Handsome men of the Bible

Friday, June 28, 2013 — Week of Proper 7, Year One

[Go toMission St Clare for an online version of the Daily Office including today’s scripture readings.]

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office

(Book of Common Prayer, p. 970)

Psalms 102 (morning) // 107:1-32 (evening)

1 Samuel 9:1-14

Acts 7:17-29

Luke 22:31-38

A number of years ago, I began trying to visualize Scripture passages. The method of vividly imagining the Scriptures dates back to Pseudo-Bonaventure’s “Meditations on the Life of Christ” (14th century), and the technique became even more popular through Ignatius of Loyola’s “Spiritual Exercises” (16th century). I really wish that I could consult these spiritual masters about a potential distraction in an otherwise profound discipline: the handsome men of the Bible. It seems odd to devote one’s prayer time to conjuring handsome men.

We meet one of these handsome fellows today. Our first reading insistently describes Saul as “a handsome young man.” Apparently, “There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he.” Why on earth do we need to know this about Saul? This information seems to undermine God’s greater concern throughout the Bible with the content of our hearts.

But the Bible does contain some other lookers: Joseph was “handsome and good-looking” (Gen 39:6); Moses was “beautiful before God” (as our second reading puts it); David “had beautiful eyes and was handsome” (1 Sam 16:12).

I have a hard time squaring these descriptions with something else from the First Book of Samuel—the very book that tells us Saul and David are so handsome. When Samuel is looking for a king to—spoiler alert!—replace Saul, he considers David’s oldest brother. God warns, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature . . . for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” (1 Sam 16:7).

So, which is it—faithful hearts or handsome faces? If God, unlike mortals, looks on the heart, then why does he keep choosing handsome men to lead his people?

I tend to think that a convention of attributing good looks to God’s leaders has interfered with some powerful messages about how God sees. God ‘s perspective differs strongly from how other people see us or how we see ourselves. If we look ahead just a bit, we find out that Saul sees himself as very small: “only a Benjaminite, from the least of the tribes of Israel,” and from “the humblest of all the families of the tribe of Benjamin” (1 Sam 9:21). But Samuel, the trained seer, instead sees in Saul what God has told him to look for: a ruler and liberator who would save his people from their Philistine oppressors.

In our reading from Acts, Stephen tells another story about the difference between what mortals see and what God sees. Moses had a rough start as a liberator, using vengeance and violence as strategies to defend his oppressed kinsman. He thought his fellow-Israelites “would understand that God through him was rescuing them,” but they saw only a tyrant and a murderer. But, as Stephen will tell us tomorrow, God helped Moses to see himself again as “ruler and liberator” (Acts 7:35).

Finally, in today’s gospel reading, Jesus sees through Peter’s impulsive declaration that he will follow Jesus to prison and toward death. Jesus sees Peter’s future of failure and denial. And yet, Jesus prays that Peter’s faith won’t ultimately fail, and that he will strengthen the other disciples. Jesus sees that Peter will falter in the short-run, but Jesus also sees beyond those moments. Jesus sees Peter as persisting in faith over the long haul and giving comfort and encouragement to others.

What makes you beautiful before God? Is it your humility—even when it holds you back from your potential? Your instinctive anger for the oppressed—even when it gets out of hand? Your over-eager heart—even when it sets you up to fail? Consider the ways that God sees you and sees through you, and try asking for a heart more transparent before God. Nothing could be more beautiful.

Inspired as a child by Maria Von Trapp, Luke Skywalker, and Jesus, Lora Walsh strives for wisdom, justice, and a simpler way.  She serves as curate of Grace Episcopal Church in Siloam Springs and as director of the Ark Fellows, an Episcopal Service Corps program sponsored by St. Paul’s in Fayetteville, Arkansas

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