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Lent 4, Cycle A

Seeing the light! Historically this Sunday in Lent was called Laetare (Rejoicing Sunday), a time to relieve the austerities of Lent with a mood of celebration. Consequently, although the themes of Sin and Repentance are evident in the texts, the focus is on hope (Realized Eschatology), complimenting Providence as well as Justification and Sanctification by Grace.

Psalm 23
This famed Psalm expresses confidence in God the shepherd’s protection, extolling the comfort of providence. This is a Psalm attributed to David, but as we have noted he is not likely the author or even the collector of the Psalms attributed to him (Brevard Childs, Introduction to the Old Testament as Scripture, p. 512). Consequently we cannot be sure when this Psalm was written. This inability to pin-point the place or time of origin of the Psalm indicates that the Psalm is properly read as a living voice for the present, not bound to its historical point of origin (Ibid., p. 523).

The image of Yahweh as shepherd or the faithful as sheep is not unique to this Psalm; see 95:7; 100:3; Ezekiel 34:11-16. The Lord is said to lead us in right paths (v. 3). Thus we need to fear no evil (v. 4). Surrounded by goodness and mercy, the psalmist pledges regular worship in the temple (v. 6). This is a Psalm about gratitude to God. The believer is pursued not by enemies, but by God’s love.

Application: This is a great opportunity to rejoice (Sanctification), for we are pursued by God’s love (Providence and Justification by Grace). The Psalm also invites us to help the faithful see themselves as sheep, as followers, and not as autonomous as we think (Sin and Sanctification).

1 Samuel 16:1-13
This book’s origin as a distinct literary work derives from the original Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures (The Septuagint), which divided the story of Israel’s monarchy into four sections (1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings). This book is probably the result of two or three sources: 1) Early traditions about Samuel and Saul; 2) editor-molded materials into a connected history implying a critique of the events, deeming kingship as problematic, and so maintaining that Israel should be set under the rule of God and his prophet Samuel; and 3) incorporating the previous strand into the more Deuteronomistic history (which is a product of the sweeping religious reforms under Davidic King Josiah in the late seventh century BC).

The lesson is the story of the anointing of David. The account begins with Yahweh asking Samuel how long he will grieve over Saul (as a result of Yahweh’s rejection of Saul as king due to his disobedience [ch. 15]). He sends Samuel to Jesse in Bethlehem, from whose sons he has provided a new king (v. 1). Samuel fears he will be killed by Saul if he undertakes such a mission. The Lord instructs him to take a heifer with him, claiming Samuel has come to offer a sacrifice to the Lord (v. 2). The idea then is to invite Jesse to the sacrifice, at which time Yahweh plans to show Samuel whom to anoint as the new king (v. 3).

Samuel follows the command. In Bethlehem he is met by elders, to whom he assures his peaceful intention. He sanctifies Jesse and his sons and invites them to the planned sacrifice (vv. 4-5). Seeing Jesse’s son Eliab, Samuel first thinks he is the chosen king, as he has impressive size and stature. But Yahweh claims to have rejected this young man (vv. 6-7). Then Jesse calls his sons Abinadab and Shammah to pass by Samuel, and he responds that the Lord has not chosen them (vv. 8-9). Next Jesse makes seven of his sons pass before Samuel with the same judgment (v. 10). Finally Jesse indicates that Samuel has seen all his sons, except for David the youngest who is keeping sheep. Samuel asks that he be summoned (v. 11). David is reported to have been ruddy and handsome. Yahweh directs that he be anointed. Samuel does so and from then on the Spirit of the Lord was on David, and then Samuel departs (vv. 12-13).

Application: This is a story of God finding a way to help his people out of a difficult situation by providing new leadership. This invites reflection on what is wrong with the nation (Sin and Social Ethics) as well as a confidence that God will not abandon his people and will find a new way (Providence).

Ephesians 5:8-14
It has been noted that this letter portrays itself as having been written by Paul from prison, late in his career. But in view of the fact that the book includes vocabulary and stylistic characteristics different from the rest of the Pauline corpus, some scholars have concluded that it may be the work of a follower of Paul who had a hand in assembling the collection of his epistles. The fact that Paul’s salutation in 1:1 does not appear in many ancient manuscripts suggests the non-Pauline origin of the work.

Ultimately the book’s origin really does not seem to matter, because the purpose of the letter appears to have been addressed to later generations of Christians (1:15). It is a book for each succeeding new generation of the faithful, not tied to its original historical context. (For a similar assessment, see Brevard Childs, The New Testament as Canon: An Introduction, pp. 324-328.)

This text is part of an appeal to the faithful to renounce pagan ways. It is noted that the Ephesians had been in darkness [skotos -- obscurity] but now are in light, and so are light [phos -- radiance]. (The author borrows Gnostic concepts at this point or else images common of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Such a metaphor has no precedence in the Old Testament.) Readers are urged to live as children of light — whose fruit is all that is good, right, and true, taking no part in the unfruitful works of darkness (vv. 9-11). It is shameful to mention what people do secretly, the author notes. But light exposes everything (vv. 12-13). An ancient Christian hymn (based on Isaiah 60:1) is cited, urging sleepers to wake up from the dead, for Christ will shine on them (v. 14).

Application: The text affords opportunities to reflect on how we are mired in darkness/obscurity (Sin), but now are illumined/radiant with grace (Justification by Grace) which transforms us (Sanctification). Calls for waking up (repentance) may also be joyfully issued.

John 9:1-41
We have already noted that this gospel, the last of the four to be written, likely by a disciple of John the son of Zebedee, had as its target audience a Jewish Christian community in conflict with the synagogue from which they had been expelled. This story of Jesus’ healing of a blind man fits nicely with the gospel’s characteristic distinctions between light and darkness (1:5; 3:19-21; 8:12). The account is unique to this gospel.

Encountering a blind man, Jesus is asked by his disciples whose sin (his own or his parents’) had made him blind; Jesus responds it is neither, for the man was born blind in order that God’s works might be revealed in him (vv. 1-3). This was a somewhat startling perspective since the average Hebrew in Jesus’ lifetime regarded suffering as a consequence of sin (cf. Exodus 20:5; 34:7; Psalm 109:13-15). Jesus claims that the works of the one who sent him must be done while it is day, for night is coming when no one can work, and that as long as he is in the world he is the light of the world (vv. 4-5). Jesus then spits on the ground, makes mud with saliva, spreads it on the blind man’s eyes, and tells him to wash in the pool of Siloam (a pool in Jerusalem fed by underground waters, whose name means “sent”). The man does see (vv. 6-7)! (It should be noted that in ancient times saliva was thought to have medicinal value.)

The healed man responds to neighbors and others who knew him, and they wonder if the man who could not see is the same blind man who had begged (vv. 8-9). To further questions he recounts the miracle (vv. 10-11). To inquiries regarding where Jesus was, he cannot respond (v. 12). People bring the healed man to the Pharisees, since the healing had transpired on the Sabbath, and again he gives an account of the healing (vv. 13-15). The Pharisees are divided about Jesus, some certain he could not be from God since he had not observed the Sabbath, and others wonder how a man of a sinner could perform such deeds (v. 16). They ask the healed man whether Jesus was a prophet (v. 17).

Jews then challenge the healed man about whether he had in fact been born blind, calling on his parents to authenticate this, but they claim that they do not know how the miracle had transpired (vv. 18-21). The parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews’ plans to put followers of Jesus out of the synagogue (excommunicate them) (vv. 22-23). Jesus’ followers were not put out of the synagogue until well after his lifetime, perhaps not until 80 AD, a fact which says something about the date of this gospel’s composition. The healed man is recalled to testify before the Pharisees and will not conclude that Jesus is a sinner (vv. 24-25). He then asks them if they would become Jesus’ disciples (vv. 26-27). The Pharisees revile the man, calling him a disciple of Jesus. They continue to take the position that they do not know from whom the healer comes (vv. 28-29). The healed man claims to be astonished that the Pharisees cannot see that since God does not listen to sinners the miracle performed on him must be of God (vv. 30-33; cf. Psalm 66:18; Proverbs 15:29). Pharisees respond by claiming the healed man must be born in sin and drive him from their presence (v. 34).

Hearing the story, Jesus finds the man and asks him if he believes the Son of Man. In a previous analysis of the gospel we noted the gospel of John’s unique understanding of this title. The author seems to understand the title in a Gnostic way — that is, as a designation for the pre-existent one who became man and must be exalted again, though combined with the earliest Christian meaning of letting Jesus be understood as Messiah, an apocalyptic figure who at the end of time will come down from heaven and hold judgment (Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Vol. 2, p. 37; Ibid., Vol. 1, p. 49). The healed man asks who that is. Jesus responds that the man has seen the Son of Man, he is the Son, and the man responds with a confession and worships Jesus (vv. 35-38). Jesus proceeds to teach that he has come into the world for judgment, so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind (v. 39). It is not that Jesus comes to judge us, but his presence leads to judgment with regard to how we respond to him. Pharisees nearby hear this and say to Jesus that they are not blind. He responds that if they were blind they would not have sin, but since they see their sin remains (vv. 40-41).

Application: The story provides an occasion to consider our human blindness (Sin) and how Christ heals us (Justification by Grace). The Christian who is healed by Christ in this way is set free from the old rules to serve God (Sanctification construed as freedom from the law). As Christ’s presence implies judgment (for we must decide for or against him) there is an urgency about Jesus’ presence in our lives (Realized Eschatology).

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Authors of
Lectionary Scripture Notes
Norman A. Beck is the Poehlmann Professor of Theology and Classical Languages and the Chairman of the Department of Theology, Philosophy, and Classical Languages at Texas Lutheran University
Dr. Norman A. Beck
Mark Ellingsen is professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia
Dr. Mark Ellingsen