Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Lent 4A: The vision thing

Obviously, this week’s readings from 1 Samuel and John are connected by the theme of vision. In the first reading, Samuel is seeking a king for Israel. What one generally seeks in a king is strength, but God dismissed Jesse’s tall, strapping sons one by one. Instead, God had Samuel anoint the runt of the litter-- young David.

In the reading from John, the vision in question is that of a man “blind from birth”. When his vision is restored he is able to see something that the Pharisees remained blind to, namely, that Jesus is the light of the world.. The irony, of course, is that the formerly blind man can see more clearly than the Pharisees with their 20/20 vision.

At this point it would be tempting for a preacher to talk to her congregation about how we are often blind to the world around us – to both its needs and its blessings --or to remind us that we are often blind to spiritual realities – our need to forgive and be forgiven, for example. But I don’t think that is where these readings are leading us.

The author of 1 Samuel is not concerned with our blindness to the flowers that bloom in the spring or even our blindness to spiritual things. What this writer wants us to see is that God is in charge of the world. God first selected then rejected Saul as Israel’s king. The Spirit that comes upon David when Samuel anoints him is the same Spirit that departs from Saul in 16:14, namely, “the Spirit of the Lord”. To be sure, the writer wants to correct our vision, but not so that we can see the beauty of the world, but so that we can see the illusion of human power and autonomy. It is God who rules the world; kings, presidents, and prime ministers are merely God’s instruments.

Similarly, John’s gospel is not concerned with a vaguely spiritual form of visual impairment or improvement. Jesus restores vision to the man blind from birth not so that he can enjoy the “lilies of the field” but so that he can bear witness to the “light that shines in the darkness” (John 1.5). When this nameless man receives his vision, he does not have a sudden improvement in his quality of life; rather, he is ostracized and shunned. The story shows us just how costly the gift of God’s grace can be.

God cautions Samuel not to “look on the outward appearance” but to “look with the heart.” Most of us who preach on these readings will be tempted to make our real text this wonderful sentence from Antoine de Saint- Exupéry’s The Little Prince. “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” It’s a good text and might be appropriate for a talk to the Rotary Club, but it’s not what the Bible is telling us. God longs to give us the vision he gave to both Samuel and the man blind from birth, but are we ready to receive it? Samuel was quite clear about the consequences of seeing with God’s eyes: “If Saul hears it, he will kill me.” (1 Sam. 16.2) If God opens our eyes the way Jesus opened the eyes of the man in John 9, then we will see that the powers of this world can maintain the status quo only by declaring themselves to be the real arbiters of the truth and by turning a blind eye to God’s new work in Jesus. We will see the spiritual bankruptcy of our self-aggrandizement and that the Cross is God’s judgment on human pretensions. To paraphrase Bonhoeffer, real vision is costly; it is free but not cheap.