Sunday March 26, 2017 Te Rātapu Tuawhā o Rēneti/ Fourth Sunday in Lent
The healing of the man born blind
I am the light of the world (John 9:5)
God of healing and sight,
we long to see with eyes of faith.
Heal all that blinds us,
renew our vision,
and grant us to see afresh all that you are doing;
in the healing presence of the Holy Spirit
and through Jesus Christ our Saviour,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and forever. Amen.
1 Samuel 16:1-13
Although its author could not have known it, the dramatic story of the Lord’s election of David, and his anointing by the prophet Samuel, points forward to the story of the healing of the man born blind in the fourth gospel.
The two stories bear witness to a truth that should be at the heart of the church’s soul-searching during the season of Lent: humans look on outward appearances, but the Lord looks into the heart.
The Lord does not see as we see. His ways are above and beyond ours (Isaiah 55:6-11), and we are to submit willingly to the healing and transforming work of the Holy Spirit, so that we may be changed from glory into glory until we are united with Christ (2 Corinthians 3:1-18), and see the truth of things as the Lord sees.
The interwoven narratives of the rejection of Israel’s first king, Saul, and the rise of the Lord’s chosen, David, are perhaps the most vividly human in all of Scripture.
These narratives are the closest Scripture comes to genuine tragedy. If we are reading faithfully our sympathy will be provoked for Saul, even though we know the Lord has rejected him.
On the other hand, our indignation will be provoked against Samuel, even though we know he is the Lord’s prophet and the means by which David will be anointed.
Our moral outrage will at times be stirred against David too, even though we know he is the Lord’s chosen.
Such are the strange ways of the Lord, that He chooses sinners to bring about his redemption, sinners like David, and like you and me.
This is not an easy story, especially when we widen the angle to look at the whole narrative.
As the curtain rises, Samuel is grieving that the Lord has rejected Saul, a king the Lord allowed Israel to have partly at the expense of Samuel himself (1 Samuel 8:4-22).
The Lord has rejected Saul for not fulfilling to the letter the command to butcher the Amalekites (1 Samuel 15:1-35), a command that to our eyes surely looks like nothing so much as an incitement to genocide.
Samuel has just remedied the situation by hewing the Amalekite king Agag in pieces before the Lord in Gilgal.
Now the Lord charges him to go on a mission that will put his life in danger (1 Samuel 16:2), and Samuel must trust that to discharge that mission will be to do the Lord’s will, even though he does not know who precisely it is that he must anoint, or that he will be safe.
This is a story, amongst other things, of obedience to the Lord under extreme duress, and of trust in his mysterious will.
For Samuel, trusting in God’s mysterious will mean learning to see with the Lord’s eyes and not his own. In human terms, Jesse’s eldest son looks the part of a king, just as Saul once did (1 Samuel 9:2; 16:6).
But “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Samuel 16:7). This is very much in tune with the overall scriptural understanding of what it means to be human before God: it is the heart that matters, the very heart that must respond to the Lord in unalloyed obedience (Deuteronomy 6:5), and which is the organ that is supposed to understand the voice of the Lord that brings healing (Isaiah 6:9-10).
So the Lord looks on David’s heart, and finds it amenable to His will, long before his lust and selfishness cause the wholesale moral collapse of his household (2 Samuel 11-20).
David is the least likely of Jesse’s sons, because he is the youngest, and does not look the part of a king (1 Samuel 16:12). Again, this bears witness to the inscrutable will of the Lord, whose mysterious choice of the younger son Abel (Genesis 4:1-16) sets the scriptural narrative in motion, and whose choice of servants to do his will runs against the grain of what humans would expect (Joseph, Moses, Jeremiah), and which often lands on those who play their part in the story of redemption in spite of their sins (Judah, Joseph’s other brothers, David, Solomon). Rumours of redemption blossom in the most sinful of souls.
Samuel must trust in the Lord, and then so must David. For when the Spirit of the Lord rushes on him (1 Samuel 16:13) and Samuel disappears, he must carry the burden of being the Lord’s chosen alone, pursued by a king descending like Lear into madness, a king who desires David’s death.
We do not know whether it was David who penned Psalm 23, or even if that is what the traditional superscription—“a Psalm of [by, for, belonging or pertaining to] David”—actually meant.
What we do know is that it was an ancient Jewish convention that associated psalms with David, just as law was associated with Moses and proverbial wisdom with Solomon. We also know that this, the only psalm in the Bible that reflects total trust in the Lord, fits the circumstances of David’s story.
About a third of the psalms contain a strong note of protest against the psalmist’s situation, and a demand that the Lord accept his responsibility as Lord and do something about it.
This is a common pattern for how the Lord’s people relate to their God in the Old Testament, beginning with the deliverance from Egypt promised in Exodus 3:1-15.
But this psalm does not follow this pattern. It is not a psalm of complaint or lament. It is purely a psalm of trust and confidence.
And unlike a surface reading would suggest of psalms that praise the Lord without recognising how hard it is to do that in a world of pain, suffering, and sin (see, for example, the wholehearted joy and confidence of Psalm 104, or of Psalm 150), this psalmist knows what trouble means: “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me” (Psalm 23:4). The Lord’s presence is a source of “comfort” even though the psalmist is surrounded by “enemies” (Psalm 23:5) who threaten his life.
Each of us is confronted by our own trials, which will be very different from those of this psalmist. Such, though, is the richness of scripture that this ancient psalm, written by someone whose troubles we cannot imagine and who could not have imagined ours, can speak authentically to and for us as well.
This psalm speaks of the comfort of the Lord’s presence, picturing the Lord as a shepherd lovingly guiding and caring for his sheep, a common metaphor for kingship in the ancient Near East, and also for the God of Israel in his redemptive work (Psalm 78:52-55; 80:1; 95:7). He is also portrayed as the host of a sumptuous banquet. There are many things that could be said about these beautiful and haunting images, but I would like to suggest only one.
One of the hardest things about being a Christian is living through the most difficult of times, when not only does everything seem to be going terribly wrong, but even God seems to have fled.
In those moments it is most important that someone in grave danger has prayed words on our behalf that we do not have the strength to pray for ourselves.
Moreover, someone else’s trust in God can bear witness to the truth that God is there, even though we ourselves cannot sense his presence at all. There may be only one set of footprints in the sand, but we are being carried nonetheless.
The dualistic language of light and darkness is most familiar in the New Testament from the gospel and epistles of John, and shines through today’s gospel. This sort of language was well known in the Judaism of Jesus' time, and is particularly associated with the community that preserved the scrolls of Qumran, who called themselves the “Sons of Light.”
But we also find it in the Epistle to the Ephesians, traditionally attributed to Saint Paul.
Here we hear not only about Jesus Christ as the light of the world, who shines through the world’s darkness, but about who we are as children of the light who belong to this Lord.
We hear who we are, and also how we are to live. Our lives must so shine with the light of Christ that the world will see we are his disciples.
Lent is, of course, a season of self-examination, and as persons together in the communion of the church we now look at our lives with careful discernment. That does not mean passing premature judgement on ourselves or on others in our eagerness to be found righteous, but sifting as honestly as we are able the true moral wheat from the false immoral chaff of our lives. We need to do that trusting in a God not only of judgement but of grace: “for the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true” (Ephesians 5:9).
The long narrative of the healing of the man born blind illustrates the same ancient theme we have heard in the previous readings: there is a radical difference between how the Lord looks on us, and how we look on one another.
The healing and salvation of the blind man also bears witness to the important theme in this gospel that Jesus is the light of the world, who shines in the darkness of this world of sin (John 1:1-18; 8:12-20).
The story opens with the disciples asking a question. That question betrays their lack of true discernment and godly insight, but also leaves an opening for Jesus to tell them the truth.
This has very strong echoes of similar passages in the Gospel of Mark, and it is quite possible that we are supposed to read the fourth gospel as a theological exposition of that more straightforward and accessible gospel.
In Mark, Jesus heals a man in Bethsaida in Galilee by putting saliva on his eyes and laying hands on him (Mark 8:22-26). Later, when he and his disciples come through Jericho en route to Jerusalem, Jesus heals the blindness of Bar Timaeus, who cries the truly Christian prayer: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Mark 10:46-51).
In between, Jesus makes known his identity and fate to his disciples, but they fail to understand: “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Mark 8:33).
Here, too, the disciples fail to understand: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2).
Their question may be wrong-headed, but it is not foolish, and we should not rush to condemn the disciples too quickly.
Both the idea that sickness and infirmity are the outcome of sin, and the belief that the unhealed sins of one generation would be inherited by the next, were very much at home in the thought-world that lies behind this gospel, both can be found in the Old Testament, and we should not assume too quickly that they are false.
The disciples get two things wrong, however.
First, a little bit like Job’s friends, they reason backwards from the man’s blindness to infer an unresolved sin (leaving aside the question of how his sin could have retrospectively enabled him to be born blind).
Second, they assume that they have the right to stand in judgement over the man and his parents, even to the extent of assuming that this poor man’s only purpose in life was to serve as a warning to other people about the perils of sin.
They cannot see (that is, they are blind to the fact) that he has been touched by God so that the glory of God might shine through his healing.
This is also a narrative about the cost of witnessing to the truth about Jesus, albeit expressed in such a way that this theological treasure of a gospel would become easy fodder for the toxic Christian sin of anti-semitism: “His parents … were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Him [i.e., Jesus] to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue” (John 9:22).
Later, the Pharisees do not confess Jesus, because of the same fear, “that they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved human glory more than the glory that comes from God” (John 12:42-43).
This love of human glory rather than the glory of God is somehow tangled up with the inability to see the truth about Jesus, to which his signs and wonders bear witness.
Like the other gospels, this is understood to be the meaning behind the ancient prophecy of Isaiah quoted in John 12:38-40: “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, so that they might not look with their eyes, and understand with their heart and turn—and I would heal them” (cf. Isaiah 6:9-10).
It is a strange thing that, unlike Bar Timaeus, we are so often afraid of the healing we need and that Jesus promises us, and we can even be so stubborn as to reject it when it is placed before us as Christ’s gift.
Not so with the man who was born blind. In spite of the danger confronting him, the man who has received his physical sight from Jesus receives his spiritual sight, too, and confesses his faith in Jesus: “Lord, I believe” (John 9:38). He has the courage of Samuel, Elijah, Jeremiah, and the Apostles, to bear witness to the Lord under the most severe duress.
This is also a narrative about the dangerous seduction of orthodoxy. To be sure, we are to believe rightly, and are not at liberty to make up our beliefs as we go along, or abandon inherited beliefs just because we now, for some reason, find them uncomfortable. We must, though, discern rightly what it is we must believe.
There is comfort and even a sense of beauty in religious certainty, and in the policing not only of the physical boundaries of the community of faith (here called “the synagogue”), but of the minds of those who belong to it.
But in this narrative, that is the world of the Pharisees. It is also at first the world of the disciples, whose understanding of the man born blind is nothing if not orthodox.
The man fits into a predictable pattern that has every appearance of being the true nature of things. It is that falsehood, a falsehood that has every appearance of being the truth, that Jesus comes to trouble and overturn.
Scripture confronts us, then, with the deepest of challenges:
Do we love human glory, more than the glory of the Lord?
Are we in love with familiar truths that conceal an underlying falsehood that is working its satanic poison in the family of faith?
Deeper still, are we ready to surrender to the work of the Holy Spirit and learn to see as the Lord sees, to have our hearts strangely warmed so that we can hear scripture speaking of Jesus (Luke 24:32, 44-45), and see the world around us as it truly is, pregnant with the presence of a hidden but holy God?
Rev Dr James Harding is Senior Lecturer in Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies at the University of Otago and an Anglican priest in the Diocese of Dunedin.