Mar 22, 2020: 4th Sunday of Lent (A)

1st Reading – 1 Samuel 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a

The LORD said to Samuel:
“Fill your horn with oil, and be on your way.
I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem,
for I have chosen my king from among his sons.”

As Jesse and his sons came to the sacrifice,
Samuel looked at Eliab and thought,
“Surely the LORD’s anointed is here before him.”
But the LORD said to Samuel:
“Do not judge from his appearance or from his lofty stature,
because I have rejected him.
Not as man sees does God see,
because man sees the appearance
but the LORD looks into the heart.”
In the same way Jesse presented seven sons before Samuel,
but Samuel said to Jesse,
“The LORD has not chosen any one of these.”
Then Samuel asked Jesse,
“Are these all the sons you have?”
Jesse replied, “There is still the youngest, who is tending the sheep.”
Samuel said to Jesse,
“Send for him;
we will not begin the sacrificial banquet until he arrives here.”
Jesse sent and had the young man brought to them.
He was ruddy, a youth handsome to behold
and making a splendid appearance.
The LORD said, “There — anoint him, for this is the one!”
Then Samuel, with the horn of oil in hand,
anointed David in the presence of his brothers;
and from that day on, the spirit of the LORD rushed upon David.

The books of Samuel were originally one book and actually form a continuation of the deuteronomic history of the people of Israel. It also marks a turning point in the history of God’s people, as Samuel is the last of the judges.

Under increasing pressure from the Philistines, Samuel struggles to keep Israel faithful to Yahweh. Defeats in battle and the failure of Samuel’s sons to follow his example convince the people that Israel needs a new kind of leadership; a king. Samuel thought this was wrong, but God told him “Grant the people’s every request. It is not you they reject, they are rejecting me as their king.” (See 1 Samuel 8:7-22).

Samuel then anointed Saul, who didn’t work out too well. God then instructed Samuel to anoint a new king, which is the story we hear today.

Like our gospel reading, this story is about seeing.

The LORD said to Samuel: “Fill your horn with oil, and be on your way. I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem, for I have chosen my king from among his sons.”

The search for and anointing of David as king open a new chapter in the story of the people of Israel.  Each step of the way is determined by God, making the history of Israel a history of salvation.  It is God, through the prophet, who decides from which family the kings will come, and even which son in that family will be the future ruler.

The oil in Samuel’s horn was for the anointing of the new king.  “Fill your horn with oil” is akin to saying, “prepare to perform an anointing.”

As they came, he looked at Eliab and thought, “Surely the LORD’S anointed is here before him.” But the LORD said to Samuel: “Do not judge from his appearance or from his lofty stature, because I have rejected him. Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the LORD looks into the heart.”

God instructs Samuel not to consider the candidates by their appearance or size.

In the same way Jesse presented seven sons before Samuel, but Samuel said to Jesse, “The LORD has not chosen any one of these.” 

Samuel is a prophet of the Lord, and so he speaks for God.

Then Samuel asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have? Jesse replied, There is still the youngest, who is tending the sheep.

In the Hebrew culture, the number seven is symbolic of completeness.  David, the eighth son, is something of an outsider.  His father declined to initially present him to Samuel because he does not think David is a viable candidate.

Samuel said to Jesse, “Send for him; we will not begin the sacrificial banquet until he arrives here.” Jesse sent and had the young man brought to them. 

Note that David has not even been invited to participate in the banquet. He was probably considered too young or unimportant to be included.

He was ruddy, a youth handsome to behold and making a splendid appearance.

There may be another meaning to the description of David’s appearance.  The Hebrew word “ruddy” is admoni; hearers of the story would immediately be reminded of the first man, Adam, because both words stem from adamah, meaning “ground” or “earth.”

The storyteller may have wanted to draw parallels between David and Adam.  The future of the People of God rested on the shoulders of both men.

Notice that Samuel had been instructed to ignore Eliab’s outward appearance, and yet the prophet is struck by David’s appearance.

The LORD said, “There — anoint him, for this is he!”

Despite his status as an outsider, David is the one into whose heart the Lord has looked, and obviously God has been pleased with what is there.  The young shepherd will be God’s king. Once again, God has chosen the weak things of the world to confound the strong.

Then Samuel, with the horn of oil in hand, anointed him in the midst of his brothers;

Samuel’s choice of David was by direct command of God. The anointing was a solemn and sacred action that ceremonially sealed God’s election.

This action makes David a messiah, that is, an anointed one. God has a special job for him.

and from that day on, the spirit of the LORD rushed upon David.

Within the early traditions of Israel, the spirit of the Lord was understood as a principle of dynamic divine action, a force that had unique effects in human history.  Those who were seized by the spirit were thus empowered to act within the community in some unique fashion.  In this way, God’s saving power was brought to the community through the agency of certain individuals, and the particular needs of the community determined the character of this action. The spirit took hold of judges (Judges 3:10) and prophets (Isaiah 61:1), and now a future king.

During Lent, as we all examine our consciences and as catechumens prepare for baptism, this reading reminds us that we must try to see, not as human beings see, but as God sees.

We are also invited to consider the fact that at baptism we are all anointed with oil as a sign that God has a special mission for each of us, too.

2nd Reading – Ephesians 5:8-14

Brothers and sisters:
You were once darkness,
but now you are light in the Lord.
Live as children of light,
for light produces every kind of goodness
and righteousness and truth.
Try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord.
Take no part in the fruitless works of darkness;
rather expose them, for it is shameful even to mention
the things done by them in secret;
but everything exposed by the light becomes visible,
for everything that becomes visible is light.
Therefore, it says:
“Awake, O sleeper,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will give you light.”

Today’s second reading invites us to live as children of light and describes the mighty change that the grace of God produces in the souls of the faithful.

Brothers and sisters: You were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord.

The move from darkness to light is the principal metaphor used by the author to describe the radical change that has taken place in the lives of Christians as a result of their commitment to Christ.

Note that they are not described as being merely surrounded by darkness or in the midst of darkness, they were actually identified with it.  But as identified as they had been with darkness, so are they now identified with light – the light that comes from the Lord.

“The darkness is being turned into light. There is not, as some heretics argue, a nature so alienated that it cannot receive salvation. … Those who receive salvation — the righteous — are the light of the world (Matthew 5:14). Those who refuse, the unrighteous, are in consequence called darkness. … The difference and distance between one and the other is clearly seen by their own fruits.” [Saint Jerome (A.D. 386), Commentaries on the Epistle to the Ephesians, 3,5,8]

Live as children of light, for light produces every kind of goodness and righteousness and truth.

The three qualities produced by the light — goodness, righteousness, and truth — are symbolic of the complete transformation of character this light can effect.  They describe a life lived openly in the light that comes from Christ.

Try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord.

To live as children of light is to “learn what is pleasing to the Lord.”

Take no part in the fruitless works of darkness; rather expose them, for it is shameful even to mention the things done by them in secret; but everything exposed by the light becomes visible, for everything that becomes visible is light.

Christians are not only warned about the works of darkness, but urged to expose them.  The author is not suggesting that Christians set out to disclose any works of darkness or shame anyone.  Paul has established that Christians themselves are the light of the Lord; by living honest and open lives, their light will expose the shameful works hidden in darkness.  In other words, authentic Christian living will itself illumine the darkness.

“He has said, ‘you are light’. Light exposes what takes place in darkness. Insofar as you are light your goodness shines forth. The wicked are not able to hide. Their actions are illuminated as though a lamp were at hand.” [Saint John Chrysostom (A.D. 392-397), Homilies on the Epistle to the Ephesians, 18,5,11-13]

Therefore, it says: “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”

This is probably a fragment of an ancient Christian hymn used in a baptismal liturgy (see also Ephesians 2:5; Isaiah 60:1-3).  It contains three phrases closely associated with Christian initiation, which all describe the transition from a state of inertia or restriction to one of vibrancy: from sleep to wakefulness; from death to new life; from darkness to illumination.

From these metaphors, it’s clear the newfound faith of these Christians will require a new way of living. The readings this week invite us to come into the light that is Christ, to walk in the light by doing God’s will, and to realize that as baptized people we have been chosen and sent on mission to be that light for others.

Gospel – John 9:1-41

As Jesus passed by he saw a man blind from birth.
His disciples asked him,
“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents,
that he was born blind?”
Jesus answered,
“Neither he nor his parents sinned;
it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.
We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day.
Night is coming when no one can work.
While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”
When he had said this, he spat on the ground
and made clay with the saliva,
and smeared the clay on his eyes,
and said to him,
“Go wash in the Pool of Siloam” (which means Sent).
So he went and washed, and came back able to see.

His neighbors and those who had seen him earlier as a beggar said,
“Isn’t this the one who used to sit and beg?”
Some said, “It is,but others said, “No, he just looks like him.”
He said, “I am.”
So they said to him, “How were your eyes opened?”
He replied,
“The man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes
and told me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’
So I went there and washed and was able to see.”
And they said to him, “Where is he?”
He said, “I don’t know.”

They brought the one who was once blind to the Pharisees.
Now Jesus had made clay and opened his eyes on a sabbath.
So then the Pharisees also asked him how he was able to see.
He said to them,
“He put clay on my eyes, and I washed, and now I can see.”
So some of the Pharisees said,
“This man is not from God, because he does not keep the sabbath.”
But others said,
“How can a sinful man do such signs?”
And there was a division among them.
So they said to the blind man again,
“What do you have to say about him,
since he opened your eyes?”
He said, “He is a prophet.”

Now the Jews did not believe
that he had been blind and gained his sight
until they summoned the parents of the one who had gained his sight.
They asked them,
“Is this your son, who you say was born blind?
How does he now see?”
His parents answered and said,
“We know that this is our son and that he was born blind.
We do not know how he sees now,
nor do we know who opened his eyes.
Ask him, he is of age; he can speak for himself.”
His parents said this because they were afraid
of the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed
that if anyone acknowledged him as the Christ,
he would be expelled from the synagogue.
For this reason his parents said,
“He is of age; question him.”

So a second time they called the man who had been blind
and said to him, “Give God the praise!
We know that this man is a sinner.”
He replied, “If he is a sinner, I do not know.
One thing I do know is that I was blind and now I see.”
So they said to him, “What did he do to you?
How did he open your eyes?”
He answered them,
“I told you already and you did not listen.
Why do you want to hear it again?
Do you want to become his disciples, too?”
They ridiculed him and said,
“You are that man’s disciple;
we are disciples of Moses!
We know that God spoke to Moses,
but we do not know where this one is from.”
The man answered and said to them,
“This is what is so amazing,
that you do not know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes.
We know that God does not listen to sinners,
but if one is devout and does his will, he listens to him.
It is unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind.
If this man were not from God,
he would not be able to do anything.”
They answered and said to him,
“You were born totally in sin, and are you trying to teach us?”
Then they threw him out.

When Jesus heard that they had thrown him out,
he found him and said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”
He answered and said, “Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?”
Jesus said to him,
“You have seen him, the one speaking with you is he.”
He said, “I do believe, Lord,” and he worshiped him.
Then Jesus said,
“I came into this world for judgment,
so that those who do not see might see,
and those who do see might become blind.”

Some of the Pharisees who were with him heard this
and said to him, “Surely we are not also blind, are we?”
Jesus said to them,
“If you were blind, you would have no sin;
but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains.”

Today we hear the story of a man who is given two kinds of sight, physical sight and spiritual sight.

As Jesus passed by he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

It was a firm Jewish belief that every affliction was a punishment for sin, and that the sins of the parents could be punished in their offspring (Exodus 20:5; Deuteronomy 5:9). The disciples did not necessarily think that the man might have sinned before birth; in the foreknowledge of God, the punishment might have been inflicted for a sin that was to follow. They were seeking to understand the cause and effect relationship between sin and suffering.

Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents sinned; it is so that the works of God might be made visible through him.

Divine providence has determined that this man is to serve as the occasion of a work of God.

We have to do the works of the one who sent me while it is day.  Night is coming when no one can work.

The struggle between darkness and light, between blindness and sight, is a thread that runs throughout this reading.  Here, Jesus uses a binary form to underscore the urgency of his ministry.  He and his disciples must do God’s work while it is yet day, for the night will come when such work will have to cease.

While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

This is an example of the “I am” (i.e., Yahweh) theme used by John and others. In John 8:12, Jesus spoke the same words.

Like the pillar of fire that guided the Israelites through the desert by night in Exodus, Jesus guides us through spiritual darkness.

When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made clay with the saliva,

Spittle was commonly believed to have medicinal properties.

and smeared the clay on his eyes,

Literally, “anointed the clay on his eyes.”

and said to him, “Go wash in the Pool of Siloam” (which means Sent).

This was, perhaps, a test of faith (see 2 Kings 5:10-14). The pool was at the southern extremity of Jerusalem; water was brought from it for the libations of the Feast of Tabernacles.

There is an allegorical reference in pointing out the meaning of the name of Siloam: to be washed is to be baptized; when one is baptized, one is sent on mission.

So he went and washed, and came back able to see.

The essence of the sign for John is not simply that sight has been restored, but light is given to one who never had it.

His neighbors and those who had seen him earlier as a beggar said, “Isn’t this the one who used to sit and beg?” Some said, “It is,” but others said, “No, he just looks like him.” He said, “I am.” So they said to him, “How were your eyes opened?” He replied, “The man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes and told me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ So I went there and washed and was able to see.”

The formerly blind man’s initial testimony is merely a report of the events that occurred.

And they said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I don’t know.” They brought the one who was once blind to the Pharisees. Now Jesus had made clay and opened his eyes on a sabbath.

As is so often the case, the words and deeds of Jesus cause immediate dissension. The Pharisees are the arbiters of what is religiously proper; the dissension is communicated to them. Their complaint is against Jesus’ technical violation of the Sabbath.

So then the Pharisees also asked him how he was able to see. He said to them, “He put clay on my eyes, and I washed, and now I can see.” So some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, because he does not keep the sabbath.” But others said, “How can a sinful man do such signs?” And there was a division among them.

The Pharisees are divided over their opinion of the righteousness of one who would heal on the sabbath.

So they said to the blind man again, “What do you have to say about him, since he opened your eyes?” He said, “He is a prophet.”

Recognition of Jesus’ true identity is coming to the man born blind. When first asked, he replied simply, “that man they call Jesus.” Now, he calls him a prophet.

Now the Jews did not believe that he had been blind and gained his sight until they summoned the parents of the one who had gained his sight. They asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How does he now see?” His parents answered and said, “We know that this is our son and that he was born blind. We do not know how he sees now, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him, he is of age; he can speak for himself.” His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone acknowledged him as the Messiah, he would be expelled from the synagogue. For this reason his parents said, “He is of age; question him.”

The Jews had summoned the man’s parents to verify that he had indeed been born blind. While affirming the undeniable, the parents refuse to accord any kind of acclaim to Jesus lest they lose their standing in the religious community.

At the time that Jesus was working mighty signs as part of his public ministry, the Jews were not expelling other Jews from the synagogue for being followers of Jesus. However, by the time John was writing, this is exactly what was happening, perhaps even to some of John’s own readers. Those Jews who were expelled were put in terrible jeopardy because they were no longer exempt from emporer worship. It would have been a huge temptation to refrain from acknowledging Jesus’ divinity simply to avoid persecution and possible martyrdom.

 So a second time they called the man who had been blind and said to him, “Give God the praise!

A solemn appeal to tell the truth in its Old Testament form (see Joshua 7:19)

We know that this man is a sinner.”

If, as the man claims, Jesus has cured him, it can only be at the expense of having violated the Sabbath law, thereby constituting himself a sinner.

By retaining their legalistic understanding of Sabbath observance, the Pharisees choose to remain blind to Jesus’ identity.

He replied, “If he is a sinner, I do not know. One thing I do know is that I was blind and now I see.”

The man refuses to debate with the Jews on their own ground concerning what constitutes a sinful violation of the Sabbath. He testifies to the one thing that is undeniable.

So they said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples, too?”

The demands for repetition of the man’s story are a study in frustration. They are seeking to attack the story on some detail or another. The man is fully aware of their intentions and makes no attempt to be diplomatic. By his accent on the “too” he reminds the Jews of the unpleasant fact that Jesus is gathering disciples despite their efforts.

They ridiculed him and said, “You are that man’s disciple; we are disciples of Moses!

In their reply, the Jews, zealous for the Law according to their own conceptions, bring out the contrast (see John 1:17).

We know that God spoke to Moses, but we do not know where this one is from.”

Moses has spoken with God, but Jesus’ origins are unknown. The Christian knows his identity as the Son of God.

The man answered and said to them, “This is what is so amazing, that you do not know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if one is devout and does his will, he listens to him. It is unheard of that anyone ever opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he would not be able to do anything.”

The man becomes quite bold in his answers. Unlike his parents, he boldly proclaims that his cure is evidence that Jesus is from God.  The man has progressed from simply knowing the name of the one who cured him to professing that Jesus is a prophet, then to proclaiming that he comes from God.

This gives us an example of the Christian who must testify fearlessly to the truth. Invoking a common biblical theme (e.g., Proverbs 15:29) he proves with irrefutable logic that Jesus could be no sinner but must be from God. The only Old Testament cure from blindness is found in Tobit 11:7-13, but Tobit was not born blind.

They answered and said to him, “You were born totally in sin, and are you trying to teach us?” Then they threw him out.

The Pharisees echo the common belief that the disciples expressed at the beginning of the reading: they believe the man was born totally in sin because he was born blind.

The man pays the price for his confession of Jesus; he is expelled.

Again the Pharisees, in rejecting this man’s honest and truthful testimony, choose to remain blind.

When Jesus heard that they had thrown him out, he found him and said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?”

Having been rejected by the Pharisees, Jesus offers him the opportunity to make the ultimate act of faith.

Recall that the phrase “Son of Man” is an allusion to the figure in the book of Daniel who will come on the clouds of heaven to judge the nations (Daniel 7:13).

He answered and said, “Who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?”

The man does not ask about the meaning of “Son of Man,” he asks rather that Jesus point him out.

Jesus said to him, “You have seen him and the one speaking with you is he.”

In words reminiscent of last week’s gospel reading (the Samaritan woman at the well), Jesus points to himself.

He said, “I do believe, Lord,” and he worshiped him.

The final stage of the man’s conversion is his profession of faith – he now recognizes Jesus’ true identity and addresses him with the title of Christian faith.  He was brought from physical blindness to sight, and he also moves from spiritual blindness (darkness) to spiritual insight (light).

The man has moved from understanding that Jesus is “a prophet,” to understanding that he must be from God, to understanding that he is the Son of Man.

Then Jesus said, “I came into this world for judgment, so that those who do not see might see, and those who do see might become blind.”

The effect of the judgment brought about by Jesus’ call to faith is that many, like the Pharisees, falsely believing that they already possess the light, reject the revelation of God.

The spiritual journey of Pharisees is the opposite of the blind man, as described by Jesus.  Those who prided themselves for being disciples of Moses were blind to the truth that the newly cured man saw so clearly.  The one who was blind sees, and those who can see are blind.

Some of the Pharisees who were with him heard this and said to him, “Surely we are not also blind, are we?” 

The Pharisees correctly recognize that Jesus’ words apply to them. If only they realized the extent of their own blindness, there would be hope that they would seek for light. Instead, they are smugly complacent and reject an invitation to personal insight and conversion.

Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no sin; but now you are saying, ‘We see,’ so your sin remains.”

Jesus tells them that the attitude that has been behind all their misjudgments, the attitude that they already know everything and so have nothing to learn, has resulted in their remaining in sin.

The gospel invites us to be like the man born blind, who grows in his spiritual insight, rather than to be like the Pharisees, who refuse to grow. Will we accept the invitation?

Connections and Themes

As God sees.  Humans see and judge by appearances, but God looks into the heart and there finds the real person. David was the youngest son of a family of many sons. According to the custom of the time, he would have been the last person to be chosen as leader. However, as the Scriptures tell us so often, God’s ways are not our ways. God turns things upside down; God chooses the weak things of the world to confound the strong.

God saw in David, the insignificant shepherd, the potential for being king of his people. The man who was born blind became the one through whom others would see the mighty works of God. Note that neither young David nor the blind man made the initial step; each simply responded with openness to God’s choice of him.

The readings for this Sunday offer us an opportunity to look carefully at how we perceive others. Do our eyes perceive life in accord with the standards of a materialistic, image-oriented, pleasure-seeking society? Or do we look into the heart, as God does?

Does the community see?  The man in the gospel narrative was given his sight, and he believed. In fact, in this story, seeing is believing: sight stands for faith. There is a paradoxical shift here: the man who was blind is the one who has real sight; those who can see are blind to the power of God. Although this is a story of an individual, it is also a report of the faith of the community. The community of which the man was a member did not believe, so it did not see the deep meaning of his cure. It judged by appearances: someone must have sinned to cause this blindness. Even the apostles thought in this way until Jesus explained it was otherwise. This religious community had no idea that human weakness or vulnerability was the doorway through which the power of God would enter someone’s life.

This Lenten season invites the religious community to examine how it perceives reality. In what areas is our community of faith blind? Have we excluded people from membership because they do not seem to fit? Are we afraid of what we do not understand? Do we have inappropriate expectations? Are we unwilling to change our minds? Does our community of faith look beyond external appearances and perceive the inner reality?

Choose Christ.  As with the other scrutiny Sundays, catechumens and long-standing members alike are exhorted to make a choice. Jesus is the one who gives sight to blind eyes, who gives religious insight to those who are open to receive it. However, as Paul reminds us in the second reading, it is very clear there is a price one is called upon to pay. Not only must we put away the works of darkness — our blindness to the needs of others, our prejudices, our complacency — but we must be ready to suffer for our choice. We might lose status in the community, we might be ostracized. We must choose. Will it be the standards of the world or the power of God in Jesus Christ?

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