Today’s readings test our ability not to use the A word [Alleluia] during Lent. Our first reading: the Lord can deal even with Samuel’s limitations so that he anoints the right son and the story of David can begin. The reading’s from the 16th chapter. Samuel’s been onstage since chapter 1, has built an impressive CV, yet here he is about to anoint Eliab. The Lord intervenes—thank God Samuel doesn’t blow that off—and David is finally located, brought onstage, an anointed.
In our Gospel we hear Jesus’ “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” And that turns out to be wonderful news for the man born blind, who not only gains his sight, but is empowered to give the authorities some serious lip: “Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. … If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”
As John put it in his prologue: “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.” This is what we celebrated through the twelve days of Christmas and throughout Epiphany: the light has come. We do not have to keep wondering what a truly human life looks like, whether there is a Creator, what that Creator is like. The light has come.
The Lenten dimension to these readings: even a top-notch prophet like Samuel is going to choose Eliab as often as not. The Pharisees, who had far more in common with Jesus than did the Sadducees or the Herodians or the Zealots, even they as a group stumbled badly.
At the end of the reading: “Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see,” your sin remains.’”
Jesus’ response is a challenge for the Pharisees—and for us. In his letters, Paul repeatedly claims knowledge of many things. But he also writes: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12; italics mine).
We know. We know only in part. You wouldn’t think it would be that hard to hold these two together, but twenty centuries of church history tell us otherwise. Between our egos and our fears it can be hard to acknowledge that there are important things we don’t know. Thomas Merton spoke to this: “We do not want to be beginners. but let us be convinced of the fact that we will never be anything but beginners, all our life!”
Hard, for that matter, to hear Paul in our second reading: “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.” Paul, with the whole Bible (our “Old Testament”) available, apostolic letters in circulation, Jesus’ words and deeds on their way to being compiled by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, you’re writing “Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord”? Yes. That’s what living in that space between “We know” and “We know only in part” means.
But having brought in Paul’s “Now I know only in part,” I’d better let him finish his thought, for the next verse reads (concludes): “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13). In other words, it’s not just about knowledge. As he says elsewhere in that letter “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1).
“Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.” That’s a call to a lifetime of learning. How do I play my various family roles, my roles in the other circles in which I move? What do I do with my resources, gifts, passions? Since there’s always change, there’s always need for adjustments—without going into the opportunity to learn from, rather than simply repeat, my mistakes.
“Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.” Organizations have the opportunity to learn—or not—over multiple lifetimes. World Vision, the Christian NGO I worked with for 18 years, was on this pilgrimage. To sum up about 50 years of one part of that pilgrimage: they got into community development when their founder, Bob Pierce, was handed a child in South Korea, and asked to respond. The first response was orphanages, but it quickly became clear that it would be better to focus on the children in their communities before they were handed off to orphanages. That led to multiple rounds of learning: what are the dimensions in rural life that make it more or less likely that families will be able to stay together? Agriculture, potable water, healthy practices: just the start of a substantial list. And Jesus: what role did his invitation to discipleship play? Over time, issues of power became increasingly central. At the core, community development is about who decides, how decisions are made, whose voices are heard or silenced. And that in turn helped us understand how to bring Jesus into the conversation, not as a rival to the Buddha, Mohammad, etc., but as One who had plenty to say about how power, about greatness, about servanthood. We were trying to learn from him (“We know in part”) and encouraged the communities with which we worked to weigh his words and example. Later, advocacy emerged as a major focus. Often this was on the national level. In one country, the government ran primary schools throughout the country. But the further from the capital, the more likely that the teachers (who often lived in the capital) would show up later than Monday morning and depart earlier than Friday afternoon. So advocacy was about encouraging the government to do what it said it was doing. Sometimes this was on the international level: what policies in Washington, London, Paris, etc. made development in Cambodia, Cameroon, Columbia, etc. more or less sustainable? There’s always more to learn. And in every national or local office there are the recurrent choices: are we trying to learn (which is often disruptive) or simply content to run the programs?
“Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord.” It’s an invitation for our parishes, for St Peter’s. Where do our gifts align with opportunities? What do we do when our notions of what the Lord might find pleasing differ? Here we really need to remember Paul’s “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
Whatever the context, I like that story about Thomas Edison. The hard part about inventing the light bulb was apparently finding the right filament (material, thickness, etc.). A reporter asked how it felt to fail 1,000 times; Edison replied that he hadn’t failed; he’d succeeded in eliminating 1,000 dead ends.
At the end of our second reading Paul quotes a current hymn: “Sleeper, awake! / Rise from the dead, / and Christ will shine on you.” In the context (“Live as children of light… Try to find out what is pleasing to the Lord”) he’s not pointing to a once-off event, but to an ongoing process. We’re not orphaned. Christ is shining. The Spirit that moved over the waters at creation, that inspired young David, that rested on Jesus: this Spirit is even yet at play in that space between “We know” and “We know in part.”
Post script: if we wonder how all this might translate into prayer, there’s substantial overlap between the themes I’ve explored in today’s texts and Living Well Through Lent 2023, the study guide we’ve been using on Wednesday nights (see Living Compass). So, to close, Thomas Merton’s prayer as found in that guide:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.