But the Lord said to Samuel: “Do not judge from his appearance or from his lofty stature, because I have rejected him. Not as man sees does God see, because he sees the appearance but the Lord looks into the heart.”
1 Samuel 16: 7
Many years ago I met the younger brother of a student of mine who had died very young. When he heard my name, he came up to me and told me that his brother had often spoken of me and of how well I had treated him as a student. I was, of course, pleased to hear this, but I was also pained. Although as a young teacher I always made an effort to respect each of my students, I was well aware in this moment that the young man’s brother was one whom I had very often overlooked. Although a very fine student, he did not really stand out in any particular way and so did not appeal to my attention to the same degree that some others did. It was truly by God’s grace and not by my lights or love that he did experience being cared about.
This moment was for me a reminder of how powerful a factor in my caring for others are the judgments I make of them based on appearance. Is this person intelligent or not, physically attractive or not, engaging or not, and on and on? So often I go “looking for Jesus” based on my own biases and prejudices, and, as a result, I am sure that much of the time I fail to recognize him when he calls to me.
Today we read of the call to Samuel to go to Jesse where he is to identify whom God has chosen as king from among Jesse’s sons. Immediately upon seeing Eliab Samuel jumps to the judgment that this impressive person must be the one whom God has chosen to lead Israel. Our reactions to others and the judgments to which these reactions give rise are lightening quick and not at all a product of thoughtful and careful appraisal. Most of the time, the world and its possibilities are not really available to us because we have unconsciously filtered out most of it. As the Buddha pointed out, our craving for what we think will satisfy us and our aversion from what we fear or are repulsed by are the great obstacles to our experiencing the fullness and blessing of the present moment.
We learn, of course, out of our life experience. Our emotions and our emotional reactions to the world develop out of those memories. This is the way that we learn the meaning of things. The problem comes because those memories and emotions lead us to judge the present moment and call based on our past experience. Without thinking and discerning, we take the aspects of the present that resemble the past and we interpret the entire experience or person in light of that similarity. In a homily from last April, Pope Francis challenges all of us to remain open to the new work of the Spirit in the present and not to be victims of our memories: “. . . ask this courage, this apostolic courage to bring life and not make of our Christian life a museum of memories.” We need to respect and be properly formed by our past experiences and our memories of them, but we need also to remember that the spirit of God is always, in the words of Psalm 98, singing “a new song” to the Lord.
If we are not to make of our personal and communal lives “a museum of memories,” we must make a deliberate choice to keep moving out, as Pope Francis says, “to the peripheries” of our own consciousness and experience and also those of our societies. The gift of God’s incarnation, as the life of the Spirit from age to age, tend to be alive and active not in the central text of the human story but rather in the margins. This is why those who are the powerful and the well to do, the authors of the human narrative, need to not only go out to but even more to learn from the poor and those in the margins. There is an insecurity in such a “going out” and in the required openness to listen and to learn. One’s unconscious reaction is to avoid whomever and whatever evokes such an insecurity in us. Yet, as with that young man I taught so many years ago, God and God’s spirit is awaiting us in the very places that we would tend to overlook, ignore and avoid.
For the Church, the option for the poor is primarily a theological category rather than a cultural, sociological, political or philosophical one. God shows the poor “his first mercy”. This divine preference has consequences for the faith life of all Christians, since we are called to have “this mind… which was in Jesus Christ” (Phil 2:5). Inspired by this, the Church has made an option for the poor which is understood as a “special form of primacy in the exercise of Christian charity, to which the whole tradition of the Church bears witness”. This option – as Benedict XVI has taught – “is implicit in our Christian faith in a God who became poor for us, so as to enrich us with his poverty”. This is why I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us. Not only do they share in the sensus fidei, but in their difficulties they know the suffering Christ. We need to let ourselves be evangelized by them. The new evangelization is an invitation to acknowledge the saving power at work in their lives and to put them at the centre of the Church’s pilgrim way. We are called to find Christ in them, to lend our voice to their causes, but also to be their friends, to listen to them, to speak for them and to embrace the mysterious wisdom which God wishes to share with us through them.
Evangelii Gaudium, 198