretics or apostates. In the later Babylonian version of this “blessing,” it read:
And for informers let there be no hope; and let all who do wickedness quickly perish; and let them all be speedily destroyed; and uproot and crush and hurl down and humble the insolent, speedily in our days. Blessed art thou, Lord, who crushest enemies and humblest the insolent.
(Quoted from Emil Shürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, new English version revised by G. Vermes et al., T&T Clark, 1979, vol. II, p. 457.)
In modern times an older, Palestinian version of the Eighteen Benedictions was found (in a sealed chamber of an old synagogue in Cairo). It contains what many scholars think was the version of the daily prayer after the Rabbinic authorities at Yavneh had revised it. Here the twelfth benediction (referred to as birkat ha-minim, blessing of the apostates) reads as follows:
And for apostates let there be no hope; and may the insolent kingdom be quickly uprooted, in our days. And may the Nazarenes and the heretics perish quickly; and may they be erased from the Book of Life; and may they not be inscribed with the righteous. Blessed art thou, Lord, who humblest the insolent. (Quoted from the same source as above, p. 461.)
This “blessing,” which directly curses confessors of Jesus of Nazareth, could not be recited in synagogue worship by Christians, even if they were observant Jews in other respects. This blessing seems clearly designed to exclude and ban such confessors of Jesus.
When was this blessing revised to exclude the Nazarenes? There is a tradition in the Babylonian Talmud about how this benediction got revised.
Our rabbis have taught on Tannaite authority: Simeon Happaquli in Yavneh laid out the eighteen benedictions before Rabban Gamaliel in proper order. Said Rabban Gamaliel to sages, “Does anyone know how to ordain a ‘blessing’ [curse] against the Sadducees [minim = apostates]?” Samuel the younger went and ordained it [i.e., revised the blessing].
(Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 28b; quoted from The Babylonian Talmud, trans. Jacob Neusner, Hendrickson, 2005, Vol. I, pp. 190-91.)
Rabban Gamaliel was the most prominent leader of the Rabbinic circles in Yavneh from about 85 CE into the second century. Thus he was prominent at just the time that the Gospel According to John was reaching its final stages. Assuming that what “Samuel the younger” produced was the Palestinian version of the twelfth “blessing,” that revised “blessing” refers directly to the “Nazarenes,” those who confessed Jesus of Nazareth as Messiah. All of which fits the view that the expulsion of Christians from the synagogues became official Rabbinic policy at Yavneh somewhere around 85 to 110 CE.
Some scholars have challenged the dating and precise application of the Blessing of the Heretics to Christians. (An example is, Reuven Kimelman, “Birkat Ha-Minim and the Lack of Evidence for an Anti-Christian Jewish Prayer in Late Antiquity,” Jewish and Christian Self-Definition, vol. II of “Aspects of Judaism in the Greco-Roman Period,” ed. E.P. Sanders; Fortress, 1981, pp. 226-244.) It is clear from the Gospels, however, that some Pharisees and other “Jews” had developed local opposition to Jesus confessors on a consistent basis. Besides the references in John, see Luke 6:22 (= Matthew 5:11): “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you , revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man” – which sounds much like the severe language of the blessing of the apostates in the daily prayer.
George Beasley-Murray concludes his discussion of this issue this way: “The decision of the Pharisees in [John] 9:22 should be viewed as typical of what took place in varied localities prior to Jamnia’s [Yavneh’s] promulgation of the twelfth benediction; it will have been by no means universally observed, or regarded as irrevocable when taken. [But, summarizing the whole discussion]…The church of the Evangelist’s day does not simply have its back to the wall; it proclaims Christ and the gospel – to the Jew first, and also to the Greek!” (John, Word Biblical Commentary, 36; 2nd ed., Nelson, 1999, p. 154.)