Lent 4A (30 March 2014)



  • 1 Samuel 16:1-13 & Psalm 23
  • Ephesians 5:8-14
  • John 9:1-41

Introduction: Fourth Sunday of Lent

The Fourth Sunday of Lent is often observed as a distinctive Sunday within the austerities of Lent. The traditional reading for this Sunday were characterised by themes of rejoicing and refreshment, and in Britain it was traditional for those serving in wealthy homes to take a gift of fresh cakes (simnel cakes) to their mothers on this Sunday. The English tradition of Mothering Sunday has its origins in these ancient customs, and thus a very different pedigree from the North American “Mother’s Day” and similar secular celebrations of motherhood in various countries around the world.

Incipit of the Gregorian chant introit for Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent.

With the development of three year lectionary cycle the traditional Laetare Sunday themes have been dissipated somewhat, but elements of the traditional themes can still be discerned in the readings for this day in each of the three years. This year it is especially seen in the theme of the Good Shepherd and the use of the popular Twenty-Third Psalm.

First Reading: David is anointed as king

This delightful story celebrates the divine choice of David as the future ruler of “Israel.”

It may be helpful to explore this passage by paying attention to each of the three “worlds” relevant to biblical hermeneutics:

  • the world BEHIND the text
  • the world WITHIN the text
  • the world BEYOND the text


Historical perspectives on the David tradition

In attending to the world behind this passage we are enquiring about the historical dynamics that created the text as well as the historical events to which the text seems to refer. After all, this is not a story that strikes the reader as inherently improbable as it does not invoke mythic themes, supernatural events, or non-human agents (angels, demons, and the like).

With respect to genre, this is an edifying legend about the humble origins of the man who would later become the great king, and the story makes it clear that the initiative for his selection and rise lay with God. David is not portrayed as an ambitious military leader who would exploit his connections with the Saul family to promote his own interests.

The key historical questions relating to the David traditions do not focus on the historicity of this episode, but on the wider historical questions that beset the biblical accounts of David and Solomon. Some of the most hotly contested positions in OT studies at the present time revolve around the character and status of Jerusalem in the tenth century BCE, and the historicity of the biblical depiction of David and Solomon.

Confidence in the historical value of the OT narratives has been steadily declining over the past few decades. Where once scholars debated the historicity of the patriarchal narratives of Genesis 12-50, or even the different dates proposed for the exodus from Egypt, for much of the last thirty years the frontline in the argument between the maximalists and the minimalists has been the historicity of the kingdom of David in the early decades of the tenth century BCE.

  • The minimalists, with whom I have considerable sympathies, observe that Jerusalem seems to have been an unwalled village in the 900s, with insufficient population to support the military adventures attributed to David, and with no surviving archaeological remains to serve as evidence of the major building projects associated with the time of David and Solomon.
  • The maximalists, for whose careful scholarship I have great respect, note that absence of evidence is not evidence for absence, and especially so given the present political realities that prevent archaeologists from examining what may lie beneath of the Temple mount in Jerusalem. While some recent finds at the “City of David” (sic) site south of the Haram al sharif have been interpreted as evidence of major public structures in the tenth century, the dating and function of these remains are hotly debated.

It seems that the current consensus is that David was a historical figure, even if his CV was not as impressive as the OT would suggest. Certainly later kings in Jerusalem invoked the figure of David to authenticate their rule, and we have at least one inscription (from Tel Dan in the far north of Israel) that suggests neighbouring countries may have called the Jerusalem kingdom, “the House of David.”

Literary perspectives on the David traditions

The name “David” is almost exclusively used of this early ruler of Jerusalem, and yet it seems to be pet name rather than an actual name of a person. The basic meaning of the Hebrew term is “father’s beloved” and, as such, we could imagine it being applied to Joseph whose father, Jacob, seems to have especially favoured Joseph. There are some echoes of the Jacob/Joseph relationship in the Jesse/David story, but these are not developed by the ancient narrator.

In any case, the name seems never to be applied to anyone in the OT except this Jerusalem ruler, and its distribution in the Old Testament is also uneven. Not surprisingly it is mostly found in the historical books and the Psalms. Outside these “natural” locations for references to David, we find the word occuring infrequently in the prophetic texts and even then often in the phrase “House of David:”

Isa 7:2, 13; 9:7; 16:5; 22:9, 22; 29:1, 3; 37:35; 38:5; 55:3; Jer 17:25; 21:12; 22:2, 4, 30; 23:5; 29:16; 30:9; 33:15, 17, 21–22, 26; 36:30; Ezek 34:23–24; 37:24–25; Hos 3:5; Amos 6:5; 9:11; Zech 12:7–8, 10, 12; 13:1.

Within the major witnesses to the David tradition in 1 & 2 Samuel, we find the following extended complexes:

  • The Rise of David (1 Sam 16 – 2 Sam 8)
  • The Court History of David (2 Sam 9 – 2 Kings 2)

These extended narratives seem to combine many different traditions. The David who is portrayed in these dramatic stories may not be the “historical David” but he is certainly a “canonical David” who looms large over the biblical text and indeed over Western civilisation:

  • David the shepherd boy hero
  • David the composer of sacred poetry
  • David the fugitive
  • David the warrior
  • David the sexually-compromised ruler
  • David the ineffective father
  • David the founder of the Temple
  • David the beneficiary of an unconditional covenant with YHWH
  • David the man after God’s own heart

This week’s OT reading plays a key part in the creation of this canonical figure, and the story itself betrays the marks of oral tradition as it depicts Samuel seeking in vain for the chosen one among the seven sons of Jesse until the old man admits that he has another son, but one not worthy of consideration. Of course, the overlooked youngest son turns out to be exactly the person God sent Samuel to find! In the story of David ancient Israel has a parable of its own story as the overlooked younger son among the nations of the world.

The legacy of the David traditions

What ever the actual achievements of the man known to history as “David,” he has come to be the embodiment of a pious ruler, a successful warrior, and even the poet-king. As a passionate and flawed man, who nonetheless enjoyed God’s favour, this David has been an inspiration and a model for generations of Western rulers.

One particular expression of the Davidic legacy is worth a further comment in this week’s notes.

As post-exilic Judaism dreamt of a great reversal in its historical situation, hopes emerged of a coming messianic figure from the line of David. In the historical Jesus inventory developed by John Dominic Crossan, the early Christian assertion that Jesus was just such a Davidic messiah is ranked seventh out of 522 items:

7±. 007 Of Davids Lineage: (1a) Rom 1:3; (1b) 2 Tim 2:8; (2) Matt 2:1-12; (3) Luke 2:1-20; (4) John 7:41-42; (5a) Ign. Smyrn. 1:1a; (5b) Ign. Eph. 18:2c; (5c) Ign. Trall. 9:1a.

Gospel: Jesus and the man born blind

This week’s Gospel presents another lengthy scene which has it its centre a profound misunderstanding. We have already seen several such stories in the Gospel of John:

  • ch 2: Jesus turns water into wine (neither Mary nor the steward understand)
  • ch 3: Nicodemus fails to understand Jesus’ call for rebirth from above
  • ch 4: the Samaritan woman does not understand Jesus’ offer of living water

Now in ch 9 we find a story constructed round the irony of the religious authorities not seeing who Jesus is, while a man born blind comes to see it.

Whether or not Jesus ever healed blind people, a story such as this is clearly a symbolic story with no necessary (or even probable) historical basis. The Gospel of John is replete with such fictions that offer profound truth even when speaking of things that never happened.

These are not parables, but they share with parables a capacity to work with fiction in order to convey deep truth.

Oddly enough, as modern Westerners we seem to have no problem accepted parables as stories that convey spiritual truth without any need for them to be historical, but we struggle with the idea that narratives can be fictive and yet profoundly true at some level.

Jesus Database


Liturgies and Prayers

For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site

Other recommended sites include:


Music Suggestions

See the following sites for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre:

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