• Psalm 146
  • Isaiah 35: 1-10
  • James 5: 7-10
  • Matthew 11:2-11 A common theme (three of the four readings) is "opening the eyes of the blind." When I lecture on diseases of the eye, I make the following point: Blindness is a perennial symbol for spiritual darkness. See New Testament ("Light of the body", "Blind leading the blind"), Shakespeare's "King Lear", Goethe's Faust (at the end), Robert Lewis Stevenson's "Treasure Island", Yeats's "On Baile's Strand" & "The Cat and the Moon", hymn "Amazing Grace", "The Blind Men and the Elephant" (re-read that last verse -- it's a satire on arguments among theologians), cartoon "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol" (Scrooge isn't a bad man, he's a blind man), others. For the opposite view, see John Milton's sonnet "On His Blindness", and "Paradise Lost" Book III vv. 1 ff.; Ibsen's Solveig ("Peer Gynt") is blind to Peer's faults, which is how Peer eventually discovers his "real self"; the Mountain King ("In the Hall of the") offers Peer eye surgery so that he will see ugly ("Be selfish") as beautiful ("Be yourself"). Isaiah's passage refers to Lebanon, Carmel, and Sharon. One of our most beautiful trees is the cedar of Lebanon, one of our most beautiful garden-spots is Carmel-by-the-Sea in California, and one of our nicest flowers is the rose of Sharon. Isaiah speaks of a "road", and the first name that we, the Christian community, gave ourselves is "the road". Jesus of course said "I am the road (way)." Isaiah prophecies that even goofy people will not get lost on this particular road. I take great comfort from this verse (Isaiah 35:8). The unclean will not pass on the road. Since it's really impossible to keep any kind of person off any road, it must be that either the road itself, or the seeking of its destination, makes a person clean. The road is "holy" (qodesh, KO-desh). This root means "set apart" or "separate" as well as reserved for God. There's a hymn, "I walk the King's highway". Not everybody chooses to do so. Psalm 146 speaks of God freeing prisoners and opening the eyes of blind folks. Paul had the experience of being blinded, and then having his eyes opened, and subsequently being released from prison, all by God's direct action. More often, God releases people from literal prisons by opening their figurative eyes. The father of one of my medical students was once a hardened criminal who laughed at the prison pastor. The pastor said, "Well, since you have nothing else to do, here is a Bible. Read it, and ask God to show Himself to you." Out of boredom and frustration, the criminal did just that, and to his amazement, had a religious experience which transformed him utterly. He is now a minister in California. "Be patient" (James 7:7, macrothymesati, mack-roe-thoo-MACE-ah- teh) comes from roots which together mean "stay in a good mood for a long time". It's the same word as is used for the prophets ("longsuffering", James 7:10). "Eggike" (AYNG-ick-eh, James 7:8, "has drawn near") is the perfect tense of the word used last week by John the Baptist, also perfect tense. Something has already happened, and something else is about to happen. John spoke of the coming of the Kingdom. The author of "James" speaks of the parousia, the coming of the Lord. "Brothers" (adelphoi, ah-dell-FOY) actually means both brothers and sisters; Greek has the same masculine-can-mean-both-sexes as English (regrettably or not). This seems to have been the old term we Christians used for one another, and of course Jesus said that those who obey Him are his mother (!) and brothers. James cites the endurance of Job. Ask some "Biblical literalists" to repeat the story of Job, and you'll hear something like this: "God allowed Satan to test Job by making him miserable, but Job never complained, so God rewarded Job double." This unedifying rendering of the story isn't Biblical. In fact, Job complained bitterly ("God would put me on trial and find me guilty even though I am innocent!" "I should write a book!" "I want a lawyer to go talk to God with me!" "Why won't God leave me along long enough for me to swallow a mouthful of spit? What difference does it make to Him whether or not I sin?" "Hey, you three, listen to my spoof of Psalm 8." These are intermixed with expressions of trust. This is very true-to-life.) Job's three counsellors offer him all the easy, facile, wrong answers of conventional piety. Behind the facade of courtesy and helpfulness, their mean-mindedness and small-mindedness are obvious. At the end, the only answer that Job gets is that the universe is much bigger and more complicated than he and his friends imagined, and that having no answers is better than uncharitable, wrong answers. The author of James has just gotten through telling us not to murmur (stenazete, stenn-AH-dzett-eh) against one another for fear of being judged. Job's three counsellors might have profited from this advice. So might we. This gospel's tough. We're told elsewhere that a voice from heaven proclaimed Jesus at His baptism. In today's gospel, John asks whether Jesus is the "coming one". Jesus's answer is oblique -- He cites the signs of the kingdom, i.e., miracles and the poor people (ptokh-OY) get told good news (literal meaning of euaggelizontai, yew-ang-ell- IHDZ-on-tie). This is followed by a blessing on those who are not offended by Jesus (skandalisthe, "skahn-dahl-iss-THAY", our word "scandalized"). It looks to me like the evangelist intended this: Jesus's ministry was not what folks were expecting from the messiah. Instead of being a political and military leader wielding miraculous powers, Jesus helped the poor and oppressed in other ways. This upset lots of people. Those who weren't upset were fortunate, and remain fortunate today. So far as I can tell, Jesus was crucified because some other people said he was the messiah and that the messiah would be a political and military leader. Jesus had also made enemies in organized religion. Here, though, Jesus's works are entirely gentle and apolitical. (As in psalm 146: "Put not your trust in the government....") Walk past a manger scene, with little Jesus lying on the straw among the animals in the not-altogether-odor-free stable, adored by shepherds (considered riffraff by the Jews), and think of Jesus saying "Good for you if you are not scandalized (your higher sensibilities offended, this isn't worthy of God, etc.) by this episode." Do the same thing on Good Friday. Do the same thing on Easter Morning. Back to Ed's Propers
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