January 17, 2021
Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18
This is a reflection from Wislawa Szymborska, called “A Contribution to Statistics.” She writes:
Out of a hundred people those who always know better: fifty two
doubting every step (?): nearly all the rest,
glad to lend a hand if it doesn’t take too long (?): as high as forty nine,
always good because they can’t be otherwise (?): four, well maybe five,
able to admire without envy (?): eighteen
suffering illusions induced by fleeting youth (?): sixty, give or take a few,
not to be taken lightly (?): forty and four,
living in constant fear of someone or something (?): seventy seven,
capable of happiness (?): twenty-something tops,
harmless singly, savage in crowds (?): half at least,
cruel when forced by circumstances (?): better not to know even ballpark figures,
wise after the fact (?): just a couple more than wise before it,
taking only things from life (?): thirty (I wish I were wrong),
hunched in pain, no flashlight in the dark (?): eighty-three sooner or later,
righteous (?): thirty-five, which is a lot,
righteous and understanding (?): three,
worthy of compassion (?): ninety nine,
mortal: a hundred out of a hundred.
Thus far this figure still remains unchanged.
I came across this reflection as I considered today’s gospel passage and thought about the differences in how Jesus and Nathaniel choose to see.
Jesus has called Phillip to follow and what the gospel tells us is that Phillip then finds Nathanael and says, We’ve found the one we’ve been waiting for, the one talked about in the prophecies! Presumably, the “we” means Andrew and Peter too who were called to follow Jesus in the previous verses. And, presumably they were all familiar with John the Baptist who just verses before that pointed to Jesus and said, “Look, here is the lamb of God.”
I think it’s interesting that Phillip’s first response isn’t to drop everything and follow immediately, which may be the sense we get from other gospels. Instead, Phillip’s first response is to share the good news with his friend. And, I wonder, how many out of a hundred would do that today? In any case, Phillip says, “We’ve found him! He’s Jesus of Nazareth.”
The filters immediately fall over Nathanael’s eyes. “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” I have no idea what Nathanael had against Nazareth, but clearly it wasn’t fit to be the home of God’s anointed. Nathanael was blinded by his impressions; the notions he carried kept him from seeing what he otherwise might.
Jesus, on the other hand, spots Nathanael coming and immediately points out the goodness he sees in him. “Now, here is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.” It turns out that Debbie Thomas and I were on the same page this week. She writes, “Jesus had a choice when it came to seeing Nathanael. I wonder what would have happened if, instead of calling out Nathanael’s purity of heart, Jesus had said, “Here is a cynic who is stunted by doubt,” or “Here is a man who is governed by prejudice,” or, “Here is a man who is blunt and careless in his words,” or, “Here is a man who sits around, passive and noncommittal, waiting for life to happen to him.”
Any one of those things might have been true of Nathanael. But Jesus looked past them all to see an honesty, a guilelessness, a purity of thought and intention that made up the true core of Nathanael’s character. Maybe the other qualities were there as well, but would Nathanael’s heart have melted in wonder and joy if Jesus saw and named those first? Or would Nathanael have withdrawn in shame, fear, despair, and embarrassment? Jesus named the quality he wanted to bless and cultivate in his would-be follower, the quality that made Nathanael a person of beauty, an image-bearer of God.”
“Come and see,” Jesus keeps saying in John’s gospel. In context I suppose it means, come and see what I’m up to; come and see who I am, come and see what it means to follow. But here we might add, come and see the way I see; come and look through my eyes with me; come and look upon the world with grace. He certainly could harp on Symborska’s statistics. We’re fearful, capable of cruelty, and righteous often without understanding, yet that’s not what Jesus chooses to see. Instead, he sees our mortality in all of its broken beauty and he join us in it.
I’m concerned about a lot of things these days. I’m especially concerned about what feels like an insurmountable divide between people who consistently and more and more vehemently perceive the world differently. I have a neighbor who regularly reminds me of this divide in Facebook posts and direct text messages that if I’m not careful can pretty quickly bring my blood to a boil. It’s so easy to think of him as the problem, as the enemy. It is so easy to think of myself as his teacher and judge. What’s harder is to think that we’re both mortals, both imperfect but worthy of compassion, both good though feeling pushed into corners and vulnerable to our flaws. By the way, I find that responding with questions helps: often I learn something and generally I’m reminded that we’re still capable of being friends.
As we struggle through this particular time of history it is so clear to me that we need a God of grace. We need a God who is compassionate towards our mortality. We need a God who can teach us how to see. Thank God we have just that.