Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Seer and Seen

Scripture for the 4th Sunday in Lent includes I Samuel 16:1-13; Ephesians 5:8-14; John 9:1-41

Sight is a theme that unites our readings today. Sent by God to find the next King of Israel, the prophet Samuel must first clear his eyes of tears so he may see. His grief over the failure and decline of the current King Saul still finds him crying. Everything is a blur. God appears to lack compassion, urging Samuel to snap out of it and get on the road that will lead him to Jesse the Bethlehemite; it is one of his sons God has chosen to become King. There is where we see divine compassion: knowing that King Saul is in breakdown, God will not allow Israel to be a flock without a shepherd.

This assignment lands Samuel at a sacrificial ceremony where the elders of Bethlehem are gathered. Samuel ritually cleanses Jesse and his assembled sons so they may attend the feast, and as he examines the first of them, presumably the eldest, God interrupts with a puzzling lesson on the subject of seeing.

“Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected this one; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

One by one, I suspect in descending birth order, seven of Jesse’s sons pass before Samuel, and, in each case, Samuel says, Nope.

“Are all your sons here?” Samuel asks Jesse. “Are you holding back on me?”

“All my sons who amount to anything are here,” we might imagine Jesse answering, with some surprise. “Each of these has proven himself, one way or another. One handles his sword like it was an extension of his arm. Another shoots his spear with deadly aim. This one handles public speaking with the ease of an actor. Over here is my business wizard. They’re all born leaders. I’m not so sure about the youngest boy. Number eight. He’s keeping the sheep. That seems to suit him. Kind of a puzzler, that boy. Don’t know what to make of him.”

“Send and bring him,” orders Samuel, “for we will not sit down until he comes here.”

David was not expecting to attend the sacrifice. He couldn’t have been dressed, even washed, for the occasion. The smell of the sheepfold had to be about him, as in he came from the fields.

You might want to look at David in this next to last window in the west aisle as you hear the author of I Samuel describe him: “Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.” There is what another David, David Maitland Armstrong, American painter and stained glass designer of the Gilded Age, made of that description in 1896.

Is it a bit puzzling that after a cautionary lecture on not looking on the outward appearance, the four things we’re told about David is that he was young, ruddy, had beautiful eyes, and was handsome? Presumably, God looked on his heart and found qualities there that suited him for Israel’s throne (even if he would wreck a marriage and betray his most loyal soldier, abusing the authority of that throne).

“Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light…” writes the apostle to the Christians at Ephesus. Everyone has clay feet, things they’re ashamed of; all have sinned and fallen short of their God-given glory. But the Lord God, the one who looks upon the heart, in Jesus Christ sees each of us in the light of Christ’s risen glory. That light exposes everything about us, and exposes us to everything in Christ so that the apostle can say, “in the Lord you are light.” As we become fully visible ourselves by Christ shining within us, we learn how to see each other in his light.

The old darkness is palpable as Jesus’s disciples see a man who has been blind from birth. These same disciples will one day be seers of the resurrection and apostles who train others to recognize the Christ in all persons—but they are not yet there. They look at this man and see a plight that must be explained, they see a damaged life that they assume is punishment for someone’s having sinned. While we’re tempted to judge them as ignoramuses, in fact they’re showing a certain religious training that puts everything in dreadfully neat little boxes of explanation, an attempt to keep suffering and mystery at bay by believing that bad things happen to bad people, and good things to good people.

To my eye, the most important and most beautiful moment in this Gospel is our Lord’s answer to their obnoxious question, “Who sinned, this man or his parents?” “Neither! He was born blind, and God’s works will be revealed in him. It us up to us to do those works of God while we have light to see by. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” We hear a premonition of Good Friday there (“as long as I am in the world”), though from our vantage point we can rejoice that the light that makes us who we are will swiftly penetrate that darkness universally once and for all.

But at this moment on that Judean roadside, the difference between how Jesus sees this blind man and how his disciples view him is in sharp contrast, more dramatic than day and night. The way the disciples see him, they keep him at arm’s length. The way Jesus sees draws him to this man to touch him, first mystifying us with what looks like a ritual—or is it an example of folk medicine?—as he spits into the sand, makes a poultice of that mud, and spreads it on the man’s eyes. The very substance that you and I would go to any extreme to keep out of our eyes, sand, is what serves in this healing. Perhaps the one thing we understand is our Lord’s directions for followup care: go and wash. Go and wash in a certain pool with the name Siloam, near which was an aqueduct named Shiloah (meaning “sender of water”, a perfect description of an aqueduct). But John takes the pool’s name, Siloam, to mean “the One who was sent,” underlining in his story the nature and purpose of Jesus.

In other words, this is not just a healing. This is one more example of the perfect obedience Jesus shows to his God-given purpose, to restore our human nature to its intended divine likeness.

Which is to say that compassion is a power that extends exponentially, a gift that keeps on giving. The kingdom of God, the reign of God that is established in Jesus Christ, the new creation, can be understood as the global movement of his compassion apostolically sent by way of us. Here is one way to understand the astonishing vision at the heart of Christian baptism, that each of us is to grow into the full stature of Christ.

And it all depends on how we see the person we’re looking at. Jesus’s way of seeing—and it’s very much the way of the prophets announced by Samuel—is not upon a person’s appearance, stature, status, intellect, or curriculum vitae, but upon the heart, where the image of God pulses, however strong, however weak. In that seeing, the seer cannot be above the seen: they stand in radical equality as children of the Most High who dwells within.

But how can this blind man and this itinerant healer be called equal? One has no sight. Here, with this recognition, the seeing done by the disciples stops, arrested by the rules of a zero-sum game.

Neuroscientist Oliver Sacks helps us out. He writes about how, in the brain of a blind person, there is sensory redistribution. This person’s other senses are used by the brain to help compensate for what is lacking optically. Even the tongue, says Sacks, can be trained to gather stimuli that the brain can process as images.

There is a good starting point for disciples developing humane ways of seeing: let it start with awe at how the divine image is already pulsing within the person we would see. Our seeing of a person we could call disabled can begin with deep respect for how ably this person navigates life. Humane compassionate seeing starts with all that puts seer and seen on the same road.

Then what may mystify us is free to move through us. Into the spit, sweat, blood, and tears that compassionate action may require. To a stepping outside the box of what tradition approves, as we rise to obey what the divine image requires and accomplishes.