From the beginning, the Bible is a story of the wrong person being chosen. It’s always the younger, the weaker, the smaller, the forgotten one that God favors. When the very first brothers, Cain (the older brother) and Abel (the younger brother), go to bring their offerings from the fruit of the ground, God regards Abel’s offering but has no regard for Cain’s offering. Jacob tricks his older brother Esau out of both his birthright and their father Isaac’s blessing and becomes the one to inherit God’s promise to Abraham. Jacob favors his wife Rachel over her older sister Leah, who becomes his wife too but only because their father Laban tricks him. Jacob favors his youngest son, Joseph, and his older brothers are so jealous that they end up selling Joseph into slavery, though in the end Joseph becomes the true hero who forgives his brothers and saves his whole family from a famine. The story of David being brought from the field and chosen over all of his older brothers is yet another story of an unlikely hero, a story of God choosing someone we wouldn’t have chosen, a story of God choosing someone we likely wouldn’t have even noticed.
Our passage today begins with an acknowledgment of the prophet Samuel’s grief over Saul. Samuel has been like a father figure to Saul throughout his time as king. After God gave in to the people’s request for a king, God had directed Samuel to anoint Saul as Israel’s first king. The writer of 1 Samuel tells us that Saul was the tallest, most handsome man in all of Israel (9:2). But Saul eventually lets his power go to his head; he stops listening to God. God voices his disappointment saying, “I regret that I made Saul king, for he has turned back from following me, and has not carried out my commands” (15:11). Samuel is invested in Saul’s success as king and isn’t quite ready to let go. God cries out to him, “How long will you grieve over Saul?” God calls Samuel to put aside his own feelings, to not be paralyzed by his own grief, and to carry out his duties as God’s prophet. God makes it clear that God has rejected Saul, and it’s now time for Samuel to help the people of Israel to move into the future God has for them. God gives Samuel clear marching orders. He is to fill his horn with oil, take a heifer, and go to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for God has provided for Godself a king among Jesse’s sons. The word for provide in the Hebrew is ra’ah, and it means “to see.” God has seen, discerned, chosen a king, and God will show Samuel who God has seen.
Samuel is understandably afraid. To go and anoint a new king while the old one is alive is to commit treason. But God tells Samuel just to say that he has come to make a sacrifice. A sacrifice would certainly accompany an anointing; it’s a cover that contains truth. The elders of the city of Bethlehem are afraid of his arrival. They know he is both a kingmaker and a kingbreaker. He is a prophet with a lot of power, and he is an enemy of the king. They are afraid of what kind of conflict Samuel might bring into their midst. He tells them he has come in peace and to offer a sacrifice. He invites them to sanctify themselves and come to the sacrifice. He sanctifies Jesse and his sons and invites them to the sacrifice, and then the parade of Jesse’s sons begins.
Eliab passes by first. Samuel is drawn to his handsomeness and his stature; he is described in the same way as Saul was. Samuel thinks that surely Eliab is the Lord’s anointed because he looks like Saul; he looks like a king. God has told Samuel that God has seen a king, yet Samuel continues to rely on his own eyes, his own seeing; he continues to value beauty and stature. God cautions Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance but the Lord looks on the heart.” Although he sees what some cannot see, even Samuel does not see as God sees. After this word from the Lord, Samuel yields. He stops looking with his own eyes, and starts looking with God’s eyes. He starts listening to God so he can see the one whom God has chosen. Abinadab, Shammah, and four other sons pass by Samuel, and Samuel tells Jesse that God has not chosen any of these sons. Samuel, with probably a great deal of worry and hesitation, asks Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” Jesse tells him that the youngest remains, but he is keeping the sheep.
David was so far down on the totem pole that Jesse hadn’t even thought it was important that he be present, but Samuel tells him to bring his youngest son from the field at once. Ironically, he is immediately described in terms of his outward appearance, just like the rest of the brothers. He is ruddy or red headed, beautiful or of beautiful countenance, and handsome. Perhaps, he looks weak or boyish. He might not look like the first choice for a king to Samuel, but that doesn’t matter anyway. What’s important is what God sees in his heart. He may be handsome, but he also has a good heart. God tells Samuel to rise and anoint him for he is the one. As his brothers, who were no doubt confused and jealous watch, Samuel anoints David and the Spirit of the Lord comes mightily upon him. God chooses someone Samuel couldn’t even see at all; someone who wasn’t even present; someone the family hadn’t even thought worthy enough to bring along. God chooses the youngest, the little shepherd boy from Bethlehem, the eighth son, who is from a family with no lineage to speak of. The shepherd who kept the sheep becomes the shepherd of the people of Israel.
God tells Samuel that the Lord looks on the heart. It’s important to understand what the text means by heart. In the ancient world, the heart was not the center of emotions. The heart was not about feelings like we think of it. The heart was the center of one’s being; the heart made up one’s emotion, intelligence, discernment, wisdom, commitment, and character. It was what made the person who they are. It was an indicator of what the person really cared about. God chose David because of what was in his heart. He was a man who was after God’s own heart. He cared about things that God cared about. He was committed to things that pleased God. He saw the world like God saw the world. Since we know the end of the story, we know that power will eventually get the best of David too. But perhaps what made David be able to see like God as a young shepherd boy was the fact that he was the underdog. He was the least among his brothers, and being the least makes it easier to see the cracks in the systems of the world. Having no power makes it easier to see how God wants to turn the world upside down. Appearances can be deceiving. Sometimes we might think someone looks like they could play the part, but God knows what people are really about because God sees the hidden depths of the heart. Often because God sees differently than we see, God ignores the usual arrangements for power and influence and chooses someone we would have never chosen. God is not interested in political order but in leaders who will follow after God’s own heart.
A man in his late fifties, wearing hand me down clothes and shoes and a ball cap, with facial hair stubble making his face look more worn, knocked on the door of a downtown Atlanta church persistently. A pastor who had just come from a morning meeting on building a homeless shelter greeted the man with as much compassion as possible for a busy pastor running late for her next meeting. She asked him, “Are you here for the clothes closet? I’m sorry. We don’t open for another hour.” Before she could finish her sentence, the man interrupted her, saying “No, no!” The smile on his face had given way to a defeated frown. He muttered, “I’m here to help sort the clothes. I saw on a flyer downtown that said you were looking for volunteers.” But the damage was already done. The spirit that moved this man to get up early and get on the bus to spend his energy helping to maintain the clothes closet was wounded. It was a simple error – understandable and unwitting and yet irreversible.[i] Even the pastor, who was sometimes able to see what others were not, could not see as God sees. The pastor only looked at this man’s outward appearance and did not see him as one who could serve but only as one in need. The pastor couldn’t see his heart, a heart that was bent towards generosity and service and willingness, a heart that wanted to make the world look a little more like God wanted it to look.
On our Lenten journey so far we have learned from the story of Adam and Eve that we have to obey God and remember that not all good things are always faithful. The story of Abram’s call taught us that our calling to be God’s people means we have to move away from what’s familiar and what’s best for our individual families and to do what’s best for all of the families of the earth. The story of Moses and the people complaining on their journey through the wilderness showed us that we have to trust God even when it doesn’t feel like God is in our midst. This story of David being chosen and anointed as king teaches us that the season of Lent is also time when we learn to see as God sees. The journey through the wilderness that will one day lead to the promised land is also a journey that seeks to sharpen our vision. It’s a journey that pushes us to question our standards. It’s a journey that challenges what we put our security and hope in. It’s a journey that teaches us that appearances can be deceiving. It’s a journey that seeks to help us to see people as God sees them, to look on their hearts, not their apparent strength or wisdom or beauty.
In the gospel lesson for today, Jesus heals a man who was born blind. It’s an odd story. Jesus spits on the ground, makes mud with his saliva, and spreads the mud on the man’s eyes. Jesus sends him to wash in the pool at Siloam, and after he goes and washes in the pool, he is miraculously able to see. The man’s neighbors see him walking around like someone who can see. They think he looks like the blind man, so they ask if he is really the blind man who used to sit and beg. Chatter fills the streets. Some say, “It has to be the man!” Most everyone else says, “No, it can’t be! It must just be someone who looks like him.” All the while the blind man keeps saying, “It is me! It is me!” No one believes that this man who was born blind actually received his sight. They eventually send for his parents who verify that this man who now sees is indeed their son who was born blind. The people’s vision was skewed; they could only see the man as they had always seen him. He was only a blind man to them, but it turns out that they were the ones who were blind. They couldn’t see the man as someone who was healed; nor could they see that Jesus, the one miraculously able to heal, was from God.
God wants to retrain our vision. God doesn’t want us to fall short of truly seeing because we are caught up in the normal operations in our world. God doesn’t care how we do business as usual. God wants us to heal us from our blindness. God wants to change our vision so that we can live in a way that is pleasing to God and so that we can see all of God’s children for who they truly are. We are not to trust our own eyes, our own sight. We are to trust God’s eyes, God’s sight. We are to yield to what God sees. We are to let God show us what’s truly in people’s hearts. We are to confess our blindness and to yield ourselves, allowing our vision to give way to God’s vision, so that God can shape our hearts into hearts that are after God’s own heart. The spiritual disciples that we engage in during Lent – denying ourselves things we love, praying, fasting, reading God’s word – retrain our vision so that we can love what God loves. They help us to shed our love for the way we see the world, for business as usual, and to gain a desire for God’s vision for the world.
The story of God choosing David is a story of the older, the stronger, the better sons being passed over. It’s always the case that the ones who are seen as better by the world, are not chosen by God. The proud, the vain, the competent, the smartest, the most capable give way to the one everyone has discounted, the one everyone has forgotten about. God picks the ostracized, the outcast, the dismissed, the missing because God doesn’t see like us. God doesn’t favor power, efficiency, wealth, or strength. God favors humility, grace, peace, and kindness. God favors people whose hearts are bent towards following after God. Open your eyes. Yield to God’s sight. God is calling us to be like Samuel and to choose the outcast, the ones we least expect, and to anoint them, to lift them up, to amplify their voices. God is calling us to seek out the Davids among us. As we learn to lift up and to see those whose hearts are bent towards following after God, God will transform our hearts as well.
[i] Based off a story told by Robert Lupton in Theirs is the Kingdom: Celebrating the Gospel in Urban America, 5.