I’m always intrigued by those puzzles in which there are two pictures that at first glance look the same, but have a caption reading, “Can you spot the differences between these two pictures?” There are small things that differ between the two pictures. One might have a yellow flower and the other a red one. One is missing a beach ball or has a baseball in the same place. I suspect those who develop these puzzles have a good laugh as they do their work. “How long will it take before the kids notice this difference?” Such puzzles help children develop an awareness of detail and subtle differences. They’re good for reminding adults that things are not always what they seem at first glance to be.
We have reached the Fourth Sunday in Lent, a Sunday known as Laetare Sunday. Laetare is the first word in Latin of the opening antiphon of the Mass, Laetare Jerusalem, Rejoice, O Jerusalem. This Sunday the celebrants will wear rose-colored vestments. (Teasingly, some folks refer to the color as pink, knowing that in our time and culture, pink is a color more commonly associated with women’s styles and fashion than with men’s vestments. The men smile and correct them, “It’s rose.” Another example of different ways of perceiving the same thing….)
Once again, we have two different sets of readings. Cycle A readings are used in communities which are celebrating the Scrutinies with their RCIA candidates. Cycle C readings are used in other communities.
Sometimes the readings have very different themes, but this day there are some common threads.
Cycle C readings begin with a section from the book of Joshua (5:9a, 10-12). It takes place after the people have crossed the Jordan River and entered the Promised Land. For forty years, they have been in the desert and eaten manna each day. Now they are in the “Land of Milk and Honey,” a land of great abundance. They celebrate Passover there and eat the unleavened bread and parched grain of that meal. The very next day, the manna does not again fall. The “yield of the land of Canaan” is now theirs to enjoy.
Psalm 34 rejoices: “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.” The lowly will hear and be glad. “I sought the Lord and he answered me.” The Lord delivered the poor one from distress. So many examples of the goodness of the Lord, a goodness physically tasted by the Israelites in the text from Joshua.
St. Paul explains to the Corinthians (2 Cor 5:17-21) that old things have passed away and new things have come into being for those who belong to Christ, those who are members of the Christian community. All are part of Christ’s body and share in the mission of reconciliation between God and humanity. This is not just the calling of the apostles. It is the calling of all Christians. Those outside the community may not perceive this difference, but those who have answered the call will shine forth the righteousness of God in their lives of faith as Christ’s ambassadors to the world.
The Gospel story in Cycle C is from Luke (15:1-3, 11-32). It’s known as the story of the Prodigal Son. A man has two sons. One begs for his share of the inheritance in advance. The other stays home with his father and works on the family land. The first goes off to another land and spends all his money frivolously. Eventually a famine comes. He has fallen to the point of needing to care for pigs, unclean animals, to earn any money at all. He in such a sorry position that he doesn’t even get offered the food fed to the pigs. Coming to his senses, he realizes his error in leaving home. He decides to return and beg his father for a job as a field hand.
As he approaches, his father sees him coming and runs out to meet him. A party and great celebration follow. The brother who remained at home is terribly upset and won’t come into the house to the party. His father begs him to come and celebrate, “because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again.”
The father in this story sees things as God does. We too are called in this parable to see through God’s eyes.
The Cycle A readings start out with the selection of David to be the successor of Saul as King of Israel. The Prophet Samuel (Sam 16:1b, 6-7, 10-13a) is called to go to Bethlehem, to the home of a man named Jesse. Jesse has many sons, all of whom appear at first glance to be perfect for becoming king. Yet as each appears, the Lord tells Samuel that this is not the one. Finally, after all the sons at home have been examined, Samuel asks, “Are these all the sons you have?” As it turns out, there is one more, a boy who is out taking care of the sheep. No one even thought of him as a possible option.
Samuel calls for the boy to be summoned. When David appears, the Lord says, “There – anoint him, for this is the one!” When Samuel anointed David, “the spirit of the Lord rushed upon David.” David grew up to become the second king of Israel.
The Lord’s eyes perceived something in David that was not obvious to the rest of his family.
Psalm 23 follows in this set of readings. In this psalm, the composer declares, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” We are very used to seeing this as a beautiful and comforting sentiment. Traditional pictures show a well-groomed, rather effeminate man, or a healthy young boy, tending a flock of sheep on a beautiful afternoon. But this was not the lived reality of the world of the shepherd. There were wet, rainy days. There were muddy fields and cold nights. There was very low social status as the people moved from being traveling shepherds to having farms, cities, armies, and kingdoms to defend.
There were still a good number of shepherds in the time of David and Jesus, just as today there continue to be shepherds. Shepherds and other pastoralists (such as cowboys) still follow their animals from pasture to pasture. Many farmers also keep sheep and cattle as part of their operations. These animals provide many resources that are useful for the humans who tend them and sell or exchange those products as part of a way of earning their living.
To think of the Lord God as a shepherd brings a multitude of images. The notion of a God who would get his hands dirty, entering into the earthiness of our lives as humans, is striking. The notion that God is like a shepherd who knows what is best for the sheep and will protect them is comforting.
A lot depends on whose eyes are looking and from what perspective. What is different in one picture/scenario than in the other?
In his letter to the people of Ephesus, St. Paul speaks of light and darkness. Those who are not yet followers of Jesus are still living in darkness. Christians are children of light, from which goodness, truth, and righteousness flow. He advises them to bring anything that is not good to the light so it can be healed. The deeds of darkness are shameful and bring harm. Those that are brought into the light become visible and bring honor. In a culture in which honor and shame are shared across an entire family, this is tremendously important. The picture of a life is quite different when lived with honor in the light of Christ.
The Gospel for today is from St. John (9:1-41), the healing of the man blind from birth. In Jesus’ time, there were no social services for children born with disabilities. To give birth to a child born blind was a great tragedy. There were very few occupations, if any, that welcomed the blind and allowed them to learn a skill and support themselves as adults. Most disabled people found they must become beggars to survive. People passing by might help. More often, they simply pretended not to see or hear the beggar. Most likely, they simply tuned out the voices of the beggars as they themselves went about their day. (We sometimes do the same as we pass the unhoused on our streets, if truth be told.)
Jesus and his friends passed a blind man who was begging. The disciples wondered whose fault it was that the man had been born blind. In their culture, it was assumed that blindness was punishment for sin – whether the sin of the person who had been born blind or the sin of the parents. Jesus replied that no one had sinned and thereby caused this tragedy for the man in question. God’s works would become visible through the blind man and his misfortune.
Jesus spat on the soil, making a mud paste which he smeared on the man’s eyes. Spittle was believed to have healing characteristics in those days. Then he instructed the man to go wash off the mud at the Pool of Siloam. The man didn’t ask to be healed. He could have laughed and remained at his post. But instead, he went to the pool and washed. He played a role in the healing himself by following Jesus’ instructions. When he washed, his blindness was healed and he could see.
He came back from the pool a transformed man. He had been a beggar, dependent on the goodwill of strangers. Now he testified to what had happened. “The man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes and told me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ So I went there and washed and was able to see.”
He did not know where to find Jesus or even what Jesus looked like. He had been healed at the Siloam while Jesus had continued on his way.
St. John tells of the witness of the newly healed man and his courage in speaking the truth of his experience to the religious authorities and teachers in Jerusalem. The authorities did not believe him. His parents testified that he had indeed been born blind. He didn’t back down from his story of the healing received. He argued with those who claimed that Jesus was a sinner, therefore not possibly able to heal. He reminded them that God listens to those who are devout and do his will. He did not back down in his testimony and was eventually tossed out.
Jesus went to find him when he heard of the actions of the authorities. He asked the man whether he believed in the Son of Man. Upon learning that this was Jesus speaking with him, the man professed his faith.
Themes of seeing and blindness run throughout this story. They don’t follow standard patterns. The blind see and the seeing are blind. God’s eyes see differently than do the eyes of those who think they know what is possible, right, and good. God looks at the big picture and sees differences that we might not notice.
Today I ask myself, what is it that I am not seeing? Where are the blind-spots in my life? Do I really want to see? If I see, what will change? Do I want change? Where does God fit into all of this? What does God see that I don’t? Two pictures – Many things basically the same – A few things different.
Open my eyes, Lord. Help me to see your face… Help me to see.