Fourth Sunday of Lent, March 22, 2020
Israel's first king, Saul, was failing. The Lord sends the judge named Samuel, secretly, to a small town to find and anoint the next king. Samuel goes and invites the town's elders and their sons to a ritual sacrifice.
The Ephesians were pagan converts. This reading is a reflection on the contrasts in their lives before and after their baptisms. The closing quotation is from an early baptismal hymn.
Early Jewish followers of Jesus began to suffer persecution and expulsion from synagogues. Saint John's gospel tried to get the indecisive converts to make their final commitment to Christ. Here John turns an early memory of a cure by Jesus into an extended teaching on conversion and its consequences.
The Historical Situation: For a long time, Israel had been ruled by Judges. The people wanted a king so they could be like other nations. The wise warned against this, and against other tendencies to imitate the pagan nations, but the people insisted. The Lord relented and let them name Saul as their first king. When Saul failed, the Lord prompted Samuel, the last Judge, to designate as the next king an unnamed son of one Jesse of Bethlehem. This passage is about Samuel's journey to find the Lord's chosen one, and the ritual for anointing the new king, which was the ancient way of designating a monarch. It details Samuel's notion of which son is the right one versus God's choice of the unlikely David. (David is so unlikely, he wasn't even summoned to the ceremony at first. The youngest son, he was tending sheep instead.)
Proclaiming It: Before starting the reading, pause and let the congregation settle down, finish coughing, and get silent. If the altar server is carrying the sacramentary somewhere, let him or her stop moving and distracting your listeners. This is always good practice, but especially when there's a key phrase in the first sentence of the first reading, like today's "I have chosen my king from among his [Jesse's] sons." Say this in such a way that your congregation understands that we're looking for a future king here. If they miss that, nothing that follows will make sense.
Now, tell the story. For one thing, this is the story of Samuel's continuing education in the ways of the Lord. He's already old, a retired Judge (governor, really), and he's lived through the kingship of Saul. So he has some ideas about how things should turn out. So you should make him sound a little puzzled as the Lord rejects seven apparently fit candidates for the kingship. Then, as Samuel has caught on to the Lord's plan, make him sound resolute as he insists on meeting the most unlikely youngest son.
(The one of Jesse's sons who is named is Eliab, pronounced ee LIE ab. To hear "Eliab" pronounced, click the wedge:
That audio clip comes from The Bible Workshop).
At this time every year in Lent of Year A (of the Church's three-year cycle of Sunday readings), we proclaim the gospel passage, John 9: 1-41, which you should also read, about Jesus' cure of the man born blind. The passage from 1 Samuel may be put into the calendar today because of the famous line,
"Not as man sees does God see, because man sees the appearance but the Lord looks into the heart,"
which resonates with the gospel passage. As you proclaim the passage, then, emphasize that line. Say it slowly and with authority; it may be the most important thing some listeners hear today. The best way to prepare to proclaim the line might be to ponder it now for a few minutes, asking how it has proven true in your own life. If you can do that, your proclamation will carry the authority that the line deserves.
A homily starter: In 2007, in another context, this author's pastor said in homily that "God's greatest fear" was that the People of God would be "just like everybody else." That's evident in 1 Samuel 8, where the people insistently ask for something that will make them like their neighbors, in spite of Judge Samuel's eloquent warnings.
The Historical Situation: The Christians at Ephesus had been pagans, not Jews, before their conversion to Christ. That prior status is what the author has in mind when he says "you were once in darkness." In its original context, this may have been a catechesis to help converts (and they were all converts) undertand the before/after character of the change they accepted in baptism. The expression "Therefore, it says" (verse 14) indicates a quote from a hymn from an early baptism liturgy. The whole passage extends the light-versus-darkness metaphor. It, too, seems chosen for proclamation today in view of the blindness-versus-sight theme of today's gospel.
Proclaiming It: The phrases of this passage are short and simple (unlike many we've proclaimed on recent Sundays!). So read them slowly and, as usual, try to use contrasting tones of voice when describing the deeds of light versus the deeds of darkness.
On a Google search for images of Samuel anointing David, I found first the web page of a tourist/scripture-commentator who says this detail from a window in Ely Cathedral indeed shows that ritual event. But the inscription around the image convinces me this depicts the anointing of David's predecessor Saul. The Latin visible in the glass means "The Lord has anointed you over His inheritance ...," which is what Samuel says to Saul in I Kings 10:1. In any case, click here for the image in higher resolution.
Ely Cathedral is in Cambridgeshire, England. The present building dates from the 11th century, while there has been a church presence and town there since the 7th century. (Ely is the episcopal see governing the fictional church in Grantchester, and its interesting vicar, in the eponymous BBC Masterpiece Mystery series.)
This page updated January 29, 2020