The Lord said to 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.” I Samuel 16:7
Samuel, a prominent Israeli priest and prophet, was between a rock and a hard place. The rock was the Lord God; the hard place was Israel’s King, a tall, powerful man named Saul, whom Samuel himself had anointed, but who had fallen into disfavor with God. In obedience to God, Samuel had had to deliver to Saul the bad news that he was finished, his career was over. Now he had to go out and find a worthy successor to be Israel’s next king. And he was terrified. “If Saul hears of it he will kill me,” he cried. But God, whose rock-like will was not to be budged, ordered Samuel to go to Bethlehem and do his priestly work: He was to offer a sacrifice there, and invite to the ceremony a certain farmer named Jesse, together with his sons, and anoint one of those sons to be Israel’s new king.
As today’s Old Testament reading picks up the story, Samuel is at the farm in Bethlehem and Jesse begins to parade his sons before him. The first to come forward is Eliab, presumably the eldest. And Samuel is impressed with his good looks and stature. “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord,” he thinks to himself. (Now my hunch is that Samuel may have been impressed alright, but he was even more impressed with getting the whole thing over as quickly as possible, before Saul found out what he was up to!) But God says, Not so fast, Samuel! Think what you’re doing, man! Eliab’s not the one! Don’t judge by appearances; don’t look at his face or his height; you’ve already got a tall, good-looking king in Saul; but his heart’s not in the right place, and I want him out of there! Get someone who has the heart to seek my will and serve my people!
So the parade continues. Jesse presents his next son, Abinadab. But Samuel is more tuned in now and says, “Neither has the Lord chosen this one.” After that comes Shammah, but he’s not chosen either. Then four more come along; but not one of the seven satisfies the Lord—and Samuel knows it. (And I suspect he’s getting more nervous by the minute. He’s squeezed between the rock of God and the wrath of Saul.) On the one hand, God has made it quite clear that one of Jesse’s sons is to replace Saul. But on the other, Samuel is fully aware of Saul’s instability and anger and is genuinely afraid of him. What is he to do? He asks Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” It turns out of course that there is indeed one more son, the youngest, a shepherd boy named David, whom it hasn’t even occurred to Jesse to introduce to Samuel. “Rise and anoint him,” says the Lord, “for this is the one.” You may know the rest of the story: Samuel anoints David; the spirit of God comes mightily upon him; he proves himself mighty in battle; he beheads the giant Philistine Goliath; he endures a frightening relationship with the increasingly paranoid Saul; and he goes on to become Israel’s greatest king.
God and Samuel; Saul and David; Jesse and his sons—it is all about the ways of the heart. The heart of God yearns constantly for the hearts of us mortals. But we mortals suffer from that insidious cardiac infection that inhibits us from taking risks, that blinds us to the hidden gifts of others, and that seduces us into the embrace of all that is superficial and self-centered. We can understand Samuel’s aversion to risk. He has confronted Saul and experienced firsthand Saul’s fickle and unstable heart. And he is struggling with his own faintness of heart to remain true to his prophetic and priestly calling. And then Jesse: Jesse is a father, but with a farmer’s heart. Yes, one of his sons will become a great king, but God certainly could have chosen someone more prominent than Jesse. Samuel sees no need to tell this farmer what he wants from one of his sons, and the farmer is so concerned about his sheep that he leaves David out there to shepherd them.
But God knows the human heart! God sees in the heart of this shepherd boy, the youngest son of an obscure farmer, in a little mountain village called Bethlehem—God sees in David a heart, a soul, who holds the promise of greatness, who will cope with the paranoid king Saul, who will prove fearless in the face of adversaries, and who will become a king who will both know and love his God and know and love his people. God knows David will not be perfect, for God knows well the infections of the human heart. There will be judgment, but no surprise, in heaven over David’s flagrant sexual sins. What God looks for in David, and what God looks for in you and me, is a heart that who be sensitive enough to discern the Spirit at work in our innermost being, who will know when our innermost being is responding faithfully, and who will know when it is being seduced by evil.
You and I are very much aware, deep down inside, when we are being disingenuous, when we are playing games with other people’s feelings, when we are rationalizing our self-centered decisions. But all of us are experts in the art of denial. Haven’t you ever talked, or heard someone else talk, about “that elephant in the middle of the room?” We skirt around our problems, or our personality faults, or our unresolved estrangements from others, imagining somehow that if we ignore them they will go away. But they don’t, do they? I remember well the painful feeling in my heart after I got angry at a parishioner in one of my earlier parishes. He did something behind my back which I felt undercut my ministry and integrity, and I was furious—and I let him know so in no uncertain terms. And afterward I would see him in church, and he would look the other way; and I would look the other way; and we would carefully avoid any encounter with each other. I’m glad to say that before I left that parish God gave each of us the grace of humility and honesty, and we became the best of friends. Furthermore, I discovered in him a tender and generous heart which I had never before realized he had.
The heart of God yearns constantly for our own hearts, calling forth in us a faithful and courageous response, and a keen awareness of, and firm resistance to, evil. I speak for myself, and I believe I speak for our society, when I say that among the worst diseases of the heart today is the disease of indifference. The Book of Lamentations, lamenting the fall of ancient Jerusalem, reminds us of the cry that stirs our hearts when we behold the crucified Christ: “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?” The crucified One calls to us: Is it nothing to you that racism still abounds in our land? That there are white supremacists who still will kill? That there is such hatred in the hearts of “pro-lifers” that they will torment and even destroy the lives of those whose hearts persuade them differently? Is it nothing to you that the United States, one of the richest nations in the world, ranks forty-second in life expectancy? That we have one of the world’s highest rates of obesity, and of infant mortality, with black infants at twice the rate of whites?
A seminary classmate of mine named George Ross once wrote an essay in his hometown newspaper about the famous Barnum and Bailey Clown College. He said the entrance examination includes these two questions for any wannabe clown: “When was the last time you cried, and why?” and “Do you like to dance?” He explained, “The one who cannot cry very well is probably also the one who cannot dance very well. God has so made us that the experience of spiritual pain and the experience of spiritual joy are mutually dependent.” Let’s do remember, dear friends, that God is always looking behind our outward appearance to see what’s on our hearts. Thank God Samuel had the courage to tune into that truth. Thank God that the Christ of the Cross yearns constantly that through the sometimes painful, and even tearful, awakening of our own hearts we will discover the unutterable joy of living in love and hope for the sake of God’s world.