March 30 NOTES FOR REFLECTION Fourth Sunday in Lent
Texts: 1 Samuel 16:1-13; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41*
[Alternatively, The Lectionary offers a choice of readings for Mothering Sunday, as if anyone would seriously chose something other than these wonderful readings set for the Day. No disrespect to mothers, of course.]
Theme: I’m tempted to go with “Seeing is Believing”: an oldie but still a goodie. However, the grown-up inside me is pointing out that the whole thrust of these readings is that what we believe often prevents us from seeing clearly; so if you have a stroppy grown-up inside you it may be better to go with something a little more adult, like “Fifty Shades of Blindness”. Bartimaeus, and the guy in this week’s gospel passage, would encourage us to keep it simple. Something like from “Blindness to Sight” would fit the bill. Whatever you choose the gradual hymn/song should be “Open our eyes, Lord, we want to see Jesus”. (No. 532 in “Complete Anglican Hymns Old & New”, if that’s any help.)
Introduction. We start with a biblical version of American Idol, with one very reluctant judge, as Jesse’s sons are paraded before Samuel who has the unenviable task of trying to discern which one God has already chosen as the winner. The difficulty faced by Samuel is made all the greater because he has the very human habit of judging by appearances, whereas to be a real prophet he has to learn to look at the inner person. St Paul uses the concepts of darkness and light (blindness and sight) to exhort the new believers in the church at Ephesus to continue to walk in the light of Christ. Darkness, he says, is favoured by those who are intent on doing evil, but all will be exposed by the light of Christ. We finish with another of those wonderful narratives that form the first half of St John’s gospel, featuring a dramatic dialogue between Jesus and those who just don’t “get” him. This time (as in last week’s example) even his disciples struggle to get on his wavelength; but the real fun comes in the interchange between the man born blind but then healed and the Pharisees who were born sighted but just don’t want to see the obvious, giving rise to surely one of the great comedic gems in the Scriptures as the healed man becomes a clown of Shakespearean quality.
Background. Here’s a profound thought that came to me as I mused on my reaction to the Russian moves in Crimea. How I see the events that have enfolded there over the last few days, and how Vladimir Putin sees them, has nothing to do with my eyesight or his. In each case the way each of us sees those events depends far more on our nationality than our eyesight. Although I know that Argentina has a very strong claim to the Falklands/Malvinas, I supported the argument that the overwhelming wish of the residents of the islands to remain British should decide the matter. The same argument looks right to me in respect of Gibraltar. So if the large majority of the residents of Crimea wish to join leave the Ukraine and rejoin Russia...? Why does that look so bad to me? And then there’s the forthcoming referendum in Scotland. Should I see that as a similar case to the Falklands and Gibraltar, or should I stick that in the same basket as Crimea? (The expression “a point of view” is an interesting one in this sort of context, isn’t it?)
So one of the things that may affect our ability to see straight (there’s another interesting expression!) is our own cultural tradition and upbringing. Or do I mean our own personal prejudices and presumptions? Recently the ODT’s in-house cartoonist provoked a few letters to the editor by drawing two scruffy male youths covered in tattoos and body piercing, sharing their surprise that they never seem to have a successful outcome to a job interview. Sure enough, the letter-writers slammed the stereotyping, and insisted that young people should not be judged on their appearance, etc. But come on! What then are we to make of a young man, interviewed recently about his tattoos, clothes, and hairstyle (all highly fashionable and rather “out there”) who said, “This is how I choose to express myself – this is saying to the world, this is who I am”?
Samuel made the opposite mistake, or, more probably, two mistakes. First, his cultural expectation would be that the eldest son, the all-important first-born, would have seniority over his younger siblings – a sort of skewed version of primogeniture. If the winner is to be crowned king it would have to be the oldest one – a king can’t have older brothers, can he? Secondly, Samuel was confirmed in that instinctive choice by looking at the first-born, Eliab; he just looked the part! He apparently had the strength and bearing of a king. But the Lord told Samuel not to judge by appearances. (We must not reject anyone for tattoos and body piercings, or appoint someone who looks just the sort of person we had in mind.) And yet... when young David is brought in as a somewhat late entrant, what are we told about him? “Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes and was handsome”! [An awkward moment for the biblical literalists, perhaps; but presumably we are to understand that David’s outward appearance ‘happened to be very beautiful’, but that had no bearing on his choice as king.]
So we can fail to see properly for all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with physical blindness; and the gospel story this week should remind us as people of faith that one of the most dreadful forms of spiritual blindness occurs when we refuse to see something that conflicts with our present belief. Think of St Peter and his vision of the ‘unclean creatures’ in Acts 10: his “biblical understanding of the will/Law of God made it very difficult to “see” what God was now showing him. In this week’s gospel passage we have two groups of people who fail to see what has clearly taken place before them, even though the principal eye-witness (sorry, but I didn’t even try to resist that one) kept insisting that he had had his sight restored. I’ve commented before on the reaction of the crowds who witness the impossible tricks modern magicians like Dynamo perform in front of them. In this passage the crowds react in a very similar way. They try to find an “explanation”: it can’t be the same man, but one who looks like him. And when the guy insists that he is the same man, they demand to know “how the trick was done”.
The religious observers, on the other hand, started off by seeking to establish the facts: they made inquiries. But when they couldn’t shake the testimony of the man, supported in part by his nervous parents, they used theology, wrapped in issues of credentials and pedigree, to blind themselves to reality. God does not act through sinners; this man [Jesus] is a sinner, therefore, whatever has happened to you is not of God. But the man is not going to be defeated by any such head stuff: he knows what has happened and that is all that matters to him. St Paul had the opposite experience, of course, but it was just as convincing. When you’ve been blind, whether from birth or temporarily, and had your sight restored you know what has happened, and no amount of scientific or theological argument is going to convince you that it is impossible. As I said last week, experience trumps theology every time.
Samuel. There is an obvious reason for the choice of this passage in relation to the gospel, and, I think, a less obvious one. I have already touched on the obvious one. But now let’s think about Samuel for a moment. The Boy Wonder, Eli’s little helper, has grown up and become, what? A great Elder, a Prophet, a devoted servant of the Lord High God who called to him all those years ago before he had learned to recognise God’s voice? That is the Samuel of faith as presented to us in the Scriptures. But there is, of course, another way of looking at what is going on here. Again those familiar with Shakespeare might see in Samuel one of those Machiavellian characters skilled in the art of sniffing political winds and riding them to personal survival and advancement. Saul is clearly losing it, has been for some time now, and a lame-duck king is a risky one to follow too loyally. Thoughts turn to questions of succession. Who is best able to succeed, in both senses of the word? And whoever it is, wouldn’t he be most grateful to anyone who made it possible for him to ascend to the throne? Was Samuel in practice a highly skilled king-maker with nerves of steel? It all depends on our point of view, doesn’t it?
Taking It Personally.
- Are you inclined to judge by appearances? Can you recall an occasion when your first impression of someone proved subsequently to be wrong? How do you feel about the ODT cartoon? If you were interviewing a person for a position involving the giving advice on dietary matters, would you reject an applicant who was clearly obese? Or too thin?
- Focus on verses 2 and 3. Notice how God suggests a ruse (a cover story) designed to keep Saul from learning what Samuel is really up to. What do you think of that? Is such deception consonant with your understanding of the absolute holiness of God?
Ephesians. This is another reminder that the early Church had its struggles, even when the apostles were still on the job! Conversion is not a one-off event, but an ongoing process, with progress interrupted from time to time by slip-ups. St Paul constantly urges the new converts to stand firm and hold tight, all too aware of the ease with which they can slip back into old habits. Egypt never looks so bad in retrospect as it did at the time: the appeal of new life shines brightest when it is still but a distant hope. Reality can soon cause it to fade. When we are in darkness we may yearn for the light, but sometimes the light can reveal something about us we would rather not show! Darkness is the state preferred by evildoers, says St Paul; but in the light of Christ all stand fully revealed.
Taking It Personally.
· Darkness can also be an apt way of describing tough times in our lives, when everything seems to have gone wrong. Looking back, have you experienced a dark time of that kind? Who or what brought light back to you?
· Reflect on the need for light for virtually all forms of life; and yet life itself begins in darkness. What do you make of that? Life seems to be a journey from darkness to light in the physical world; is that how you have experienced it in your spiritual life?
· What would you say to a friend who is in a “dark place” at this time?
John. We shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to skip through the early verses of this passage – or cut them out of the reading because it’s too long. The teaching starts at the beginning at it says something about the disciples. They see a blind man who does not excite their compassion, but arouses their curiosity. For them he is not a person but a debating point. Jesus’ answer does not seem to help matters. But then Jesus attends to the man’s needs. He does so in a somewhat elaborate and drawn out process. I wonder if much of this is for the disciples’ sake rather than the man’s: after all he couldn’t see what Jesus was doing. I’ve already commented on the reaction of the crowds, the nervousness of his parents, and the wonderful exchanges between the man and his “religious superiors”. The man grows in confidence as the dialogue develops, but for me the classic moment comes with that simple, incontrovertible statement in verse 25b: “One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” The one who was physically blind becomes the one who tries to bring sight to those who are spiritually blind. Verses 35-41 are a wonderful little addendum, a reminder that spiritual experience can lead to theological understanding. From “I do not know whether he is a sinner” (verse 25a), he now comes into a full belief in who Jesus is (verse 38). The miracle of physical sight has led to the even greater miracle of spiritual sight.
Taking It Personally.
· Read through this passage slowly, prayerfully, over and over again. Let the story carry you along the same path the man travelled.
· Give thanks for the gift of physical sight. Pray for an ever greater gift of spiritual sight.
· Imagine meeting this man. What would you most like to ask him about the whole experience, and why?