Fourth Sunday of Lent
March 30, 2014
One of the striking things about the Bible is its wealth of images, many of which have worked their way into our ordinary language and literature. The readings for this Sunday contain two such images, one of the "shepherd" and the other of "light." Both invite our reflection in the course of this season of Lent.
The First Reading and the Psalm response lift up the image of "Shepherd" - an image favored by the biblical peoples because, first of all, they knew a thing or two about sheep! Ancient Israel was an agrarian people and sheep were one of their most important animals - providing wool for their clothing and tents, milk, and meat for nourishment. Perhaps the most well-known shepherd for the Israelites was none other than King David, the "Shepherd King."
In today's first reading from the first book of Samuel we hear about the selection of David as the future king, as the reigning King Saul - the first of Israel's monarchs - has begun his long slide into insanity and a tragic death. Samuel is sent by the Lord to Bethlehem to select the future king from among the sons of Jesse. Jesse dutifully trots out his various sons - all seven of them - for inspection by the prophet but the Lord rejects all of them! Somewhat desperate, Samuel asks if Jesse has any sons left...
The story enticingly builds up to the arrival of David. He is the youngest and was out tending the sheep, so Jesse had failed to line him up as a candidate. But when David comes in from the pasture, he is described as "ruddy, a youth handsome to behold and making a splendid appearance." Then the Lord declares: "There - anoint him, for this is the one!" So Samuel the prophet does anoint him and as the account concludes: "from that day on, the spirit of the Lord rushed upon David."
This lovely story captures the Bible's love affair with David the King. Despite his later serious public failing - getting rid of Uriah in order to steal his wife Bathsheba - the Bible idealized David as the "shepherd" of Israel, the one who would protect the people and bring glory to Israel, the founder of Jerusalem and the one who brought the Ark of the Covenant to the sacred city. This is why the New Testament views Jesus as the successor - and more than a successor - to David. Jesus the Christos, i.e., the "anointed" one, would be filled with God's Spirit as well and would bring the possibility of peace and abundant life that the reign of David promised but could not fulfill.
The selection from Psalm 23 - one of the most beautiful psalms of the Bible - praises God as the "shepherd" who protects and cares for his people, leading them through the dark valley into green pastures and refreshing the soul. This is a psalm often read at funerals as a prayer of comfort, but it also fits into the spirit of Lent when we think of the power of Christ bringing us through death to new life.
The Gospel selection from chapter nine of John's Gospel turns us to the image of light. This is one of the longest and most well-known healing stories in John's Gospel. It is as much a story about the "blindness" of Jesus' opponents as it is about the healing of the "man born blind." In typical fashion, John tells this miracle story - or "sign" as John refers to such acts of Jesus - to highlight Jesus as "the light of the world." Jesus brings life, light and healing to those in need.
The healing itself is quickly narrated: Jesus makes some clay with his spittle (a healing technique used in the ancient world - the spittle of healers was considered to have special power) and tells the man to wash his eyes in the Pool of Siloam (by the way, the main water supply of the City of David - a subtle link to our first reading...). He does what Jesus asks and his eyes are opened. The man born blind is able to see clearly after he encounters Jesus but the Pharisees fail to "see" at all. They consider Jesus "sinful" and refuse to believe he could have the power to heal. They also take offense that a miserable beggar, who they also consider a "sinner" because he has apparently been punished by God through his blindness, would dare to instruct them.
The remarkable part of this story is that the leaders seem to intensify their refusal to believe in Jesus. The story continues to develop while the man who was healed moves from declaring Jesus to be a "prophet," to a deeper conviction that "he is from God," and then to full faith in Jesus: "'I do believe, Lord' and he worshiped him." As the story concludes Jesus himself drives this paradoxical lesson home: "I came into this world...so that those who do not see might see, and those who do see might become blind."
The second reading from the Letter to the Ephesians is almost like a commentary on this Gospel story. We are urged to "live as children of light" and to avoid the "works of darkness." There is perennial wisdom here - shameful and sinful things are often done "in secret" less we be exposed. How many accounts do we hear each day of wrongdoing that has been buried in secret only to be exposed to the shame and ruin of the perpetrator. That should not be our way of life, the author of Ephesians reminds us. The selection closes with what is probably a quotation from perhaps an ancient Christian hymn: "Awake, O Sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light."
At the Easter Vigil, the newly baptized and the congregation will lift up burning candles and give praise for Christ our light. Combined with the image of God as loving and protecting Shepherd, the image of light reveals God as loving and protecting us, dispelling the darkness and opening our eyes to the beauty of God's creation and the overwhelming beauty of our destiny with God in full joy. We are called to truly be "children of light."
Donald Senior, CP
Professor of New Testament Studies
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