When he saw Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked for alms. But Peter looked intently at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.”
Acts 3: 3-4
And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them. With that their eyes were opened and they recognized him, but he vanished from their sight.
Luke 24: 30-31
Today we read of Peter and John, as they walk up to the temple area on their way to three o’clock prayers, encountering a man who had been crippled by birth and who begged at the gate each day. He asks them for alms, and Peter, in return, tells him that although they have no money they will give him what they have. Before healing the man, however, Peter and John look at him “intently” and Peter tells him to “Look at us!” Somehow, if the man is to be healed he must first really look at Peter and John, as they are looking at him.
In the very familiar passage from Luke of the disciples on the way to Emmaus, we read that when Jesus takes and blesses the bread at their evening meal, “their eyes were opened.” As the three had walked together the disciples had heard the stranger’s words as he interpreted the scriptures to them, but it was only in the breaking and sharing of the bread that “their eyes were opened and they recognized him.”
In most of the transactions the crippled beggar had with his almsgivers, he, and probably they, never really looked at each other. If Peter is to offer what he has to give the man, the man must first see him. Similarly, as the eyes of the disciples were opened as Jesus gave them the broken and blessed bread, they had obviously been closed before that.
To really look at, to have our eyes opened is to live in different relationship to reality than that of our ordinary daily lives. Both readings today remind us that our typical state is one in which our eyes are tightly shut. Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. In the famous speech which he gave the night before his death, he spoke of the parable of the Good Samaritan. In it, he asks those assembled to ponder with him the question of why it is that the priest and the Levite did not stop and help the man on the road. He says that to answer the question we must be aware that the road from Jerusalem to Jericho was a very dangerous place. One was constantly in fear of being ambushed on it. King then says:
And so the first question that the priest asked — the first question that the Levite asked was, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” But then the Good Samaritan came by. And he reversed the question: “If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?”
While life is joyful and miraculous, it is also, like the road to Jericho, threatening. When we live in threat and fear, we, like little children, close our eyes so that we won’t be frightened. The problem is when our eyes are closed, we not only blind ourselves to the threats, we also become blind to the miraculous, the giftedness, the presence of the Divine in our midst. So, King poses the two questions that point to the fundamental option in our lives: “If I stop to help another, if I see the needs of the other, what will happen to me?”, or “If I do not stop to help the other, if I do not see the needs of the other, what will happen to him or her?” So, the first thing Peter asks of the crippled man is that he look at them.
Luke tells us that the eyes of the disciples on the way to Emmaus “were prevented from recognizing” Jesus. He joins them and speaks with them, and his words set their hearts aflame, but they cannot recognize him because their eyes are focused on their own fear and discouragement. It is only as they share the common bread that their eyes are opened. It is when their attention is turned from what might happen to them to the other that they know who the other is.
So much of our experience of life seems to involve struggling to find solutions to what seem to us to be intractable problems. Be it in our own personal lives or in the lives of our families, communities, and societies, we strain to find the way out of the pain and conflicts of the situations we face. What constitutes the problem, however, is always, in some way or other, a narrowness of “vision.” Whenever we find ourselves in a corner, it is always, in one way or another, a corner into which we have painted ourselves. The walls that constrain us are walls that arise out of our inability to see beyond our own constricted view. Before Peter can give what he has to give, the crippled man must look at him and see him as he is. Before the disciples can recognize the reality of the Resurrection, they must see the Lord in the stranger who has joined them.
What made it possible for Martin Luther King, Jr. to animate a movement that could at least begin to break through the racist outlines that defined American society was his ability to see “the glory of the coming of the Lord.” Specifically, as he points out in the Memphis speech, it was to see the power as well as the victimization in the African American community. We become powerless because we don’t see the full reality of things, rather we allow the taken for granted view of our cultures and societies to, in the words of the gospel, prevent our eyes from seeing.
To fail to see reality, as we are made to see it, is to settle for being less than distinctively human. All those “intractable” problems that obsess us are but a manifestation on our refusal to be who we are called to be. Our greatest capacity, as human spirit capable of receiving from the Divine Spirit, is to contemplate reality. Only in a society such as ours could contemplation be reduced to a self-help technique. We turn it into introspection, when it is really our ability to see the truth of things and so to act in accordance with that truth. Yet, in our contemporary experience, our capacity for contemplation has been reduced and inverted into a demand for distraction and passive entertainment. We are, in the words of the late Neil Postman, “amusing ourselves to death.”
Is it possible that the source of our deepest problems as a people is a lack of contemplation? In our tendencies to hyper-functionalism are we not actually increasing our blindness? We live in a world of total work and, then, are so exhausted that we feel only capable of “vegging out.” It is rumored that the U.S. President watches countless hours of television each day. He then speaks and acts in reaction to what he sees. The result is far too often a word or action that only deepens the conflicts and exacerbates the problems. Perhaps in this way he is the exemplar of the culture. Until we see with our own eyes, we can only be and act in reaction to the blindness that arises from our own personal and cultural deformations.
To be more fully human is to “see” new possibilities, even in those moments when there seem to be none. Yet, this requires of us that we open our eyes, that we, as Peter says, look at the world, not as a threat to us that we must control and manipulate but rather as an appeal to what we are able to do, small as it is, to be of help. “I have neither silver or gold, but what I do have I give you. . . .”
Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.
And I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!
And so I’m happy, tonight.
I’m not worried about anything.
I’m not fearing any man!
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!!
Martin Luther King, Jr., Mission Temple, Memphis, Tenn., 3 April 1968