26th March 2017 - Hugh Perry
1 Samuel 16: 1-13
Saul had just got himself established when God declares to Samuel that Saul isn’t working out as a king. Furthermore, God had already chosen a successor.
Now in this morning’s reading we meet Jesse’s youngest son whom Samuel anoints as future king.
Maurice Andrew says that, although it is difficult to agree on the historicity or time of writing of this part of the Old Testament, there is no doubt that these stories are a skilful narrative with many insights into relationships. Seven of David’s brothers are rejected and the point is made that humans look at outward appearance but God can see into people’s hearts.
This is something that is often apparent in our own politics where voters are often all to ready to accept a celebrity only to discover that they lack the patience, discernment and leadership qualities that the position requires.
There are also plenty of stories of people who were chastised by teachers as potential failures who went on to live extremely successful lives. Bill Gates’ mother was so concerned about his lack of social skills and refusal to fit her understanding of normal teenage behaviour that she took him to a psychologist. After number sessions the psychologist, told her that she wasn’t going to win. In fact Gates’ potential was probably well in excess of his mothers greatest expectations.
John 9: 1-41
In today’s reading we are about to meet a blind man who, with Jesus’ help, can see while the stubborn Pharisees are blinded by their religious rules and regulations. Interestingly the chapter begins with the disciples’ vision also impaired by their cultural conditioning. This state of unseeing sets the stage for the drama that unfolds as Jesus meets a man who was blind from birth.
Spitting on the ground to make mud and putting it on the man’s eyes was a typical technique of healers of the time and we should not spend time debating if it could have made the man see or not. One of the surprising things about folk medicine and ancient healing techniques was that many of them seemed to work. The Pharisees believed that as this healing happened on the Sabbath, when work was prohibited, God could not have been in the healing.
The thing that was unique about Israel’s history at the time of first Samuel was that the various tribes were moving towards a feudal monarchy because of external threats. The tribes were aligned by ethnicity but getting them to act together required diplomacy which does not reach consensus quickly. Therefore, the collection of Israelite tribes could not mobilise quickly enough in the face of what the United States and author Tom Clancy call ‘Clear and present danger.’
The concept of ‘clear and present danger’ is a rationale for the limitation of free speech which originated in a majority opinion written in 1919 by Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes.
Tom Clancy used the term as the title of his 1989 novel. The suggestion for the plot was that drug trafficking may well present a ‘clear and present danger’ to the United States and therefore might be a legitimate reason for ‘black operations’ within another nation. Naturally such operations lead to a whole variety of less than legal events as various officials weave a web of deceit and cover-ups. Of course, only Clancy’s hero Jack Ryan, along with considerable violence and exciting military machinery, could untangle such a web as Ryan manoeuvres himself into position for the next bestselling novel.
The Israelite tribes on the other hand faced a very clear and present danger to their lives and their agriculture in terms of the Philistines and they desperately needed a Jack Ryan or at least a Harrison Ford to be both courageous in battle and have the accepted authority to mobilise the tribes into a credible defensive force.
Saul appeared to be such a person but appears to be more the actor than the hero and Samuel was sent to anoint a successor.
Unlike an elected government or president as feudalism developed to the point of choosing a king the collective of tribes also choose the king’s successor. Monarchies are hereditary.
That is not surprising because the leadership of patriarchal households is hereditary and tribal leadership is given or assumed by the patriarchal head of the most influential or military superior family.
In that understanding it is not surprising that the writers of 1st Samuel say the divine hand was involved in David becoming king.
As our reading points out David was the youngest member of his family and he was not the son of Saul. Therefore there must have been divine intervention in his progression to become king and that was mediated through the action of the prophet Samuel, who also appointed Saul.
However, one of the most infuriating realities of divine intervention is that it usually comes through natural process and quite ordinary events.
David was at the bottom of the patriarchal pyramid as far as inheriting the family’s wealth was concerned which may well have launched him on a military career. As his career is followed through the books of first and second Samuel we see him as both a mercenary and running a protection racket. Furthermore after his encounter with Goliath he married into the royal family. Two things are helpful in replacing a royal line of succession. Marrying into the royal family and having a stronger army than the king and when it came to the final showdown David had both.
Divine intervention is most apparent in hindsight when a series of surprisingly connected events produce an amazing outcome. People can react to such an observation of such connections by crying ‘what a coincidence’ or ‘O my God’ and both explanations may well be appropriate.
‘God moves in mysterious ways’ and it is only through the filter of faith that we observe the divine hand in our lives and the lives of others.
God’s mysterious ways are evident in our Gospel reading along with the human reluctance to acknowledge the divine hand in our lives by looking for explainable coincidences. There is also evidence of our tendency to limit the action of the Spirit of change through rules and customs. However, the passage begins by looking at the mysterious ways the divine presence is revealed to us.
At the beginning of the passage the disciples want to know why the man was born blind. That’s a question that we ask about calamity and we are always keen to hunt out those who cause unexplained tragedy.
We still believe that sin causes disaster but it is always someone else’s sin and we want them punished. As far as unborn children are concerned we know that fetal alcohol syndrome causes problems. We know that poverty can also limit a child’s development and we are likely to put more energy into blaming parents than resources into caring for damaged children or helping parents in desperate situations.
The disciples’ tradition told them that sickness and deformity was the result of sin so their question was quite understandable.
Jesus answer on the other hand was quite surprising.
‘He was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him’. (John 9:3b)
How could God condemn a child to the trauma and struggle of being born blind when the gospels give us an image of a loving parent God. Would a loving God really condemn a child to a lifetime of blindness so Jesus could heal him as a divine publicity stunt?
In fact, the whole dichotomy of a loving God and human suffering leads to the idea that sin is the cause of human sickness and other forms of human misery. The associated dichotomy is that although we can discount sin as a cause of the common cold there are unfortunate behaviours that cause misery both self inflicted and disaster inflicted on others. Smoking causes emphysema and lung cancer, driving while under the influence of alcohol can kill both the driver and others. The mismanagement of a nation’s economy can condemn people to poverty and all the tragedy associated with it. Slum dwellings or low cost housing are self built or worse, built by companies as housing projects on unstable land. As a result people are killed in landslides, drowned in floods or, as we know only too well, homes are swamped by liquefaction. In those cases innocent people suffer but the sinners get richer by financing the rebuild.
But while we are talking about dichotomies we should note that, while it does not fit our vision of a loving God that the man was born blind ‘so that God’s works might be revealed in him,’ God’s works are revealed in overcoming of human tragedy.
Helen Keller was an American author, political activist, and lecturer. She was also the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. The story of how Keller's teacher, Anne Sullivan, broke through the isolation imposed by a near complete lack of language and allow this girl born blind and deaf to blossom and reach her true potential is more than just inspirational. The lives that both Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan lead are mind blowing. In reflecting on the disciples’ question about whose sin caused the man to be blind it is worth considering that in Keller’s case it was not her blindness and lack of hearing that shut her in a world of darkness. It was society’s attitudes that imprisoned Helen Keller in darkness. In setting her free Ann Sullivan was not only the channel that revealed God’s work to the world but the pair of them liberated the world to see the potential in people that are so easily marginalised.
That indeed is God working in mysterious ways, the divine wonders to perform.
Like the blind religious leaders in our gospel reading help was not available to the young Helen Keller because, until the arrival of Anne Sullivan, the world could not see her potential.
The Pharisees could not see that the man’s sight was restored. They were blinded to the possibility of divine healing because it happened on the Sabbath. Therefore, for them, regardless of the physical evidence the man must still have been blind. The very essence of the story was that the Pharisees as representatives of the religious elite were blinded by their ridged religious tradition and could not see God’s works be revealed in Jesus’ healing. But the blind man could see. Like Helen Keller the blind man could not only see the world he had never seen before. He could also see what the religious elite would not see, God revealed in the mission and ministry of Jesus.
Likewise, the same question could be asked about Hellen Keller’s experience. Who was the most blind? Helen whose eyes could not see and whose ears would not hear or her world that could not, and would not see her as a human being with the potential to reveal God’s work to the world.
The question these texts ask us is do we allow our past, our habits, our world view to limit the potential of young people or prevent people who are different from achieving something amazing? Are we blind to the mysterious ways God reveals the divine self in our world?
Does our limited understanding of the mystery beyond our knowing cloud our vision so we pass heedless and unseeing when the thorn-bush by the wayside is aflame with the glory of God?
These readings challenge us all to be open to the potential of all people and prepared to not only see but be part of God’s working in unlikely places through unlikely people.