ACTA COMMENTARY
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The Year of Mark

Since the instructions given for the Sunday Readings in the Introduction to the Lectionary are somewhat confusing, the option I have chosen is to comment on the first two readings as given for the Sundays of Lent in the Year of Mark. The Gospels for the 3rd to the 5th Sundays are taken from the Year of Matthew, following the suggestion made in the Introduction §97. So the readings for the Fourth Sunday are:

 

A Reading from the Second Book of Chronicles 36:14-16; 19-23

Responsorial Psalm Psalm 136 (137) R/. Verse 6

A Reading from the letter of St Paul to the Ephesians 2:4-10

A Reading from the holy Gospel according to John 9:1-41

In relation to today’s Gospel here is a warning from the Book of Revelation, almost the last words in our Bible:
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book; and if anyone takes away the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away that person’s share in the tree of life … Revelation 22:18-19
Reading abbreviated versions should be a hanging offence. Invite people to sit if they find standing a strain. People listening to Jesus, and any rabbi, sat on the ground, as he did. See Matthew 5:1 - “he sat down” to give his sermon.

A Reading from the Second Book of Chronicles 36:14-16; 19-23

In our Bibles we have the First Book of Chronicles and the Second Book of Chronicles. Originally, in ancient Hebrew Scriptures there was but one Book of Chronicles. A Jewish translation into Greek, made about 250 B.C. in Alexandria, where there was a large and prosperous colony, divided the work into two and this is followed today in both Jewish and Christian Bibles. The division is sensible even if not original. The content of both works may be sketched as follows:

1 Chronicles, chapters 1 - 9: A series of genealogies
1 Chronicles, chapter 10: The brief reign of King Saul
1 Chronicles, chapters 11 - 29: The reign of Good King David
2 Chronicles, chapters 1 - 9: The reign of Good King Solomon
2 Chronicles, chapters 10 - 36:16 The bad kings after Solomon
2 Chronicles, chapter 36:17-23 Destruction of the Temple
and the consequences.

A Brief Word on the Books of Chronicles (or Annals)

These books, for the most part, are a retelling of the Books of Samuel and the Books of Kings which end with exile in Babylon in 587 B. C., in the land of the Chaldeans, as the Bible knows Mesopotamia. The two Books of Chronicles emerge in the period when the Persian Empire ruled over the tiny kingdom of Judaea. The exiles have returned after 537 B.C. and, with Persian permission, were engaged in rebuilding their city and its Temple. The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah provide an earlier and more contemporary version of the events marking the return and resettlement. Chronicles is much later, say around 350 B.C. and it is crucial to understand the difference a couple of hundred years can make.

By this time the Jewish Scriptures were almost as we have them today. So we must realise that the Chroniclers wrote in the light of the theologies of these books. But the Chroniclers suffered from a very deliberate selective amnesia. They were priests and they rewrite the past from a priestly agenda. They dismiss Israel’s sinful past and emphasise the glorious and faithful kingships of David and Solomon. David has no affair with Bathsheba, no Nathan rebuking an adulterous king, no rape of Tamar, no rebellious sons. Solomon no longer has 700 foreign wives; instead he dedicates the Temple and is faithful in all things to the God of Israel. The Books of Chronicles are a rewriting of history with all the bad bits left out. The idea is to create a wonderful past that may be admired and absorbed in order to create a new future in harmony with all that God intended for his people. The bad kings who, unlike the saintly David and Solomon, brought disaster upon the God’s people are no more. Now is the time for the priests. The Temple clientele we meet in the Gospels, Caiaphas and his ilk are the inheritors of the dawn of a new age imagined by the priestly authors of the Books of the Chronicles. The reality was otherwise. The people who inhabited the monastic-like settlement at Qumran were totally committed to the Temple but not to the Temple as run by corrupt priests (in their view). They hoped to reclaim the Temple and make it a true house of prayer. Jesus was probably of the same opinion (see Mark 11:15-19).

The rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem is to be the heart of faith and its priests will be its guardians who ensure the pathway to divine protection. The Presence of God in the Holy of Holies will never depart from a faithful people.

Today’s reading comes from the close of Chronicles when the time of the bad kings ends in an Egyptian take-over of Judaea, followed by a Babylonian invasion from Mesopotamia (now Iraq). Chaos led to the desecration of the Temple, the destruction of the city, and exile. It is worth nothing what was lost in these tragic years:

1. The lost of God’s holy land.
2. The lost of God’s holy city.
3. The lost of God’s holy Temple.
4. The lost of God’s holy priesthood
5. The lost of God’s holy people.
6. The loss of God’s Holy Presence.

The loss of all the pillars of holiness is rooted in the loss of Divine Presence.

The prophet Jeremiah, driven into exile in Egypt in these disastrous times, had warned, as every prophet before him had warned, that “the wrath of the LORD God would come upon unfaithful people”, “a wrath beyond remedy”. It is necessary to try to understand what “the wrath of the LORD” means in the Bible. It is never an idle threat. In today’s reading everything is destroyed and the “the wrath of the LORD rose so high against his people that there was no further remedy”.


The wrath of God

For the Chroniclers the Temple (and the worship carried on there by the priests) is the essential heart of Jewish faith. Presence is all. For the Temple is God’s House. The Holy of Holies is the dwelling place of God on earth: The LORD, Your God and the Lord, the God of Israel run through Chronicles, affirming that Our God is greater than all gods. And this God has always been OUR GOD for this is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (1 Chronicles 29:18). To abandon or defile God’s Presence is to break the bond with the faith of our fathers and suffer the wrath of God. But there is always remedy. There is always steadfast love that endures forever.

The Bible’s perspective on “the wrath of God” is that its purpose is to overcome all that is evil, all that breaks the bonds of love. Israel’s theologians do not have an afterlife to ponder. There is no hell (in the Christian sense) in the Old Testament. Hell, in the Old Testament, is exile, exile from the land, and, consequently, exile from the Presence. Little Israel stood between the might of empire to the north and the power and attraction of Egypt to the south. To keep faith to their God, the God whose steadfast love endures forever, requires a tenacity of belief that was often sorely tested by hostile nations and, often, found wanting. The purpose of God’s wrath was to bring people home.

That is why God, in the Chroniclers’ reading of history, prevails upon Cyrus, king of the Medes and the Persians, to fulfil what the prophet Jeremiah had announced, namely, that after seventy years in exile, people would be allowed to return to Jerusalem. In effect, it was these people who created what is now called Judaism.

The words “anger, angry” or “wrath” occur over 480 times in the Bible. But that anger is never permanent, whether against the people of Israel or those in the world beyond Israel who had received the rainbow sign. After the Flood, God made a covenant with every living thing upon the earth:

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh. When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth”. Genesis 9:12-17

Because “the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence” (Genesis 6:11), the waters of the Flood brought destruction. But God relented and unilaterally covenanted never to destroy humanity again. Though humanity has not changed (read Genesis 6:5-8), God recognises the reality of things:

I will never again curse the ground because of man,
for the intention of man's heart is evil from his youth. Genesis 8:2

Unlike temples and churches, rabbis and priests, only God can cope with sin. God recognises that destruction is no solution to human waywardness. Henceforth anger must never run to extermination. We have God’s covenanted words for that.

But God’s wrath is never absolute. Unlike God’s steadfast love, God’s anger does not, and cannot, last forever. The Book of Jonah is worth reading to discover the purpose of saving and reforming that lie at the heart of God’s wrath. This work of fiction has a prophet running away from God. God had instructed him to go to Nineveh and warn the king and inhabitants that the anger of God was coming their way. Nineveh was the Assyrian capital, the capital of the evil empire that destroyed ten of the twelve tribes of Israel. The mission of Jonah is as if one were commissioned by God to stand in Trafalgar Square and collect for the Nazi Party. So instead of heading east following God’s command, this prophet, whose vocation is to hear the word, preach it, and do it, heads west. Of course, God catches up with him and he has to preach a five-word homily (five words in Hebrew) to the hated Assyrians. The result, from King to the poor man at the gate, is that everyone repents. Jonah was hoping that fire and brimstone would come down. In his disappointment, he complains to God:

But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from punishment. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Do you do well to be angry? Jonah 4:2

God’s punishment is always overcome by God’s repentance flowing from God’s steadfast love. The Book of Jonah is read in the afternoon service on the Day of Atonement when all devote Jews pray, in the Service of General Absolution, for forgiveness of their sins. Yom Kippur is God’s day mercy. Actually, every day is a day of God’s mercy.

So the first reading today ends with the beginnings of the return from exile and the resettling in the land. It is up to the settlers to make it a Holy Land again. A project that seems to me to be a work in progress, - not very much progress.

P.S. On over 365 occasions in the Bible God tells people

Do not be afraid.

What Gabriel said to Mary, God says to all of humanity.

 

Responsorial Psalm Psalm 136 (137) R/. Verse 6

The Tigris and the Euphrates provide ample waters and many irrigation canals but the people of Israel did not sit beside cooling streams in joy but in sad remembrance of the Zion’s Hill in Jerusalem where the Temple had stood. How can they sing songs of joy in an alien land, away from the Presence of God? For songs of joy cannot be sung in exile. Joy is being in God’s Presence and joy is not possible when the Temple is in ruins and there is no Real Presence, only Real Absence.

Faith must be sustained in remembrance. Faith must be fortified by hope. Jews scattered throughout the world after the last destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. (and completed in 135 A.D.) were sworn never to forget Jerusalem and its Temple. Jewish synagogues leave a wall facing toward Jerusalem bare as a reminder to remember Jerusalem’s Temple. At Jewish weddings, a glass is smashed on the ground to teach that the Temple’s destruction is not to be forgotten even in the great joy of married bliss.

While I am never in favour of leaving out the last verse of a song, this is to be recommended in the case of this psalm which calls down destruction on the people of Babylon (and the Edomites who sided with them) in revenge for the evils inflicted on Israel:
O daughter of Babylon,
doomed to be destroyed,
a blessing on her who shall repay you
for what you have done to us!
Blessed be he who takes your babies
And dashes them against the rocks!
Psalm 137, verses 8 and 9.
Not everything in the Bible is “nice”.


A Reading from the letter of St Paul to the Ephesians 2:4-10

Though some scholars doubt that Saint Paul wrote this letter to Christians in the city of Ephesus (western shore of modern Turkey), it exudes teaching redolent of the teaching of the greatest of all apostles. If Paul did not write it, then is has surely come to us from a disciple who knew well the mind and heart of the master.

This is the first letter in the New Testament to speak of the universal Church. In the seven authentic letters certainly written by Paul himself, when he uses the word “church” he means the local church. Ephesians speaks to the universal Church.

God, rich in mercy, a mercy which comes from “the great love with which he loved us” has made us alive together with Christ”. here is riches indeed. God is LOVE and from that LOVE mercy forever flows. It is imperative to be clear on this:

 

GOD IS LOVE
GOD DOES MERCY

The action of God in relation to humanity is governed by the very being of God. It is impossible for God who is Love to do anything other than Mercy. Mercy flows from the very nature of God.

So even when we are dead in our sins, we are confronted with a God who so loves us that an outpouring of mercy is the only possibility on the divine agenda. We cannot earn God’s love and we cannot plead for mercy in vain. God is there for us, “infinitely rich in his merciful grace”.

In the life, death, resurrection, and exaltation to God’s right hand, we see God’s love and learn God’s mercy. Mercy is not a reward, a result of our good words, but is “the gift of God”. We are, through Christ, God’s workmanship and God never rejects the works of his hands - we are God’s work of art.

Or, as we find in the Second letter to Corinthian Christians,

You are a letter from Christ,
written not with ink
but with the Spirit of the living God,
not on tablets of stone,
but on tablets of human hearts –
on our hearts,
to be known and read by all.
2 Corinthains 3:2-3


A Reading from the holy Gospel according to John 9:1-41

To begin to understand the story of the man born blind in chapter 9 of John’s Gospel, it is best to begin with chapter 8. Our Bible is divided into chapters and that makes, not only ease of reference, but helps the reader to digest material in manageable pieces. For this great mercy we must thank Cardinal Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton (1150-1228). When he was a professor at the University of Paris, and long before the invention of printing, he wrote a Bible (which came to be called the Paris Bible) and divided the text into chapters as they are with us to this day. He was also instrumental in forcing the Magna Carta into English law despite the opposition of his friend Pope Innocent III (who sided with King John).

The chapter divisions highlight a feature of John’s Gospel that greatly assists its readers. For we often find that matters discussed in a chapter of discourse, are followed by an event which illustrates what had been a matter bitter debate.

Chapter 8 begins with an emphatic claim:

I am the light of the world.
Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness,
but will have the light of life.
John 8:12

Following this claim by Jesus a long and very bitter argument with Pharisees and then with “the Jews” ensues. The basis for what turns out to be a very unsavoury exchange is this:

WHO ARE YOU? John 8:25

That is the question put to Jesus by “the Jews” (8:22). The claim of Jesus to be the Light of the World leads to “the Jews” protesting,

Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death’. Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And all the prophets who died! Who do you make yourself out to be? John 8:52-53

The argument continues bitterly, and Jesus has the last word:

Amen, Amen, I say to you,
Before Abraham was,
I AM.

This, of course, will remind his enemies, and reminds us, too, of a divine declaration of identity made by God to Moses:

God said to Moses,

I AM
WHO
I AM
Exodus 3:14

This claim is too much. “So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the Temple” (John 8:59). It is on the way out that Jesus came across the man born blind.

Sickness and Sin

Note that the story begins by underlining that it is Jesus who sees “a man born blind from birth” (9:1). His disciples, the learners, get it wrong (again) because they express the understanding of many of their Jewish brothers and sisters that sin is the cause of human suffering:

Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind? John 9:2

While not the sharpest knives in the drawer, the disciples may have been thinking of a frightening equation to be found most awesomely in the first of The Ten Words (aka The Ten Commandments):

You shall have no other gods besides me.
You shall not bow down to (other) gods or serve them, for I the LORD your GOD am a jealous God, visiting guilt of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to the thousandth generation of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Exodus 20:4-6

This is a hard saying and needs a little excursion into a feature of the Bible which requires careful attention. It is this: in the Bible things develop and change. In the Book of the Exodus (21:22-25) we read the so-called lex talionis, “the law of retaliation” or ‘the law of revenge”. In listing what must be done when one’s property is damaged or stolen, and slaves and wives are, I’m afraid, in the property list:

But if there is harm, then you shall pay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe. Exodus 21:23-25

But this is what Jesus says:

Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who persecute you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other cheek … But love your enemies, and do good, lend and expect nothing in return, and your reward will be great and you will be children of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and to the wicked. Read Luke 6:27-36


Please don’t think, as some people mistakenly do, that that Old Testament presents a cruel God but Jesus corrects this understanding and presents a God of love and mercy. We inherit our understanding that God is a God of love and mercy from the Old Testament, from the holy books we inherit from our Jewish fathers and mothers in faith.

There is a development of understanding about God. All Catholics of my generation were taught that the slightest sexual thought or act was a mortal sin and, if we died unconfessed, we would go to hell for all eternity. No one believes that today (I hope). In the Bible we see growth in understanding. Even the text quoted above admits an uncertainty in a number of ways.

God will punish those who turn away to worship other gods. But in time the ancient Israelites people will realise that there are no other gods. The LORD, our God, is one. Consider also the “jealous God” is our God and is the God who shows steadfast love to the thousandth generation. But we know from Psalm 136 (137) that God’s steadfast love endures forever and embraces all people, every those savage, murdering Assyrians (read the Book of Jonah, and, of course, the Book of Job). The Bible argues with itself, it thinks, it matures, it changes. As ever, our Bible holds a mirror up to the Church it calls into being. It, too, must grow in understanding of who Jesus is, who God is.

So the disciples, certain as they are that sin is at the root of the blind man’s affliction, need tuition. Jesus says that the blindness of the man is not due to his sins or those of his parents. His blindness when God comes near is a challenge, not to human sin, but to divine mercy, to the healing work of God. Jesus says that he must do God’s work.

And notice a tiny detail. Jesus ways “we must work the works …. . Jesus embraces these learners, these apprentices, and teaches them that they must work as Jesus works, they must do as he does. They must heal wherever healing needs to be done.

Then Jesus repeats what he had said before:

As long as I am in the world,
I am the Light of the world.
Then he sets to work.

A very concise few sentences describe the wonder of the man’s healing. The brevity and simplicity of the sign will become a refrain in the blind man’s telling of the story.

The Nay Sayers

First, the neighbours are doubtful. “But he kept saying, ‘I am the man”. The “how?” and the “who?” follow. Notice the identity: The man called Jesus … . And the blind man, for all his new sight ,didn’t know where the man was.

Next the Pharisees. The blind man is marched off by the neighbours to the Pharisees. A possible charge is mooted for it was on the Sabbath “when Jesus made the mud”. Working on the Sabbath? He can’t be from God. He is not keeping holy the Sabbath day. The man admits the charge. OK, he put a mud pack on my eyes. But I washed, and I see!

The religious leaders are not having it. He can’t be from God because he does not observe the Sabbath. Wiser heads ask the obvious question, “How can a man who is sinner do such signs?” Division is created and the man is questioned again. Notice how the crucial question is passed to the once blind man and we can see that he is beginning to come to the light: “He is a prophet.

Are you noticing that this is turning out to be like the story of the woman at the well?

Now the turn of “the Jews”. John’s Gospel refers to Jewish people of importance as “the Jews”. This is dangerous and led to anti-Semitism. We might wish that the writer(s) of this Gospel had been more careful. We might repent that much evil has been done by such careless use of language. It would be wonderful if we could rewrite history.

“The Jews” do not believe that the man has received his sight. There must be some kind of con going on here. So they call in the parents: “Is this your son?” Their reply is wonderful, especially for eager Christians who hope to stand up for their faith:

We know that this is our son and that he was born blind. But how he now sees we do not know, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him. He is of age. He will speak for himself. 9:20-21

The parents were motivated by fear and this is instructive. The reason they pass responsibility for the truth of the matter to their son is baldly stated and is of great significance:

His parents said these things because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone should confess Jesus to be Messiah (Christ), he was to be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, “he is of age; ask him”. 9:22-23

 

Anyone confessing Jesus to be God’s Messiah was to be cast out of the synagogue, not just the building (if there was one) but of the community of prayer and service. The word “synagogue” primarily refers to the community, just as the word “church’ primarily refers to a community of Christians and not to the building in which it worships. As Christian communities began to develop and grow beyond the confines of the Jewish homeland, expelling Christians from the synagogue became the norm. But it did not happen in the lifetime of Jesus and not, indeed, for a number of decades after his death.

We can see in the Acts of the Apostles that the first followers of Jesus in Jerusalem after the resurrection of Jesus and the coming of the Holy Spirit continued to worship in the Jerusalem Temple, the very heart of Jewish faith. In the Book of the Acts we read, “Now Peter and John were going up to the Temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour”. (3:1; see 4:1-22).
There were difficulties but expulsion was not the immediate solution.

We have to recall that Saint Paul’s practice on coming into a new town or city was to go first to the local synagogue and proclaim there the gospel concerning Jesus. Hostilities there were but it was only after the Jewish war (66 - 73 BA.D.), when Jews were brought to their knees, that widespread animosity was the order of the day. Of the twenty-seven books of the New Testament. 25 were written by Jews. Saint Luke, who wrote a Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, is the exception. He was a Greek citizen, probably from the city of Antioch in Syria.

So how is it that the parents of the once blind man are afraid that a suspicion that they acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah would lead to expulsion from the community of worship. It never happened in the days of Jesus. The fact is that our text is reading back into the days of Jesus hostilities and animosities that developed only after the death of Jesus and only after it became clear that the Christian movement was a challenge to traditional versions of Jewish faith. After the war of 66 - 73 A.D., Jewish leaders (mostly Pharisees) had to insist on loyalty to the faith of “our fathers” and to close ranks in order to survive. Christians were making an appeal to Gentiles and with some success. The writers of John’s Gospel were probably experiencing hostility from Jewish communities and they read this back into their account of the man born blind.

What is of especial importance is that the issue of Jesus as God’s Messiah is brought into the account of the healing. So far we have,
The man called Jesus.
He is a prophet.
Jesus the Messiah (Christ).

Where is this leading the readers/hearers of this Gospel?

So the man is called in again for a further interrogation. The question (which was central as Christianity began to spread), is aired: “You are his disciple; we are disciples of Moses”. The theological mind of the once blind man has certainly seen the light:

If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.
9:33

And, of course, for that ‘they cast him out”. Where is he to go now?

Listen:
Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him, he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 9:35

“Kyrie, ( Sir/Lord,) who is he that I may believe in him?” 9:36

“You have seen him, and the one speaking to you is he.” 9:37

“Lord, I believe”. 9:38

And he worshipped him.

That’s the story. From blindness to sight. From sight to insight. The light of the world has not only given sight to the blind but enlightenment to his darkness about God. The light of the world has brought the blind man to the light of life. That is the gospel of God. In the story of the man born blind we have seen the story of the world kaleidescoped into a story of Jesus who sees “a man blind from birth”.

 

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Joseph O’Hanlon

 

P.S. When we have long Gospel readings, as often happens in Lent, there is no reason why a number of people should not proclaim the text, as on Good Friday. The drama of these Lenten readings demand that we pay attention to how they are proclaimed to the congregation. If we are permitted to do this on Good Friday, I see no reason why we should not do so on other occasions.
JO’H

 

 

 

 

 

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