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Seeing Beyond Expectations

from the “Seasons of the Christian Life” collection

The Fourth Sunday of Lent

1 Samuel 16:1-13
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

March 6, 2005
Marsh Chapel
Boston University

Some people say that “seeing is believing,” by which they mean that the testimony of the senses is far better than hearsay, or even than reasoning that is subject to error. Our texts from 1 Samuel and John, however, suggest that we ordinarily see what we already believe, that our sight is guided by our expectations. Genuine sight needs to get beneath the appearances governed by our expectations.

In the case of Samuel’s search for someone to anoint as the new king of Israel, everyone expected him to pick Jesse’s first son, Eliab, because he was big and strong, rather like King Saul, the first anointed king who subsequently had been rejected by God. But God said to Samuel about Eliab, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” We look on the outward appearance, but God looks on the heart. How true! At the Lord’s urging, Samuel rejected all the other sons of Jesse, save the last and least, David, who had been left to tend the flocks. Samuel anointed David to be the next King; the word for the anointed one in this sense was the Hebrew cognate of “messiah.” King Saul was the first “messiah,” for he too had been anointed. But David better fulfilled the ideal of the kingly messiah, uniting Israel after Saul’s death, defeating its enemies, and extending its territory to its greatest extent; he was a mighty warrior and a brilliant strategist, defeating both external enemies and armed rebellions among his own people. In Jesus’ time, the Pharisees and others hoped for another messiah on the model of David, someone who would drive out the Romans and re-establish the power of the Israelite or Jewish nation. Jesus obviously was not that kind of person, and so was rejected by those who hoped for another David.

Before leaving the story of David, however, it is worthwhile to recall that he was a complex character. Although ultimately uniting the twelve tribes of Israel and giving identity to a unified nation, David early had a falling out with King Saul and formed his own mercenary army to work for the Philistines for a while. With that army he conquered Jerusalem, which belonged to a Canaanite people called the Jebusites. That is why Jerusalem is called the “City of David,” because he conquered it with his private army, not with a levy of warriors from the twelve tribes of Israel like the army of Saul. This made Jerusalem a good neutral capital, not a town owned by any of the tribes, though it was in the territory of David’s own tribe, Judah. As an individual, David was a sexual predator, sending Bathseba’s husband to his death so that she might be his. David’s family was filled with intrigue, with his wives and sons plotting against one another to determine his successor. His children were involved in rape and incest, as well as outright rebellion in the case of Absalom whom David loved dearly. David was a complex, deeply flawed human being, just as we are, only with kingly proportions. His greatest virtue, however, was that he danced before the Lord, both literally and figuratively. When he sinned he repented. When he made mistakes he sought the Lord. When he won battles, he credited God. When he governed the state, he did it for God. What he learned in his long life, he learned from living before the Lord. Despite all his mistakes and sins, he died with a wise son to succeed him and a healthy kingdom to pass on. Who would have seen this God-intoxicated world-beater, this voracious consumer of life’s loves and opportunities, looking at young David standing before Samuel, ruddy, with beautiful eyes, and handsome, almost a feminine creature in comparison with his brothers? Only someone who could see beyond the expectations of appearances into the heart.

John’s story of Jesus and the blind man is a far more complex case of seeing beyond expectations. John has an elaborate theme of visibility and invisibility, sight and blindness. As Jesus and his disciples were walking along they encountered the blind beggar. The disciples asked whether the man was born blind because of his own sin or because of that of his parents. The connection of blindness to sin has a powerfully ironic twist at the end of the story when Jesus said “’I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ 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.’” In other words, if they had not claimed understanding, they would not be accountable for sin.

In response to the disciples’ question about who was responsible for the beggar’s blindness, Jesus denied that any one was responsible. But he did say that the man’s blindness had a purpose, namely, to set Jesus up for an important public miracle, demonstrating the work of God. Now you and I might not approve of this conception of a God who makes a man suffer blindness from birth to adulthood just to demonstrate Jesus’ divine powers. We do not believe that illness has a purpose, for punishment or anything else, although of course we can give meaning to illness. At any rate, Jesus gave the blind man sight, without even being asked to do so, by the way. The man’s neighbors were incredulous. The Pharisees asked how he had been healed and the formerly blind man gave them just the facts: he put mud on my eyes, and washed, and I could see. When asked where Jesus was, the man said simply that he didn’t know, which was true.

The Pharisees then got into a theological wrangle. One side said that Jesus must be a sinner because he worked on the Sabbath, while the other side said that he could not do such miraculous healings unless he were from God. Then, strangely, they asked the formerly blind man what he thought about Jesus, strange because the man had been blind all his life and worked only as a beggar, not a likely theological consultant. The man said Jesus was a prophet because of his power to heal. Not believing in miraculous healings, the Pharisees then decided that the man could not have been blind previously. But his parents confirmed that he had been. The parents, however, expected to be thrown out of the temple community for not agreeing with the Pharisees, so they sent them back to talk with their son. When the Pharisees told him that Jesus must be a sinner, the man said he didn’t know about that. What he did know was that he had been blind and Jesus gave him sight. When the Pharisees annoyed the man, he suggested wryly that they must want to be Jesus’ disciples because they kept questioning him about Jesus. He then said that, if they were right about God listening only to the righteous, then Jesus the healer must be from God.

Both the Pharisees and the man’s parents were blinded by their expectations, the former by their theological expectations, the latter by expectations of retribution from the Pharisees. Even Jesus was a bit callous toward the blind man by treating him as an occasion for a revelatory miracle, although when he heard that the Pharisees expelled the formerly blind man from the temple he sought the man out and declared his identity as the Son of Man or messiah. Jesus gave the man not only sight but a new home when both the temple and his parents failed him.

The one person in this story who had perfect sight was the blind man. He knew who he was, a blind beggar, and had no expectations. He accepted Jesus’ gift of sight with gratitude, and told the story of it with no embellishments. Unlike his parents, he saw through the confused and hypocritical Pharisees with fearless steadiness and irony. He learned who Jesus was only when Jesus told him, not from any religious expectation, although he always understood his healing to have been divinely caused. When he realized who Jesus was, he worshipped him.

Would we not be blessed to have the sight of the blind man?! With no ego expectations of grandiose righteousness or self-excusing victimization, we would know just who we are without illusions. We could accept the demeaning status of having to beg without being demeaned by it. We could accept sudden and unexpected blessings, such as serious healing, with gratitude and equanimity. We could tell others the truth, saying what we know and admitting what we do not know, without having to embellish the truth with hopes and disappointments. We could take the consequences of the truth without fear, knowing that whatever is comes from God. Best of all, we would not hate God because of the pain in our lives and we would not love God because of the good in our lives. Rather, with the blind man’s sight, with his ascetic lack of expectations, we would love God for God’s own sake when we meet him. We would delight to discover that the person who heals our disabilities and dispenses grace is also the Son of God. We would see through to God as found in the least of our brothers and sisters.

My friends, I know that it is customary to see God primarily in terms of what God can do to us or for us. Fear of divine wrath on the one hand and hope in divine promises on the other are the doorways of most religious views, if not the substance of most religion itself. Yet those are only appearances, too human ways of seeing, because they really are about us, projections of our fears and desires, rather than about God. Like God, we should strive to see beyond the appearances into the heart of individuals, human affairs, and God. We might see beyond the handsome, ruddy boy with beautiful eyes to the soul of a hero of humanity. We might see beyond the hypocritical intrigues about religious righteousness to the humility of true repentance and gratitude. And we might see beyond God “for us” to the true God to whom the only real response is worship.


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