Just Looking?

Seeing is important for us. But sometimes we can look without seeing.  The numbers of times I look for something and can’t find it despite it being near where I am looking. It is right there and yet I don’t see it.

I  heard about some research done recently. People were asked to watch a video of a basket ball game – one team in red shirts, the other in white shirts, and to count how often the ball was passed to people with one color shirt or other. People watched intent on counting the number of times ball was passed. After the video finished they were asked to describe what had happened on screen. Most had correctly counted the number of passes of the ball. But almost no one noticed a guy in a gorilla suit who walked out onto the court among the players.

On our vacation traveling back across the country on Amtrak we ate in the dining car – and were usually seated with two other people. Eating dinner after leaving Seattle we were seated with an older couple traveling back from a graduation. The conversation started out OK.

While we were eating a young couple with three children under 4 years old came in and ordered dinner. The parents and children were tired and hungry and a dining car is not a place fast service. Soon the children became squirmy and the parents tried to help them wait without disturbing others… but reasoning with a tired 2 year old is like herding cats… And the youngest child started to cry and protest loudly. This started the others as well.

The woman with whom we had been seated started to complain to us about the crying child and then began to criticize this poor couple – loudly enough so they could hear. Nancy and I tried to change the conversation but she was determined to express her self-righteousness about bringing children so young on a train, feeding them in the dining car, having children so close together and the parents lack of control. This led her into a general monologue about young parents not being as good a parent as she had been. It was quite a tirade of self congratulations and judgment.

Often we see what we expect to see – no matter what is really there. In the Gospel of Luke Jesus approached by a woman who is very grateful to him for his ministry – and she has brought some ointment for his feet – the religious leader are aghast that Jesus allows this. Jesus asks the leader “Simon, do you see this woman?” It is not a rhetorical question. The answer is no! Simon is not looking at the person he is looking at his expectation of who she is – a sinner. Did our dinner companion see a weary set of parents and 3 very young, tired and hungry children? or did she see people who were annoying her by their presence and non-conformity to her sense of what they should be?  Simon did not really see that woman as a person – she was objectified to him as a sinner.

It seems to me that this shows us an all too frequent and human reaction of self-righteousness; where we see so clearly the faults of others without recognizing our own. And we do not suffer in silence but like our dinner companion make it known in facial expression, body language and at times verbally just what we think… At worst losing our cool and going on the offensive with great self righteousness.

Jesus interrupts Simon s self-righteousness to remind Simon that he has not offered to Jesus even the basic signs of hospitality – while the woman has been generous in her caring. Then Jesus tells her that her sins are forgiven. Simon and the other Pharisees are left in their shock and sense of superiority. They had the opportunity to receive blessing, mercy, spiritual growth and forgiveness but could not accept the gift being offered – they were too busy judging Jesus, the woman and others.

So often we in the church act like the Pharisees – we become so entangles with expectations and traditions that we miss the point of why it is we gather.

A bishop in Toronto once commented to me that in many parishes there is a deep sense that their church is a hotel for saints – but really the church is a hospital for sinners. A haven for people who know and own their brokenness and can live in the knowledge they are lifted up and forgiven by God. Once we know that truth deep within ourselves, he continued, there is no room for self-righteousness.

It might be worth it to spend this week trying to see differently – to look not through our lenses of our expectations and stereotypes but trying to see ourselves, the world around us and others as God sees them.  Let us spend the week answering Jesus question to Simon “Do you see …? Or are we just looking?


About don

The Rev Don Hill is an Episcopal priest, rail fan and writer. He and his wife the Rev. Dr. Nancy Woodworth-Hill are currently Co-Pastors of St Paul's Episcopal Church, Jeffersonville IN, in the Diocese of Indianapolis. They also work as parish consultants in Appreciative Inquiry, strategic planning and spirituality development for parishes and vestries.
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