Lenten Reflections for a Time of Challenge

The readings for the Fourth Sunday of Lent — especially the first reading and the Gospel — are wonderful examples of how God often works in surprising and unexpected ways. In the first reading, taken from 1 Samuel 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a, God commands the prophet Samuel to go to Bethlehem to anoint a new king to replace Saul, whom God had rejected. As is so often the case, Samuel is not overly enthused about the task. If Saul finds out, he will consider it treason and kill him. And so Samuel does not bring a great deal of enthusiasm to the mission.

When he arrives in Bethlehem, Samuel finds Jesse, from whose sons God will choose a new anointed king. Jesse presents one after another of his seven sons to Samuel. Perhaps because he wants to get his dangerous mission over with, and because the first son is tall and impressive, Samuel wants to anoint him king. God, however, intervenes and rejects the first son because God is not impressed by appearances and does not see as humans see. One can well imagine Samuel’s increasing frustration after going through seven of Jesse’s sons. Finally, in desperation Samuel asks if there are any other sons. There happens to be one more, but unlike his brothers, he is working tending sheep. Once again — as with Joseph in the distant past — God chooses the youngest (and irritating, cf. 1 Samuel 17:28) son to be the chosen king. God works in very strange ways indeed.

The Gospel reading (John 9:1-41) is about Jesus healing the man born blind at the Pool of Siloam. As with most of the “signs” of Jesus in the Gospel of John, there are several layers of meaning to the story. It begins in a straightforward fashion. Jesus and the disciples encounter a man blind from birth. Rejecting the notion that the man’s blindness is a punishment for sin, Jesus heals him. When his neighbors see him healed, they ask who did it and he responds, “the man called Jesus.” Later the man is hauled before the Pharisees who question him.

One can well imagine how overwhelmed the man felt. When the Pharisees object that Jesus cannot be from God because he healed on the Sabbath, the man simply and courageously responds, “he is a prophet.” The man’s parents are called and, feeling intimidated, tell them their son is of age so ask him. The man is brought back and bullied by the Pharisees. However, he will now have none of it and responds to them in terms they cannot ignore. Enraged at having been bested by an uneducated man, the Pharisees resort to the time-tested response of the powerful who have been caught in hypocrisy: They heap abuse on him and “threw him out.” The man once again encounters Jesus and this time professes faith in him as the Son of Man.

Note how John makes the story from one of merely gaining sight to gaining insight. The man first describes Jesus as “the man called Jesus.” Faced with the Pharisees he declares Jesus to be a prophet. Finally, the man recognizes Jesus as the Son of Man. The story ends with Jesus stating that the man born blind has achieved true insight while the Pharisees, born with sight, are the ones who are truly blind.

The two stories come together in a rather appropriate way. My experience is that true humility is rarely, if ever, spontaneous: self-deprecation and modesty perhaps, but rarely deep humility. True humility comes when very normal, limited people encounter overwhelming circumstances over which they have little or no control. Recognizing their powerlessness, the truly humble person opens oneself to God’s power when faced with overwhelming odds. There is no bravado or chest thumping, but merely the recognition of one’s powerlessness and trust in God’s power.

Powerlessness and perhaps its accompanying humility are not things to which 21st century people in the developed world are accustomed. It is, however, the daily experience of the poor and those living in the developing world. Rather, we are accustomed to being in charge, on top, solving whatever problems arise. Perhaps this is understandable because it is so often true. However, sometimes — rare though it be — something comes along that we cannot get in charge of, on top of or solve. We encounter something that overwhelms us, frightens and humbles us.

Lent 2020 is the Lent of the coronavirus and it terrifies us — and rightly so. It is an enemy we cannot bomb or send armies against. It is not even an enemy we can see. But it is there and murderously so. Our televisions are overflowing with advertisement for drugs and medications for every possible disease and condition. And yet faced with the coronavirus, the best we can come up with right now is “social distancing.” It is understandable that we are terrified and perplexed. At our deepest level our pride has been hurt and it painfully disorients us. It is understandable that we have a hard time seeing God in all this.

Nevertheless, the two readings for this weekend challenge us to insight. God rarely accomplishes the spectacular through the spectacular. God works through the small, the weak and the overlooked again and again. That gives us hope that just because we do not see a solution to this challenge does not mean that God is not working on a solution. We are challenged to the insight that God is good, merciful and really cares about us. That is an insight we can best obtain by humbly opening ourselves to God’s power.

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