I’ve never been in the Apostolic Palace in the Vatican (though I remain open to invitations in due course) but I understand that part of the experience of visiting is to walk through a corridor that would once have been open to the outside world on one side – the loggias – and is decorated with some wonderful frescoes painted by Raphael’s team of willing accomplices. If you take your time in your saunter through these corridors, you can look around and up and see some marvels of renaissance art. At one point in that hypothetical saunter, you may look up and see four scenes from the life of David, the King of Israel whose exceptional gifts and exceedingly normal humanity stand as a pivotal moment in the development of religious faith that leads to where we are now as a Christian community founded on the witness of many generations of Jewish ancestors. In one of these scenes, David is being anointed by the prophet Samuel. We heard that story just a few minutes ago. He was not the obvious choice – not the tallest, not the oldest, not the natural heir, but something about him compelled the prophet to see in him the promise of reinvigorated life for the nation, the promise of a deepened faith and a renewed national identity. There was a depth and a potential in him that exceeded all superficial assessments. He is a handsome young man, but that’s not it. There’s something about the quality of his inward life that catches the eye. He has something that is not visible at first but is there for those who want to see it.
In the fresco, he is turned inwards, not asserting his place as the brightest or best, but concerned with greater things. He does not look up with a confident assertion of his rightful place as the successor to a failing king, but looks inwards with the urgent desire of one whose sense of the world will find expression in songs that we still sing, psalms that speak of loss, anger, hope and faith. This, I think, is what the text means when it urges a concentration on the heart rather than on outward appearance. David, for all the human frailty that we will soon encounter in him, is one who understands that true value in life does not consist in success or prowess but in insight and awareness.
In Raphael’s fresco, David is depicted in the moment of receiving an anointing that is nothing less than the gift of the Spirit of God. Samuel holds aloft the horn of oil, which occupies a physical space between the outside world and the room in which the encounter occurs, right on the edge of the window that opens out into the world beyond, and suggests a bridging of that gap between seen and unseen, known and unknown. It’s as if to say that the things of God, the things of ultimate value, are here held in a poise, available to those who are able to see, obscure to those who seek only the power dynamics of conventional political discourse. David does not offer only a word of strong political leadership, but a word of deep insight into the human condition; loss, hatred, hope, trust, rescue, fragility, promise. David here is the shepherd-poet as much as the warrior-king.
In a similar way, today’s Gospel reading offers a chance to see one who transgresses the boundaries between what is seen and what is known in a deeper way. The man born blind is pitched into a verbal tussle with the Pharisees, religious sticklers who cannot see beyond the set roles of a binary contest between the observant religious practitioners and those who claim to have encountered the living God. They cannot see what is in front of their eyes – a man who has experienced liberation and acceptance. All they can see is a man who is prepared to accept the ministrations of an unauthorised teacher who sits light to the ritual dimensions of the law. They cannot see the insight of the once-blind man because he does not fit the pattern of religious conformity. But the healed man is straightforward in his insistence that he knows what he is speaking of – his eyes have been opened, he has received a life-giving gift. God’s goodness is not constrained by theological presuppositions. The healed man does not see in terms of a judging mind that sees only what it expects to see. His vision is far greater than that. He sees life when others see only transgression.
For this fourth Sunday in a series of planned discussions, I suggested a theme of vocation – the question of what it is we are called to be as a church and as individuals. The anonymous man in today’s Gospel and David’s anointing in our first reading offer a unanimous response to that question. We are called to be those who see things differently, who do not judge by limited standards but see clearly what is life-giving. We are called to be those who look out on the world without any preconception of what we might find there, but are open to the possibilities of goodness and truth. We are called to see value in those who do not measure up to standards of excellence or achievement. We are called to see beauty in those who don’t fit. We are called to see possibility in those who have already been written off. We are called to see eternity in lives that barely register on the scale of human accomplishment. We are called to see God in the experiences of those who despair or are lost.
What does this calling ask of us in the circumstances we face at this time? It asks that we look and see lives that might otherwise be ignored. It asks that we forget status and see Christ in the lowliest. It asks that we set our scales by a measure of vulnerability, not invincibility. It asks that we find value in caring rather than in winning. It also asks that we nurture the interior, hidden life that will sustain us through this challenging time. May God bless us with insight and compassion in these days.