Scripture notes – 4th Sunday of Lent, A – 19th March 2023

Today is ‘Laetare Sunday’, named from the Latin word meaning ‘Rejoice’ – the first words in the Entrance Antiphon. Rose vestments are worn to show that we are looking forward to Easter joy. The Gospel is another drama from John, one which was used as part of the Baptismal liturgies in the early church.

The readings are available online here.

1 Samuel 16:1, 6-7, 10-13
The first readings during Lent have been presenting the significant figures from Israel’s past whose role in God’s revelation will find their perfect fulfilment in Jesus the Messiah. The liturgies began with Adam, then Abraham, Moses and today David who is chosen as King. Later in his life, David is promised that God will give his descendants an everlasting kingship, but they will be required to carry out his will. (2 Samuel 7:1-16 ) When they fail, then they lose their royal position, and when the kingdom itself is destroyed, the prophets understand it as a promise to be realised in the future. For Christians that comes in Jesus, named ‘son of David’ in the gospels and whose kingship is ironically proclaimed on the cross ‘the King of the Jews’. ‘Messiah’ (Hebrew) and ‘Christ’ (Greek) means ‘the anointed one’ in English. ‘Anointing’ as an outward sign of God’s call was done for priests and kings. When Saul, the first king of the Jews, had failed in his role, the prophet Samuel was sent to anoint a new choice, and that is where today’s account begins. This vivid story also makes the point that God does not always choose by the standards of the world. As it was not the big and strong sons of Jesse, but the boy David out tending the sheep, Jesus was not the glorious warrior-king which people expected the Messiah to be, but one who reached glory through suffering and death.

Psalm 22/23
This psalm has long been a favourite of Christians, and mentions both the themes of shepherd and anointing to tie it to the previous reading. Although the kings and leaders of Israel were at times called shepherds, many of them were criticised for their failures to care for the ‘flock’. Here God is pictured as the true or ideal shepherd. In chapter 10 of John’s Gospel (which in the biblical text follows after today’s reading) Jesus calls himself the ‘good shepherd’ and describes his relation with his disciples in words similar to this psalm.

Ephesians 5:8-14
This reading reflects on the theme of ‘light’ – so central to the Gospel reading – how it affects us, and how we live ‘in the light of Christ’. It quotes from what is probably an early hymn, with another aspect of baptism – rising from the waters symbolising ‘rising from the dead’ – seeing sin as ‘death’ of the soul. We, like Christ, rise through the power of his resurrection.

John 9:9-41
In his commentary on John, Raymond E. Brown says this story shows the evangelist’s ‘dramatic skill at its best’. Last week’s we saw the use of misunderstanding to teach, here we have a number of examples of the use of irony. Brown calls it ‘a story of how a man who sat in darkness was brought to see the light, not only physically but spiritually. On the other hand, it also a tale of how those who thought they saw (the Pharisees) were blinding themselves more and more to the light and plunging into darkness.’

Although the account tells us something about Jesus, he is not the main character as the story is told. That role goes to the man who was healed of physical blindness and who progresses forward into fuller spiritual insight. Jesus shortly before in the gospel had said, ‘I am the light of the world’ (8:12), and this account is a demonstration of this. He also, at this stage of his ministry, indicates that he knows the end is coming but he will continue to work until that end. This is a reminder for us at this midpoint of Lent of our coming commemoration of his death and resurrection.

The disciples ask a question that is based on controversies of that time. The more profound parts of the Old Testament – like the book of Job and some prophets – stress that suffering and misfortune are never sent by God as punishment. But people did keep thinking that sin must be the reason for all suffering, a view still heard in our times. It was generally thought that one who is blind from birth had not been able to commit sins that could bring this punishment; however, some rabbis did think that a child could sin in the womb. For example, if the unborn baby was carried into a sinful situation while inside its mother. Others thought children were punished for their parent’s wrongdoing. Jesus refutes all suggestions of sin as the cause. He may be referring to the healing he will perform when he speaks of God’s works being displayed, and it may also have the deeper meaning that God always works in and through and with human suffering and disability.

Spittle used for healing can seem unpleasant now with our ideas of hygiene – especially right now when a pandemic has meant ending receiving the wine at mass. But at that time, as one could see animals lick their wounds, saliva might even be seen as helpful. It may be that Jesus in taking on full humanity accepted fully the physical realities of a body and clearly both he and the blind man and were not disgusted by his use. Smearing the mud on the eyes is an outward demonstration of the ‘blindness’ as one could not see with the eyes sealed. It reminds some commentators of God making Adam out of clay (Genesis 2) and therefore may suggest a ‘new creation’ comes with Jesus. The next step is telling him to wash in the waters at ‘Siloam’ which John makes a point of saying means ‘sent’. The blind man is ‘sent’, but John also elsewhere speaks of Jesus ‘sent by the Father into the world’ and of Christ sending the disciples after his resurrection. The early church also saw in the healing after washing in the pool a symbol of baptism which heals sin and blindness to God.

The first step of faith shown by the blind man is his obedience to Jesus’ command. Hearers at that time would probably recall the Old Testament story of Naaman the Syrian leper sent by Elisha to bathe in the Jordan for healing, but who did not want to obey. (see 2 Kings 5:1-19.) The second step in faith comes when the healing man is questioned and recognises that Jesus must be a ‘prophet‘– one sent by God. The final act of faith is accepting Jesus as the ‘Son of Man’. This is a less familiar Messianic title which Jesus uses of himself in the gospels. At each step of the healed man’s progress into greater light, the Pharisees questioning him take steps into deeper and deeper darkness.

When the blind man’s parents are questioned by the Jewish authorities, they are said to fear being expelled from the synagogue – an action which does not seem to fit the time of Jesus. Scholars think that the evangelist is thinking of his own later time, when the final break in the early years of the church came between the Jews who accepted Christ and those who did not. There was, however, hostility towards Jesus during his lifetime mentioned in all the gospels, and so John equates that with the later experience of his first readers. The parents ‘do not want to get involved’ as people say now, and they rule themselves out from even considering the light Jesus offers. ‘Not deciding is to decide’, another modern saying goes, and the parents by avoiding any responsibility, also take a step into ‘living in darkness’ (John 8:12).

Jesus concludes with an ironic description of judgement – he does not cause people to be blind to the reality he brings, but that will be the result for those who turn away from his call, while others more open to God will be enlightened. John lets us see that, like the people in this story, we too have a choice to make between living with the light of Christ or remaining in the darkness of estrangement from truth and love.

In a play of Paul Claudel, a blind girl asks:

‘You who see, what use have you made of the light?’

Joan Griffith

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