Rev. Dr. David D. M. King
The great prophet Samuel is nearing the end of his career. The boy who spent his children in the tabernacle, sleeping each night next to the Ark of the Covenant, has grown up and come nearly to the end of his days. For twenty years he led the people of Israel during their subjugation to the Philistines, until under his leadership they finally won their freedom. When the Israelites demanded a king, he warned them that a king would take advantage of them. But when they insisted, he anointed Saul as the first King of Israel. Now, near the end, he is fed up with Saul’s rule over the people and with his disobedience of God’s commands. It is time for a new king in Israel. As the passage from this morning says, “The Lord regretted making Saul king over Israel.”
So God sends Samuel out to anoint a new king to lead God’s people. But Samuel doesn’t want to go. He knows that kings don’t take kindly to being replaced. If Samuel tries to anoint a new king, then Saul and all of his loyalists will come for Samuel. They will kill him before he has even completed the task. So God gives Samuel a cover story. If anyone asks what Samuel is up to, he should tell them that he’s just there to make a sacrifice. And he brings a young cow along with him to make the cover complete.
When he shows up in Bethlehem, the local leaders are scared. They wonder why the prophet has come to their town and whether it might be bad news for them. Maybe they think that when prophets come bearing a message from God, it usually is bad news. Maybe they suspect why Samuel is actually there, and they fear the retribution Saul might have in store for them. Whatever their motivations, they ask Samuel, “Do you come in peace?”
We come in peace. That’s what the aliens always say right before they attack. We come in peace. The elders ask Samuel if he comes in peace, and sure enough, he answers, “Yes.” And then he gives them his cover story. “I’m just here to make a sacrifice. Prepare yourselves and join me.”
But as the people gather together for Samuel’s worship service, everyone seems to know what is really going on. Jesse has his sons lined up and ready for Samuel to inspect. One of them will be the new King of Israel.
Samuel thinks he recognizes the future king right away, Jesse’s eldest son, Eliab. We’re not sure what Samuel saw in him, exactly. The Bible doesn’t tell us. Maybe Eliab was tall. That’s what had made people think that Saul would be a good king; he was tall. Or maybe he seemed strong, like he’d be a good warrior. Skill in battle was one of the main requirements for kingship in the ancient world. Maybe he was handsome. People today tend to vote for more beautiful people over less beautiful people. We don’t know exactly what it was.
But it’s very interesting, because Samuel doesn’t just think that Eliab’s appearance would make him a good king. Samuel thinks that Eliab’s appearance is a sign that he is God’s choice. In other words, Samuel thinks that the way someone looks can tell you whether or not that person is favored by God.
We don’t know exactly what about Eliab’s appearance made Samuel sure that he was God’s anointed king. But we do know God’s response to Samuel’s assumption. God replies, “Have no regard for his appearance or stature, because I haven’t selected him. God doesn’t look at things like humans do. Humans see only what is visible to the eyes, but the Lord sees into the heart.” God doesn’t look at things like humans do. Humans see only what is visible to the eyes, but the Lord sees into the heart.
We do make a lot of assumptions based on appearance. Studies show that within seconds or even fractions of seconds of meeting a new person, our brains begin to make assumptions about the character of that person. Hair color and texture, skin color, the shape and symmetry of one’s facial features, the type of clothes someone wears, the way they carry themselves.
Within seconds we begin to predict whether that person is trustworthy, their socio-economic status, their competence and intelligence, how successful they are, how dominant they are, how adventurous or aggressive they are, their religious devotion, their leadership potential.
Part of this is related to identifiable biases, whether those biases are conscious or unconscious. Anyone raised in USAmerican culture has ingrained biases around race, gender, ethnicity, culture, language, sexual and gender orientation, religion, age, and other markers of identity. These are often running in the backs of our minds, beyond our own perception of them, and whether or not we choose them. Even if I don’t espouse racism, for example, my brain was formed in a culture of racial prejudice. When I have to make a snap assessment of a given situation, those deeply-coded prejudices are at work beyond my perception, beyond my control. And it takes really concerted hard work to try to reprogram the brain even marginally.
Try this. I want you to imagine a series of people. Imagine a general. Now imagine a nurse. Imagine a school teacher. Imagine a computer engineer. Imagine a dancer. Imagine a theater actor. Imagine a drug addict. Imagine a massage therapist. Imagine a police officer. Imagine a fast food worker. Imagine a politician. Imagine a tech support specialist. Imagine a professional athlete. Imagine a CEO.
Now, if I were able to collect all of the mental images that you just made, and I could sort them out and analyze them, do you think I’d be able to find any patterns? What would we find when we sorted out imagines of generals by gender? What about if we sorted images of tech support specialists by nationality or race? If we sorted images of theatre actors by sexual orientation?
I’ll bet we’d notice some patterns. But those patterns might not tell us very much about our ideology. Our brains make those assumptions even if we don’t consciously believe that there are or should be clear differentiation between different genders, races, nationalities, or sexual orientations.
Part of it is just a reflection of our environment. American generals really are overwhelmingly male and white. It’s not surprising that a white male image comes up when we think of a general. But we know that white males are not inherently better at military command than people who aren’t white males. But the fact that we already have an image of what a general is supposed to look like means that when we encounter someone who does not fit that image, we have a hard time imagining them in that position. And if our self-image does not match that preconceived image, we have a hard time imagining ourselves in that position.
So a lot of our assumptions about people operate according to patterns that we can readily expect and predict because we know something about the history of prejudice in our culture. But even beyond those familiar kinds of prejudice, there are other ways that we make assumptions about people based on their appearance. For example, here in the US, we generally perceive someone with an English accent as being more intelligent than someone with a typically American accent. We know that English people are not inherently more intelligent than Americans, but our brains still make the assumption.
And we make assumptions based on all kinds of other things. Think about clothes. We glean a lot about a person based on what they wear. Some of it is based on style. But it goes even deeper than that. Did you know that if I wear a blue tie with my suit, I am more likely to be perceived of as trustworthy, but if I wear a red tie, I’m more likely to be perceived of as powerful. Everything else could be exactly the same. Just the change in color and our assumptions change.
And those assumptions don’t always prove to be accurate. We can make big mistakes when we make assumptions based on appearance.
I’ll bet you’ve experienced it. I’ll bet you could think of a time when your initial assumption about a person turned out not to be very accurate. But instead, I want you to shift gears for a moment and think about a time when people made assumptions about you based on your appearance, assumptions that didn’t capture who you are at all. What do people tend to assume about you based on a first impression, that if they knew you better, they’d realize that they were way off? What do people tend to assume about you that isn’t true? With someone near you, why don’t share what that might be. What is one false assumption that people make about you?
God tells Samuel, “God doesn’t look at things like humans do. Humans see only what is visible to the eyes, but the Lord sees into the heart.” God didn’t choose the biggest and the strongest to be king of Israel. In fact, God didn’t choose Jesse’s second or third son, either. Or the fourth, fifth, sixth, or seventh. God chose the brother that they left behind to tend to the sheep, the one who couldn’t possibly be the sort of person a king is made out of. But God doesn’t look at things like humans do. Humans see only what is visible to the eyes, but the Lord sees into the heart.
Paul hits on some similar themes in the Second Letter to the Corinthians this morning. He writes, “We are giving you an opportunity to be proud of us so that you could answer those who take pride in superficial appearance, and not in what is in the heart.” And a little later he writes, “So then, from this point we won’t recognize people by human standards. Even though we used to know Christ by human standards, that isn’t how we know him now.” God doesn’t look at things like humans do. Humans see only what is visible to the eyes, but the Lord sees into the heart.
When God looks past outward appearances and looks deep into your heart, what does God see there? What does God know about you that others cannot see? What is the true “you” at the center of your being that is fully visible only to God? What strengths does God find there? What wounds does God see there? What character traits, what quirks? What fears, what desires, what deep longings? What joys and what griefs?
God does see you. Not just the outward appearance, but deep into the heart. God knows who you are. God knows what the world cannot see. God knows the things that you hide from the world. God even knows the things you try to hide from yourself. God knows you. And knowing you completely, God loves you. God loves you. God sees the beauty that others don’t see. God carries the pain that others don’t perceive.
God doesn’t look at things like humans do. Humans see only what is visible to the eyes, but the Lord… the Lord sees into the heart.