If you came to church this morning looking for the frustrating interplay between religion and politics, you have come to the right place! We are mid-story. Saul is still king, but God regrets having chosen him because he thinks Saul is not sufficiently obedient. So, God dispatches Samuel the prophet to Bethlehem to survey the sons of Jesse, from whom he will choose one to replace Saul as king.
The separation of religion and politics is a fairly modern idea, and anyone who mixes them up is engaging in ancient human behavior. It might be the case that not to mix the two requires an act of artificial compartmentalization that is unrealistic to expect of most people. I don’t know. The mixologist of our story is Samuel the prophet, who has already brought hard news to Saul that God is displeased with him. Now Samuel must discern the Lord’s will among the sons of Jesse, and he starts by assuming that the oldest son is the one most fit to be king – it’s a natural assumption. But, no, the Lord has rejected Eliab, the eldest son of Jesse, as he rejects the next six sons, too, as they each, in turn, pass before the prophet. “Are all your sons here?” Samuel asks Jesse.
“There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep,” comes the reply. For who ever heard of the last-born son, the eighth son, being chosen for anything, let alone to be king?
“Send and bring him,” the prophet demands.
The eighth son is ruddy, handsome, with beautiful eyes. And the Lord whispers or shouts inside Samuel’s head, “Rise and anoint him, for this is the one.” The eighth son, David, does not immediately ascend to the throne. Much will happen, beginning with David’s famous confrontation with Goliath, before he becomes king. But he has been chosen. And his destiny is sealed.
What was it about David that God saw? Was it his good looks? What else does David have going for him? He is a kid, untested, and unknown. David is not the obvious choice at all, but God explains his intentions to Samuel the prophet as the sons of Jesse parade before him. “The Lord,” God tells Jesse, “does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
The Lord does not see as mortals see. What a difficult thing this is for us to understand! How seldom does it occur to us that God does not see things the way we see things? In fact we are extremely likely to suspect that God shares much the same view that we have, albeit from a different angle. But, no, the Lord tells Samuel, I do not see anything at all as mortals see.
For much of his life David will prove worthy of God’s insight. But eventually, even he will forsake the promise that the Lord saw within him. Lust will cloud his judgment when he, from his rooftop, espies Bathsheba in the altogether; and the virtue that God had seen in David will be warped as he pursues what he wants at any cost, and then tries to cover up what he has done.
I have to ask myself what is the point of reading the ancient story of King David? What is the point of knowing that he was taken from the sheepfold? What is the point of following the report of Samuel’s anointing? Historically speaking there are many reasons for this, the most important one being to establish the legitimacy of David’s kingship. But let’s just say that discussing the legitimacy of national rulers is just not something I want to get into from the pulpit at this moment in time.
The real reason for us to read the story is to hear the explanation that God gives to Samuel for choosing David: “The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” And it will not be a change in his appearance that becomes David’s un-doing; it will be a change of his heart. Even God’s anointed king, chosen for the goodness of his heart, can fail when he has a change of heart. What child does not need to hear this lesson, that the Lord does not see as mortals see? What shepherd could not use a reminder of it? And who does not need to be reminded that even the best of us will fall short of the purposes for which God has made us, namely to glorify him. Sometimes we will fall very far short, indeed, when the goodness of our hearts is warped, dented, mis-shapen by sin.
I am reminded regularly of how very odd it is to do what we do in church; how very strange it is to read these old stories and mine them for contemporary meaning. And then, I hear the word of God inside the prophet’s head: “The Lord does not see as mortals see,” and I ask myself where else we were going to learn these lessons; where else we were going to be reminded that God sees inwardly what we can never see on our own?
The connection from the story of the anointing of David to the Gospel story of the healing of the man born blind is not immediately obvious. But here it is: Jesus is walking along and he “sees a man blind from birth.” Jesus “sees,” and what he sees, he sees not as mortals see. For mortals see a man who, at best can beg on the streets for the rest of his life, and at worst is the sign of a curse on his parents. But what the Lord sees is someone who “was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” The Lord does not see as mortals see.
But the connections to the story of David do not really end with a shared verb. It is not only the man born blind who cannot be seen for what he really is. Neither can Jesus be seen for what he truly is; he cannot be accounted for by the religious figures of his day. When Jesus arrives on the scene, no story of his miraculous birth is invoked. Remnants of frankincense, gold, and myrrh are not produced to establish his provenance. His Davidic ancestry, such as it is, is far removed, and probably undocumented. He is the inheritor of no wealth, no title, no name, no office, no training that sets him apart. He is not even a shepherd; how could he be the Lord’s anointed one?
The Lord does not see as mortals see. Samuel sees David for the purpose that God intends. Jesus sees the blind man as an instrument of the glory of God. And the Pharisees see Jesus as an unwelcome presence, probably a charlatan, but less than he truly is. The transitive property holds true: mortals do not see as the Lord sees.
Now, by this stage in Lent you should have spent at least three weeks contemplating your sins. I certainly have… spent all this time… thinking about your sins. Lent has become deeply unpopular, just as sin has become deeply unpopular – or at least the process of identifying sin within ourselves. To indulge in the language of sin and sinners, is to participate in that very churchy habit which is anathema to 21st century Americans – judging. To identify sin is to employ judgment, and probably to arouse guilt, and then to incite shame, or so the current narrative about the church’s pre-occupation with sin goes.
But there is at least another set of possibilities, if we allow for the possibility that the Lord does not see as mortals see. It is possible that during Lent, we are invited to try to see ourselves as God sees us. If David had ever managed to do this later in life, he might have remembered how God showed him to Samuel, how surprising it was to be brought in from the sheepfold – the last, and the least of the sons of Jesse – and to be told that he would be anointed by the prophet of the Lord to be king. And he might have noticed how his youthful, brave, and noble self, contrasted sharply to his older self, now leering over the rooftop at Bathsheba. Had he forgotten, strolling on his rooftop and peeping at a woman in her bath, having exercised such great power in his youth with God’s blessing, had he forgotten that it was not power or good looks that God saw in him, it was his heart? And what had become of that heart, twisted by sin?
Jump back to the New Testament. Most people I know would read the story of the man born blind and identify the Pharisees with the church: narrow-minded, mean-spirited, nasty, judgy men who are eager to assign blame, guilt, and shame. I hope this is an unfair assessment, but it comes from somewhere, and probably not from whole cloth. But if the church has employed Lent, or any other season, day, hour, minute, or second of time to indulge its narrow-minded, mean-spirited, nasty, judgy, mannish attitudes, then we have been wrong to do so, especially in Lent, which ought to be a season for stretching ourselves to see ourselves more as God sees us. For the Lord does not see at mortals see.
Yes, David, you are a sinner, and your heart has twisted out of shape. But do you remember how beautiful you are in my sight, which has nothing to do with the color of your eyes? Do you know how deeply I looked into your heart before I allowed my holy oil to anoint your head? Do you know how well I know you: how broken you have become, and yet how beautiful you still are to me, although you have become ugly to those around you, who cannot see you as I do?
If there is a reason to keep track of our sins, it is because we need to be reminded how easily we stray from being the people God made us to be. Created by his own fingers, anointed by his Holy Spirit, beautiful in his sight, whether the first daughter or the eighth son, shepherdess or tycoon – God sees you not as mortals see you, and God knows how beautiful you are, how beautiful you were made to be. But we are distracted by things that lure us from our rooftops to twist our hearts, and become people we were never meant to be. If it can happen to David, it can certainly happen to you and to me, and no doubt it has.
Gone are the days that the intimate relationship of politics and religion led a prophet to anoint a king. But God still sees things differently than mortals see. Most especially he sees you and me differently. God knows exactly how we were made – with what fine workmanship, and with what exquisite beauty. And God knows how sin has warped our lives, twisted our hearts, and made us to become people we were never meant to be. But the beauty of God’s creation remains in each and every one of us, and none can or will be judged without this consideration.
Perplexed, by the conundrum of a blind man whose sight had been given to him by an unwelcome presence who is probably a charlatan, the Pharisees, return to the man born blind to remind him that Jesus cannot be more than he appears to them to be; that they don’t see it, and that anyone who claims to see it (whatever “it” is) in him, had best be careful. “He answered, ‘I do not know… One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’”
The Lord does not see as mortals see; and we do not see as God sees. But now and then we are given a glimpse, and we see ourselves or others as we truly are, as the beautiful creatures God made us to be. And we rejoice to discover in those flashes of vision that though we were blind, now we see. May God ever open our eyes to help us more and more to see as he sees, and to live our lives accordingly, as people anointed with the power of the Spirit, and to rejoice!
Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen
26 March 2017
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia