Lectionary commentary: fourth Sunday of Lent, year A
A reading from the first book of Samuel, 16:1.6-7. 10-13
Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 23. R/. v.1
A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians, 5:8-14
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John, 9:1-41
The General Introduction to the Lectionary lays down the principles that govern the selection of readings, both for Sundays and Weekdays. With regard to the selection of texts for Sundays and “the solemnities of the Lord” (that is, for major feast days such as Christmas Day or Ascension that do not regularly fall on Sundays) the Introduction has this to say:
Sundays and the solemnities of the Lord present the more important biblical passages. In this way the more significant parts of God’s revealed word can be read to the assembly of the faithful within a reasonable period of time. § 65
There are, as we know, three readings on Sundays. They have been selected to exhibit harmony between Old and New Testament readings:
This is the case when the teaching and events recounted in texts of the New Testament bear a more or less explicit relationship to the teaching and events of the Old Testament. The present Order of Readings selects Old Testament texts mainly because of their correlation with New Testament texts read in the same Mass, and particularly with the gospel texts. §67
However, the principles that govern selection of readings are quite flexible:
Harmony of another kind exists between texts of the readings for each Mass during Advent, Lent,, and Easter, the seasons that have a distinctive importance or character. §67
The reading for Sundays in Lent are selected to underline that Lent is a time when catechetical programmes of Christian initiation are commonplace in parishes and when there are catechumens under instruction. So the selection of Gospel readings are sensitive to those initiatives. The Introduction underlines the special concerns that are peculiar to Lent:
The Old Testament readings are about the history of salvation, which is one of the themes proper to the catechesis of Lent. The series of texts for each Year presents the main elements of salvation history from its beginning until the promise of the New Covenant.
The readings from the letters of the apostles have been selected to fit the gospel and the Old Testament readings and, to the extent possible, to provide a connection between them §97
It is, therefore, incumbent on the preacher, and indeed on catechists, to awaken congregations and catechumens to the biblical readings that are intended to achieve what the Introduction demands. Nor should the Responsorial Psalm be ignored in the catechetical thrust of each Sunday’s readings.
Today then it is incumbent on all commentators discover the elements of salvation history that bind the First Book of Samuel, Psalm 23, a reading from the Letter to the Ephesians, and a very long and magnificent account of a man born blind. Is there a theme running through these texts? And if so, what is it?
A reading from the first book of Samuel 16:1. 6-7. 10-13
The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go. I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons. When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is before him.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.
And Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel. And Samuel said to Jesse, “The Lord has not chosen these.” Then Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but behold, he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and get him, for we will not sit down till he comes here.” And he sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome. And the Lord said, “Arise, anoint him, for this is he.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the midst of his brothers. And the Spirit of the Lord rushed upon David from that day forward.
The word of the Lord.
Name of God
The Lectionary does no favours to preachers, catechists, or commentators by omitting the first sentence on chapter 16 (though it protests that the lesson begins with the first verse. It doesn’t.) I have retained the sentence omitted:
The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel?
I Samuel 16:1
There is a stress throughout the readings (excluding Psalm 23) on an unwillingness to discover what the Lord requires and where human expectations stymie the will of God. The Lord God has been mentor and teacher of Samuel since his birth. His mother is introduced in the first chaper of the book with sad words: she had no children. Her child is an answer to prayer:
… in due time Hannah conceived and bore a son, and she called his name Samuel, for she said, “I have asked for him from the Lord”. I Samuel 1:20
The name Samuel means “Name of God”. His destiny was to be a prophet before all the people, that is, he was to be regarded by the whole congregation of Israel as the voice of God. That is what the word “prophet” implies.
But his nature was self-opinionated, self-serving, and given to believing that what he wanted happened to be what God willed. So when he realised that his authority would be diminished if, as the people demanded, he were to appoint a king over Israel, he refused. To be sure, all his reasons were paraded as God’s will. But was he protecting the authority of his own career? Was he assuming that God’s will was as he wished it to be? The will of God prevailed:
But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.” And when Samuel had heard all the words of the people, he repeated them in the ears of the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, “Obey their voice and make them a king”.
I Samuel 8:19-22
When King Saul turned out to be something of a failure, Samuel was left carrying the can:
Then Samuel went to Ramah, and Saul went up to his house in Gibeah of Saul. And Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel.
The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel.
I Samuel 15:34 to 16:1
There is a theme running through the story of Samuel. It emerges again in today’s reading:
When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord's anointed is before him.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. I Samuel 16:6-7
What is a stake in the appointment of David as king is that the will of God will prevail even when authoritative voices claim exclusive understanding of the mind of God and to be, God help us, interpreters of God’s will. It is always a challenge to identify the light and shun darkness.
Responsorial Psalm, Psalm 23. R/. v.1
R/. The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul. R/.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name's sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me. R/.
You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows. R/.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. R/.
In order to understand Psalm 23 it is essential to pray, as Jesus did, Psalm 22:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from saving me,
from the words of my groaning?
It was the prayer of Jesus on the cross, according to the Gospels of Mark and Matthew. It is a prayer of dereliction, of abandonment, a prayer of darkness. But that darkness is, by the prayer’s end, turned into light. For even in darkness enlightenment and deliverance into light is ever at hand. God, the light of the world, will not be gainsaid:
All the ends of the earth shall remember
and turn to the Lord,
and all the families of the nations
shall worship before you.
For kingship belongs to the Lord,
and he rules over the nations.
There is a claim by Jesus of Nazareth:
As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.
Therefore, with the Good Shepherd walking with his flock, we may join in the song:
The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want,
And be sure that,
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters.
He restores my soul.
Certainly, it is a song the man born blind will sing for many a day.
A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Ephesians, 5:8-14
At one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord. Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says,
“Awake, O sleeper,
and arise from the dead,
and Christ will shine on you.”
The word of the Lord.
Pity the poor commentator who must hope that everyone will remember the very next lines following today’s excerpt from the letter to Ephesian Christians:
Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Therefore do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is.
That is the conclusion Paul draws from his assertion that his Ephesian Christians must walk as children of the light. At one time in darkness, they are now children of light. The sons of darkness are fingered by the one who gives light:
Some of the Pharisees near him heard these things, and said to him, “Are we also blind?”
Jesus said to them,
“If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains”.
The imagery of light and darkness is used effectively in Ephesians to underline a contrast between those who live in the light and those who walk in darkness:
Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart.
Therefore do not become partners with them; for at one time your were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord.
Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them.
The deepest darkness is death. But darkness does not prevail:
Christ will shine on you.
A reading from the holy Gospel according to John, 9:1-41
As he passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” Having said these things, he spit on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he anointed the man's eyes with the mud and said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). So he went and washed and came back seeing.
The neighbours and those who had seen him before as a beggar were saying, “Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?” Some said, “It is he.” Others said, “No, but he is like him.” He kept saying, “I am the man.” So they said to him, “Then how were your eyes opened?” He answered, “The man called Jesus made mud and anointed my eyes and said to me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash. ’ So I went and washed and received my sight.” They said to him, “Where is he?” He said, “I do not know.”
They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a Sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes. So the Pharisees again asked him how he had received his sight. And he said to them, “He put mud on my eyes, and I washed, and I see.” Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner do such signs?” And there was a division among them. So they said again to the blind man, “What do you say about him, since he has opened your eyes?” He said, “He is a prophet.”
The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight, until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, “Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?” His parents answered, “We know that this is our son and that he was born blind. But how he now sees we do not know, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.” (His parents said these things because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone should confess Jesus to be Christ, he was to be put out of the synagogue.) Therefore his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”
So for the second time they called the man who had been blind and said to him, “Give glory to God. We know that this man is a sinner.” He answered, “Whether he is a sinner I do not know. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” And they reviled him, saying, “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.” The man answered, “Why, this is an amazing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” They answered him, “You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?” And they cast him out.
Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” He answered, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you.” He said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshipped him. Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” Some of the Pharisees near him heard these things, and said to him, “Are we also blind?” Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains.
The Gospel of the Lord.
True grit. That describes the blind man in this story. But we must realise that the story does not begin with the man born blind. It begins with the man who openly revealed in the great Temple in Jerusalem who he was:
I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.
There is a recurring pattern in John’s Gospel. A matter of dispute is raised and Jesus explains his God-given understanding of the issue. The discussion is then followed by an event that establishes that the claims that Jesus makes have their origin in God and come from the Father. Thus in chapter 3 he discusses with Nicodemus the importance of truth before God:
But whoever does what is true comes to the light so that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been carried out in God.
In the following chapter he meets a woman who speaks the truth and she discovers who Jesus is and becomes an apostle of what she has come to know. As we shall see, in chapter 10 Jesus discusses eternal life. In chapter 11 he raises Lazarus from death, a sign of the destiny of humanity.
So it is important to read chapter 8 in order to understand what is going on in chapter 9. In a very angry chapter, where the exchanges are bitter, notice that the chapter ends with the same revelation made to the woman at the well:
Amen, Amen, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.
At this word of Jesus,
the Judeans picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the Temple.
Blind from birth...
Chapter 9 begins with an abrupt “And”, joining what follows with what has gone before in the previous chapter. So chapter 9 is really the final word of Jesus to the insulting words (some of them belonging to Jesus) that make chapter 8 one to be read with a heavy heart. As Jesus made his way he saw a man blind from birth. It is worth noticing that it is Jesus who “saw” the man, for “seeing” and “not seeing” is what the chapter is about. It is his disciples who are concerned to determine what caused the man’s blindness. They assumed that the man was afflicted because of sin. Was it the man’s sins or those of his parents that caused God to bring the child into the world with sightless eyes? Our minds might stretch to understanding that God might punish an adult given to sin. But a child, a newborn baby?
The Old Testament Book of Job is a very fitting read in Lent. In this imaginary drama an angel of God afflicts the holy and wise man Job. With God’s permission his life is shattered by the loss of his wife, children, and possessions. He is afflicted with sores and ends up, as the saying goes, sitting on a dunghill. This was his reply to the misery God had imposed upon him:
Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshipped. And he said, “Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrong.
Ever since readers have asked the same question: Why do bad things happen to good people?
There are those who would rush to the Bible, those misguided people who think the Bible offers answers to every human dilemma. There they will turn triumphantly to the Book of Exodus:
I the Lord your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.
But Jesus constantly healed those afflicted with illnesses of every kind and waged a war against Satan who, in the belief of his contemporaries, caused human suffering. Jesus even healed on the Sabbath Day, not only to end human misery but to let everyone know that God does not have a day off.
In chapter 9 of John Jesus does not explain the cause of the man’s blindness. Rather he denies that the blindness was caused by the man’s or his parent’s sins. What Jesus claims is that there was a divine purpose that brought him to meet with this man in the precincts of the Temple in Jerusalem. Jewish understanding of God’s power made it impossible to imagine that anything can be outside God’s control. Therefore, whatever happens can be adopted by God and used for God’s purposes. The plight of the blind man can serve God’s purposes. Jesus is in the world to work the works of God, the works “of him who sent me”.
Works of God
Everyone knows that Jesus performed miracles. But the Greek word that is used almost everywhere in the New Testament to describe what Jesus did is dunamis, meaning “a work of power”. The Greek word is the word we know as dynamite, which is very powerful stuff. The word dunamis is used throughout in the letters of Paul, in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, in the Acts of the Apostles, and in the Letter to Hebrew Christians. But not in John’s Gospel.
The account of the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee concluded with this sentence:
This, the first of his signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory. And his disciples believed in him.
There are three things to notice. First, the changing of water into wine is called a sign, not a miracle. The Greek word is sēmeion (sign), one of the most important words in John’s Gospel. The word means a signal, a pointer, an indicator. A mark on a soldier’s shield to identify which side he was on was a sēmeion. A sign in the Bible does not necessarily indicate a miracle. For example,
Behold, I and the children whom the Lord has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion.
Isaiah and his children were a sign of God’s future. His predictions that the Assyrians would come down like a wolf on the fold were eventually fulfilled. Signs in the writings of the prophets were not always miraculous but they did indicate God’s will and reveal God’s glory. They are the prophetical words that indicate that the future belongs to God and that God’s will must be done. It is in this sense that throughout the Gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke, opponents of Jesus seek from him a sign, some kind of spectacular event to verify that what Jesus does comes from God. This Jesus always refuses to do.
However in John’s Gospel signs, whether a miraculous event of not, are indications of the present reality of Jesus and his ministry. For John the signs are the work of God in the present, in the here-and-now. The signs indicate what God is doing in this world now. Jesus himself is the sign of God’s presence, now and in the future. Or, to put it another way, all the work that Jesus does is the work of God. Everything in John’s Gospel is a sign. The Presence of God in Jesus is not a promise of realities to come. It is a Presence now, the very Presence that will welcomes and guides all humanity into the future. The call that Jesus makes upon those who come to faith in him is to proclaim that Presence in the world and to assure human beings that they are safe in God’s hands. That is the work that those who follow him are commissioned to do:
We must work the works of him who sent us as long as we are in the world.
Consider what Jesus says to his disciples by way of a reply to their question about whose sin caused the infant to be blind. Jesus says:
It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.
God does not cause the hurts of the world. But in giving Jesus to our world God offers the world a healing remedy for its ills. There is a divine alternative that offers divine justice and divine peace. Not only that, but God through Jesus creates a community of healers who must confront the pain of humanity with love, gentleness, and, above all, understanding. Notice the plural: we. The nature of the Church and of all the tiny churches that make up the Church must be nothing other than proclaimers of God’s justice and God’s peace. When he had washed the feet of his disciples, Jesus explains what he has done:
For I have given to you an example in order that, as I have done to you, you may do also. Amen, Amen, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor one who is sent greater than the one who sends him.
John 13: 15-16 (my translation)
There is no better description of what the Church is than that to be found in the prayer that Jesus prays to his Father for those whose feet he has washed:
They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.
The truth of what the followers of Jesus must be is to be found in the story of that man born blind. The beggar man is enlightened by the mercy of God-in-Jesus. He receives his sight as a sign of his enlightenment. He is empowered to come to the truth about Jesus, to confirm the words of Jesus:
As long as I am in the world,
I am the light of the world.
The account of the healing is masterly in its simplicity. Having announced that his mission to humanity is to be a light in the world’s darkness, Jesus gives light to the eyes of the man born blind:
Having said these things, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva. Then he anointed the man's eyes with the mud and said to him, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (which means Sent). So he went and he washed and came back seeing.
The Beggar's Tale
Starting with the neighbours, we learn the fate to which the
blind man was reduced, begging at the city’s gates. When he came to his neighbours, they refused to believe that he had received his sight. But he insisted: I am the man. He repeats what the unknown Jesus told him to do and that he obeyed:
I went and I washed and I saw.
The story at this point turns into an unravelling of the identity of the man who found the blind man at the gate. The people ask where the healer is but the man has to admit:
I do not know.
The rest of the story is about undoing this new blindness.
The Big Fact is this: I was blind and now I see.
The Big Question is: How do you explain this?
From blindness to Light
The neighbours: Where is this man?
The man: I don’t know.
Some Pharisees: This man is not from God.
Other Pharisees: How can a sinner do such things?
The man: He is a prophet.The Jews: Is this your son?
His parents: Ask him. He’s of age.
The Jews: This man is a sinner.
The Man: If this man were not from God...
Jesus: Do you believe in the Son of Man?
The Man: Who is he, that I may believe?
Jesus: You have seen him,and it is he who is speaking to you
The Man: Lord, I believe...
AND HE WORSHIPPED HIM.
The man born blind has been given sight and insight. He has come to that faith in the one who has become his Lord. He has come from being a blind beggar to Christian faith that pours out in worship.
The story is a mirror image of that of the woman at the well. Careful inquiry, honest and diligent questioning, these are not the enemies of faith. These are the solid ground on which faith is founded. The man born blind is our model. Jesus finds us. By listening to his word, we learn how the world can be transformed into God’s likeness. We become proclaimers of what has happened and is happening to us. Enlightened, we teach the world to see.
Pope Francis has an understanding of the Church we are mean to be:
The Church is called to be the house of the Father, with doors always wide open. One concrete sign of such openness is that our church doors should always be open, so that if someone, moved by the Spirit, comes there looking for God, he or she will not find a closed door. There are other doors that should not be closed either. Everyone can share in some way in the life of the Church; everyone can be part of the community, nor should the doors of the sacraments be closed for simply any reason. This is especially true of the sacrament that is itself “the door”: baptism. The Eucharist, although it is the fullness of sacramental life, is not a prize for the perfect but a powerful medicine and nourishment for the weak. These convictions have pastoral consequences that we are called to consider with prudence and boldness. Frequently, we act as arbiters of grace rather than its facilitators. But the Church is not a tollhouse; it is then house of the Father, where there is a place for everyone, with all their problems.
- Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, §47
It is, of course, Jesus who is behind all this door business:
I AM THE DOOR
And so it is that in chapter 10 Jesus declares that he is the door. He is the door in chapter 9 through which the blind man walks into light, and he is the door in chapter 11 through which Lazarus emerges into life.
Dr. Joseph O’Hanlon.