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Introduction To The Scripture For The Fourth Sunday in Lent - Year A
I Samuel 16:1-13; Psalm 23; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

The following material was written by the Rev. John Shearman (jlss@sympatico.ca) of the United Church of Canada. John has structured his offerings so that the first portion can be used as a bulletin insert, while the second portion provides a more in depth 'introduction to the scripture'.

INTRODUCTION TO THE SCRIPTURE	
The Fourth Sunday in Lent - Year A


1 SAMUEL 16:1-13         The story  was probably part of an ancient cycle
of legends about David long before it became part of the written history or
scriptures of Israel.  It is romantic tale with a double meaning: God's
will for Israel was that the nation should have a worthy leader.  Also
God's intention was that the nation itself should not be so powerful that
it would not feel in need God's protection and providence.


PSALM 23                 The much loved psalm has been traditionally
associated with David, the shepherd who became king.  Romantic as that
interpretation may be, it is no longer valid.  Because the temple was not
built by David, but by his son Solomon, the phrase "the house of the Lord"
points to a later date.  The spirit of individualism in religious thought
found here is also characteristic of the period after Israel's exile in
Babylon, not of David's time at least five centuries earlier (about 1000
BC).  These facts do nothing to detract from the beauty and comfort
emanating from every line of this poem.  
               

EPHESIANS 5:8 14         Behind this passage stands the belief that pagans
and unbelievers are not just in darkness, but are darkness itself.  A
similar attitude is common to most religious traditions, ancient and
modern, where intolerant 'true believers' regard all others as inherently
evil.  An early Christian hymn may be found in verse 14: "Wake up, sleeper,
and rise from death, and Christ will shine upon you."


JOHN 9:1 41              This long passage includes one of series of signs
by which John reveals Jesus as the Son of God.  In this case, the sign is
the giving of sight to a blind man.  The purpose of the miracle is not to
let him see, but to elicit his confession of faith.  Note that the problem
of this man's blindness is one that still troubles many people.  Why do bad
things happen to good people?


A MORE COMPLETE ANALYSIS:


1 SAMUEL 16:1-13   Ancient Israelite sagas make great stories, but also
convey rich spiritual truths.  The story of God's prophet Samuel selecting
David to replace the failed King Saul had profound significance for
Israel's future.  It probably formed part of an ancient cycle of legends
about David long before it became part of the written history or scriptures
of Israel.  
     
Several elements of OT historical and religious tradition as well as some
real literary pathos stand out in this brief excerpt.  Israel's monarchy
was a divinely appointed institution, but still subject to the vicissitudes
of human political power struggles.  Vss. 1-3 point to Samuel's hesitation
to follow Yahweh's command to find a replacement.  Samuel had genuine
feelings for his prodigy who had turned out so badly.  The strategy
inspired by Yahweh to avoid Saul's wrath, however, points to Samuel's fear
that he will be seen as the initiator of a revolution.  Vss. 4-5 describe
the suspicion which met the prophet's mission in Bethlehem.
     
In part, this may have been no more than tribal rivalry.  Saul was a
Benjaminite from Gibeah, just north of Jerusalem.  David was a Judean from
Bethlehem, in the adjacent tribal territory immediately south of Jerusalem. 
(Northern and southern Ireland come to mind as modern parallels.)
Politically, the purpose of the monarchy had been to unite the diverse
tribes of Israel after two hundred years of invasion and settlement in
Canaan.
     
The prophet's task may have been made more difficult by a certain amount of
competition for preference.  The sacrifice to which Samuel invited Jesse
and his sons involved a ritual washing which brought each member of the
family before Samuel individually.  Samuel's struggle to find the right
man, however, indicates how his own sense of values had to change in the
process.  True to the nature of inspiration, the conversation between
Yahweh and Samuel obviously took place within the prophet's own mind.  

The end of the story (vss. 11-13) introduces a new set of criteria for the
monarchy.  The whole story has been cast in a theological and romantic mold
with a double meaning: Yahweh's will for Israel was that the nation should
have a worthy leader.  It was also Yahweh's intention that the nation
itself should not be so powerful that it would not feel the need for divine
protection and providence.  Every modern nation state and government could
well heed this enlarged consciousness of divine sovereignty exercised in
historical events.


PSALM 23   The much loved psalm has been traditionally associated with
David, the shepherd boy who became king.  Romantic as that analysis may be,
it is no longer tenable.  Because the temple was not built by David, but by
his son Solomon, the phrase "the house of the Lord" points to a later date. 
The spirit of individualism in religious thought found here is also
characteristic of the period after Israel's exile in Babylon, not of
David's time at least five centuries earlier about 1000 BCE.
     
Nonetheless, countless humble people have found in it a deep and sincere
expression of faith.  Its spiritual insights speak to people of all ages
and circumstances.  Who knows how many have made it their life's
inspiration and their deathbed prayer? 
     
While in form the psalm resembles a traditional lament, it lacks the normal
preface of complaint about illness or hostility.  It moves directly to
acknowledge the never-failing goodness of God in several life situations.
     
The image of the good shepherd is one still to be seen in the more sparsely
settled wilderness areas of the Holy Land.  Here it serves as a metaphor
for God.  In other OT passages it is a metaphor for the spiritual leaders
of Israel.  The early church adopted it too, more than likely from the lips
of Jesus himself who not only knew the scriptures, but may well have been
intimate with many shepherds from the verdant hills around Nazareth where
flocks of sheep pastured and water was plentiful in flowing streams and
quiet pools.  
     
Providing for and protecting his flock is the shepherd's life work.  The
psalmist uses this theme to describe Yahweh's care for Israel.  The
response people make, however, is not that of sheep which have no way of
expressing their acceptance of this care.  Hence, in vss.  5-6 the scene
shifts to the table of the provident host who spreads a feast for
unexpected guests and to the temple where thanksgiving is offered.  For us,
the appropriate response is to maintain a similar intimate, thankful
fellowship throughout our days with the God who so loves us.


EPHESIANS 5:8-14   Behind this passage stands the belief that pagans and
unbelievers are not just in darkness, but are darkness personified.  Sadly,
similar attitudes are found in most religions, ancient and modern, where
so-called "true believers"  exclude others and regard them as inherently
evil.

A lively scholarly debate continues over the authorship.  Noted scholars
from several countries uphold several different theories about it.  The
named author may or may not have been the apostle Paul.  It could have been
one of his close associates who knew his teaching well and wrote in his
name.  It could also have been someone of a generation later also familiar
with his teaching who attempted to give a cosmic view of the implications
of faith that extended what Paul had written to the Colossians.  Whether
the letter was addressed to or came from Ephesians, possibly as a covering
document for a collection of the apostle's letters, is also disputed.
     
The distinction between the Christian life and secular life was as
critically important in New Testament times as it is today.  The Letter to
the Ephesians may have begun as a baptismal liturgy and a sermon (or
sermons) to new converts.  (See Kirby, John C. *Ephesians, Baptism and
Pentecost*, McGill University Press, 1968, for a complete statement of this
hypothesis.) The first part in chs. 1-3 contains a typical prayer of
blessing similar to Jewish prayers of this kind.  The last section (chs.4-
6) contains of a series of admonitions about the ethical behavior expected
of the new church members.  This excerpt comes from a passage in which
moral issues are characterized in stark terms of light and darkness (5:3-
14).  In many respects in parallels John 3:17-21 and 1 John 1:5-7; 2:8-11,
where the same metaphors define Christian and non-Christian behavior.  It
also harks back to similar metaphors used by Jesus in Matthew 5:14 and by
Paul in Philippians 2:15.

In vss. 8-9, the metaphor goes beyond a simple differentiation of two ways
of life.  It identifies as inherently evil all who are outside the
Christian church, as once were all of those to whom the letter was written. 
Then it admonishes them to live according to their newly assumed nature
which came to them in their baptism.  The term 'Christening' captures that
spiritual reality better than the liturgical word 'baptism.'
     
The author of the letter  picks up on Paul's "fruit of the Spirit" in
Philippians 5:22-23.  The metaphors of fruit and light are curiously mixed,
however, in vss. 9 and 11.  Vss. 12-13 points directly to John 3:17-21.  Is
it too much to assume that the author knew both the gospel and the Pauline
traditions? If as some scholars believe, the letter dates from the early
2nd century, it is possible that he had copies of these before him.

It is possible that an early Christian hymn is quoted in verse 14: "Wake
up, sleeper, and rise from death, and Christ will shine upon you."  There
could also be a memory of Isaiah 60:1 and 9:2 or even John 1:4-9
incorporated here.  The figures of sleep and death formed a significant
symbol of the state of the human spirit apart from Christ.  
     
With martyrdom the ever-present danger for those early Christians, the
metaphors had great significance. As we helplessly witness the darkness of
human greed, corruption and violence casting shadows over our world today,
the symbolism takes on a very contemporary meaning.  


JOHN 9:1-41   This long passage includes one of six signs by which John
told how Jesus was revealed as the Son of God.  In this case, the sign or
miracle was the giving of sight to a blind man.  The purpose of the miracle
was not to let him see, but to elicit his confession of faith.  And ours
too.

The frequent reference to blindness in the scriptures indicates its
prevalence in the ancient Middle East.  Several known diseases could cause
the loss of sight during anyone's life.  For instance, the existence of a
venereal disease or some other infection such as measles during pregnancy
could cause a child to be born blind.  Jesus performed several miracles of
healing blind people.  Paul apparently suffered some sort of psychosomatic
blindness at the time of his conversion. (Acts 9:3ff)  In all of these
biblical instances there was a clear relationship between the physical and
the spiritual condition of the persons concerned.  Sin and sickness were
inevitably linked in the minds of everyone.  Consequently, the questions of
the disciples and the blind man's community, and challenge of the Pharisees
in vss. 2-17 was by no means inappropriate.  
     
As noted above, John had another purpose in telling this story.  He gave
that reason in vs. 2 quoting Jesus' response to the disciples.  The rest of
the story really only expands upon this statement.  The blind man gave
Jesus the opportunity to show forth once again his own true nature for all
to see and believe.  What the Pharisees did not understand, of course, was
the nature of their own spiritual blindness (vss. 40-41)  The man who had
been healed did make his confession of faith (vss. 35-38) and so brought
forth the clarification of the difference between those who are willfully
blind and those who trust in Jesus, the Son of God.  
     
John, of course, told this story against the background of the Jewish-
Christian controversy raging in his own community at the end of the 1st
century.  Similar conditions persist today as we struggle with conflict
among religious traditions in the Middle East.  

                         
copyright  - Comments by Rev. John Shearman and page by Richard J. Fairchild, 2006
            please acknowledge the appropriate author if citing these resources.



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