Biblical Optics: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 3 April 2011

Revised Common Lectionary Page for 3 April 2011 (Fourth Sunday in Lent, Year A)

1 Samuel 16:1-13Psalm 23Ephesians 5:8-14John 9:1-41

This Bible post is a bit different from most insofar as, in a matter of six days, I’ll be preaching the Ephesians text.  Therefore this post might be a bit longer and more rambling than normal.  Don’t be distressed; I’m just working through some thoughts on the way to a  sermon outline, which means I need more material to cut.  I’ll probably return to a shorter form next week.

That Paul (and yes, my seminary friends, I do treat Ephesians as an epistle of Paul) at the outset treats darkness and light as substances into which one might transform lets the reader know that we’re in the realm of poetry and allegory here: Paul, being an educated man, no doubt knew about the basic nature of light and darkness, that the same rock retained a basic identity as “this rock” as the cycles of day and night passed by: it did not become darkness-considered-abstractly at night any more than it became light-considered-abstractly when the sun rose.  In fact, even in Plato’s famous Allegory of the Cave in Republic, those liberated from the chains of their limited imaginations do not themselves become sources of light: when they return to the cave to share their new learning with the dwellers-in-darkness, they actually become less able to exist in that system than they were before, and their laughable blindness is a main point in Plato’s extended metaphor.

Not so with Paul: as with Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, Paul holds that those faithful in Christ do not merely see light but become light, a city on a hill that is to be seen by all according to Jesus.  Because those moved by the Gospel and empowered by the Spirit not only understand but become those things that constitute the best in human life (agathon and dikaiosyne and aletheia here, translated as goodness and justice and truth in most English Bibles), this is no philosophical elegy, lamenting that the good city can never really exist given the powers of human appetite: this is a call to be the good city, to be transformed and refuse merely to be subjects of a distant Imperium.  Later in Ephesians Paul will certainly call on people to live peaceably within those structures, even when relating to those whom he calls “darkness” here, but that call is no capitulation to the “inevitability” of such systems but a confident strategic assertion: if light can turn darkness into light, then the mere presence of light, even without active and coercive moves towards revolution, will transform the darkness, putting the former wife in the position to be a genuine help-meet to her newly-lit husband, for the slave to become the teacher to a slave-owner who has realized the infinite dignity of any being created in God’s image and saved by the death of God’s own son.

The participle “trying to learn” (sometimes translated as a second imperative) points to the ongoing, entirely-human character of living as that light.  The Christian’s life is a kind of rhetoric, not knowing prior to any given moment what will be good in all possible moments but always finding out, as one walks, what will be pleasing to the Lord here and now.  Just as the Son of God came not as a least-common-denominator neutral body but as a fully articulated Jewish peasant man, one whom the people of Nazareth call tekton or son of a tekton, so those living as the light of God in the time between times will by necessity live always in search of what forms of life and ways of existing that, in this moment and in this place, fulfilling rather than discarding the particularities that constitute human being.

People who are about the business of being light, of discovering means of illuminating the world, should have no interest in becoming part of that system that Paul calls darkness.  Instead, Paul articulates the relationships between the darkness, the light, and those who are becoming light with a verb that’s hard to work into this system, and translations show it.  Older translations have Paul calling on Christians to “reprove” such darkness, while newer translations tend to prefer “expose.”  The implied story that connects both is that, in a court of criminal law, the prosecutor calls shame on the actions of the guilty precisely by exposing the true character of what has happened.  What makes the Christian’s rhetoric of exposure and reproof different, fulfilling what the legal system cannot but leave empty, is that those dark places illuminated and reproved themselves then become light.  No doubt Paul has his own story in mind here, the crusader bent on stopping the work of the early faithful, only to be illuminated (in a very dramatic manner) and thus becoming another light that brings further light (the Christian as true Lucifer?) wherever he goes.

The final moment in this week’s epistle reading is a mystery because, as far as I know, the text that “says” what Paul writes here is lost to history.  (If anyone knows different, do let me know before Sunday so that I don’t embarrass myself.)  Nonetheless, what appears to be a Christian song comments nicely on the whole picture that Paul has been painting: the Gospel’s call to the world is to emerge out of the world of darkness and sleep, that dream-world which obscures the clear-eyed truth about God’s goodness and the world’s God-belovedness.  And to step forth into that world of light and truth is not merely to awake but truly to rise from the dead.

May our rising, our illumination, and our seeking God’s pleasure continue to be a blessing to those among whom we walk.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *