Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Fourth Sunday in Lent Year A

Fourth Sunday in Lent A

I Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm, 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Certain themes are under continuous reinterpretation in the Hebrew scriptures. In what is now called I Samuel, the editor re-tells founding acts of God, compiling varying accounts despite their variations. Here it is made clear that God acts not where or through whom conventional assumptions might expect. A shepherd is chosen and anointed, although in such a way as not to be readily recognized. God's favor can be seen throughout the story of his subsequent life.

Psalm 23 testifies to protection, safety, abundance, consolation and personal intimacy with the One who provides all. The pastoral metaphor of a shepherd and his sheep carries all these meanings convincingly.

The use of light/darkness motif in Ephesians was common in late Jewish writings as well as competing, near-by religions.

John is addressing an issue of immediate concern: the relationship between Jewish tradition and new claims made by followers of Christ. He tells a story of a man blind from birth whom Jesus heals. Against traditional teachings and customs and going against his parents, the healed man pleads ignorance about the issues they raise and testifies to the only certainty he personally knows: he was blind all his life and now he sees. A ritual washing (baptism?) is a necessary step in his healing.

Any preacher today cannot responsibly be unaware of the tragic interpretation of this and many other texts from John's gospel to justify anti-Semitism throughout the history of the Church.  (Raymond Brown notes that Augustine, John Chrysostom, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther "made statements about the Christian duty to hate or punish the Jews because they killed the Lord."   [A Crucified Christ in Holy Week, Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1986, p.15])

But is that the intent of this story? Paul Ricoeur occasionally applied his complex, fruitful ideas about human knowledge and language to the specific task of interpreting biblical texts. He argued for achieving again the "profound" or "existential" experience which inspired or initiated the text. It was not a narrow polemical, moral or even theological experience, but a universal human experience that we should look for. Taking Ricoeur's approach to this passage from John, we might ask: what is the concrete universal human experience which I can recognize in my own experience to which this story is testifying? One response to this question-- in the spirit of Ricoeur's approach-- might be to ask: What understanding/customs of religion are so familiar, so comfortable for me that they might make me "blind" to the unexpected ways God is at work today? Would I recognize who is doing God's work because she or he or they might be functioning outside conventional religious expectations? What unlikely person or persons has God anointed? How can such persons be known? Is it-- like Jesus-- by the simple, irrefutable result of some form of healing once thought to be impossible?

The seventeenth century Welsh poet, Henry Vaughn, concludes his poem he titled "Easter-day" with these lines:

           Arise, arise
      And with his healing bloud anoint thine Eys,
        The inward Eys, his bloud will cure thy mind
        Whose spittle only could restore the blind.