How do we see one another? That question, of course, is not about how we physically see one another, but about how we view, approach, understand people outside our ourselves or our close circles. Do we tend to view others with a wait-and-see attitude when we first meet them, or do we start from the assumption that the person before us is trustworthy and approachable – at least until proven otherwise? Do we start from the position that someone who looks different from me, whatever that difference may be, is someone who has to prove their worth and value; or do we start from a place of healthy curiosity about the nature and value of that difference?
The French writer and aviator Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, in his book “The Little Prince”, wrote, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.” Learning to see this way takes time, and curiosity, and patience, emotional imagination, and sometimes courage.
There is a part of us that sees difference and sometimes registers that as “threat” – and sometimes that sense of threat is true, and it would be wise to listen to it. That God-given intuition has evolved over millenia and is there for a reason; it’s part of our survival instinct.
On the other hand, at the other extreme, we may be tempted to blow right past any notion of difference at all, telling ourselves that we “only see a human being” in front of us, and that nothing that shows outwardly is of any importance of all – whether that be the way they dress or speak, their skin color or facial features, anything the person chooses to outwardly display about their culture or a group they may belong to. That is a temptation that we need to avoid. We know that our physical, cultural, and ethnic make-up all contribute to who we are and how we understand the world; we can’t dismiss those things out of hand, whether for ourselves or for someone else.
How do we see one another? How do we know one another?
That is a crucial question that is asked by this scene that Jesus poses in his last hours of teaching in the Temple before the Last Supper, before the Crucifixion. He paints a picture of God’s justice being like a king, the world’s true Lord, who brings the world back into balance by sorting out the righteous from the unrighteous, and the criteria used for this sorting out is the way each group behaves towards the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned – all those cast-offs of mainstream and polite society.
What did the righteous see? They say people who had needs. What did the unrighteous see? They saw people who were not worthy of their time and effort. And yet the king, representing Jesus in the story, invites both groups to look more closely, to see on a deeper level: Truly I tell you, just as you did it or did not do it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.
St. John Chrysostom, in the fourth century said, “If you cannot find Christ in the beggar at the church door you will not find him in the chalice.”
Jesus is asking us, then, to look at others with the heart and, ultimately, to see Jesus himself. This is part of justice and holy judgment, part of bringing the world back into balance by learning to see others through the eyes of faith and. by seeing them, value them as God’s beloved ones.
That is a very hard thing to do in our culture right now – and has been increasingly so for quite a number of years. So much stress has been put on the objective way of seeing the world, particularly in our political dealings with one another. This data-driven, objective way of seeing can be manipulative, it is seeing others only from afar, never finding out what they are really like in their complex, many-layered, many-faceted selves. That kind of objective seeing only drives us further apart, and certainly does not lead us to see Christ in others who are very different from us.
The New York Times columnist David Brooks*, who comments on both cultural and politics and has become a person of faith in recent years, says that this political type knowledge that pollsters use has led to an epidemic of mis-seeing, led to a feeling of being unknown and unseen by the rest of the world, led to a sense of alienation and isolation from others. It divides and separates us.
Instead, Brooks says, we need to embrace the spiritual way of knowing, of seeing the depth of the other, with all their very real difference from ourselves, and value them for who they are. That leads to connection and community.
We need to have a holy and respectful curiosity, a willingness to be vulnerable and learn about one another. In doing so we may well learn more about ourselves, and the bonds of generous humanity that can tie us together.
Christ is the world’s true Lord and just Judge, and he bids us to see, respect, and value him in the face of all others, so that we are indeed seeing rightly with the heart and taking our place in the re-balancing and repair of God’s world.
Let us pray.
Day by day, dear Lord, three things I pray: to see thee more clearly, to love thee more dearly, to follow thee more nearly, day by day. Amen.
*For reference see Brooks’ address at the awarding of the Abraham Kuyper Prize, November 17, 2020 on Calvin University's YouTube channel.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
First Sunday before Advent (Last Sunday after Pentecost)
November 22, 2020