TEXT: 1 Samuel 16:1-13
“For the Lord does not see as mortals see …
“Seeing is believing,” we hear it said. “What you see is what you get.” These familiar statements could be the mottoes of our western culture—and we believe them, don’t we? In making choices for our lives, we rely on careful observation. We check Consumer Reports before making a major purchase. We look at Google reviews before choosing a service provider. We carefully examine fruits for ripeness and vegetables for imperfections before adding them to our grocery cart. After all, what you see is what you get.
Or is it? I remember that some years ago, on PBS television, there was a program called “Mental Engineering.” The focus of the show was to analyze and critique television commercials (I suspect that you could only see this sort of thing on PBS). The program took a hard look at the social and psychological impact of television advertising, and exposed the misleading promises and insinuations that go along with it. It encouraged viewers to develop awareness, discernment—and media literacy—in order to balance the techniques of media persuasion. What you see is not always what you get!
Today’s Hebrew Scripture reading teaches that how we see is much more important than what we see. God sent Samuel the prophet to Bethlehem to find a king from among Jesse’s sons. Samuel thought that Eliab—the eldest son—would surely be God’s choice. After all, in the ancient world, the firstborn son pretty much eclipsed all the other children when it came to power, privilege, promise, and recognition. And besides, Eliab looked the part, standing head and shoulders above his brothers.
But God said, “No, he’s not the one!”
“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.” (1 Sam. 16:7)
Then Samuel looked at Abinadab, son number two, and Shammah, son number three. God did not choose them, either! Likewise, it was “no, no, no, and no” to sons four, five, six and seven. So Samuel asks Jesse, “Are these all you have?” Jesse says, “No, there’s the youngest, out watching the sheep.”
So David is brought before Samuel. David is the youngest, the smallest, the least significant, the one far down the line of succession—the one from whom greatness was least expected.
And the Lord says to Samuel, “This is the one I have chosen,” for God sees possibilities even when others do not. Jesse’s eighth son is anointed and filled with the Spirit of the Lord, and David becomes the greatest king in Israel’s history.
Do you remember the first “Rocky” movie, the original one? (It was made in 1976. Millennials, you can rent it on iTunes).
Rocky Balboa—the underdog—rises from the corner gym in the Italian ghetto of Philadelphia to compete for the heavyweight championship of the world. The “Italian Stallion”—whose most famous line consisted of “Yo, Adrian”—was thrust into a position of power, prominence, and recognition.
This is David’s story, too. The insignificant young shepherd boy becomes the king whose military conquests expand the nation of Israel to its widest borders. David’s reign would be forever regarded as the Golden Age of Israel—and of its monarchy.
God’s most unlikely choice was not based on credentials or appearance or reputation—but on the heart. Scripture describes David as a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam. 13:14). In other words, a man who looked for the heart—or the will—of God.
Even so, David himself was far from perfect—as a friend of mine learned to her dismay. You see, she had named her precious firstborn son after the biblical David—David the shepherd, David the psalmist, David the great king. But then she joined a Bible study, and learned that her own little David was named for one who was in fact an adulterer, a murderer, a violent warrior, and a lousy father. Never let anyone tell you that Bible study isn’t challenging!
The truth is, the characters of the Bible are not there for us to emulate. The message of Scripture is not, “Be like David,” but rather, “You are like David.” The Bible is full of stories of unlikely people being chosen by God. Anyone can become God’s instrument of salvation and service!
Who did Jesus choose to follow him and spread the good news of the Gospel? He picked ordinary fishermen. He picked a tax collector—one of the most despised men in the country. And later, when he called Saul of Tarsus, he picked the church’s most bitter enemy.
Last week, we heard the story of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. Because of her gender, race, nationality, and reputation, he shouldn’t have given her the time of day. And yet, from his hand she received the gift of living water—and she became a messenger of the gospel.
Personally, I find these examples are encouraging to me—especially during those times when I feel inadequate or discouraged in my service to God.
I believe the story of David’s anointing has a powerful message for all of us. It challenges us to look for possibilities of grace and hope beyond the traditional channels of power, influence, and success. Too often, we fail to appreciate the potential of those who are absent from the circles of worldly power—the impoverished, the uneducated, the elderly, immigrants who speak languages other than our own, those of a different race from ours.
If we forget the prophetic message of Scripture, we will also forget about God’s power to create hope—and new futures—even for the marginalized and the dispossessed. Indeed, in our own personal moments of estrangement and self-doubt, we may forget that God can find possibilities for grace in us, as well.
But we are not called according to the rules of “what you see is what you get.” We are called by God, who looks on the heart. The Church of Jesus Christ is called both to discern and to mediate God’s grace in the world. In order to fulfil its mission, the Church must also look upon the heart—to see as God sees. And you know something? The Church is us!
We are the Body of Christ, and God is calling us to look beyond appearances in order to address the needs of wounded humanity in this third millennium. Nothing less will be acceptable for the life of God’s people, no matter how successful our institutional appearance might be.
We are not called to be bigger. We are not called to be wealthier. We are not called to look good. If we succumb to the temptation to choose for appearance alone, then God’s rebuke to Samuel will be our own.
So look carefully with the eyes of love, remembering that God’s Spirit is given to each one of us—and that the gifts of the Spirit are planted within each one of us—so that we can share God’s grace with the world around us.
Therefore, let us pray for discernment as we seek to discover our own gifts and talents—and for wisdom in using them. May we not judge people and situations by what they appear to be (the way Samuel judged the sons of Jesse), but—by looking with the eyes of God—may we see them as they truly are.