02 April 2011

Judging People by their Covers

Fourth Sunday of Lent
            We probably heard it in school or from one of our parents: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.”  And yet, if you’re anything like me, as I’m looking for a book to buy, and if I don’t know anything about the author, I see which cover looks most interesting, and I buy that one.
            Almost instinctually we do the same thing with people.  We look at how prosperous they are, how handsome or beautiful they look, what kind of a job they have, and we assume by the cover of money, physical traits, or occupation that God loves them and has blessed them.  While those who lack prosperity, beauty, or a job we treat as if they have done something wrong and God is simply giving them the justice they deserve.
A bronze statue of David after he
beheaded Goliath from the
Tower of David, Jerusalem
            If this describes you at all, and I think it describes all of us at some points in our life, even the way we view our own life, then we can put ourselves into the role of Samuel in the first reading, who assumes that God’s choice as king must be the most handsome, the strongest, the fittest son of Jesse.  Now, Samuel was one of the greatest prophets in Israel, even if this wasn’t his best moment.  So we might not feel so bad.  But the other people who assumed that outwards prosperity was a sign of divine benevolence were the Pharisees from the Gospel today.  They assumed, because the man was born blind, that he or his parents had done something horribly wrong to merit this divine punishment. 
            Samuel at least didn’t have the benefit of the book of Job, so we can let him off the hook a little more easily than the Pharisees, who would have been familiar with the story of Job, who, though he had done nothing wrong, was allowed to endure horrible afflictions to his family, the loss of his livelihood, and even physical disease to see if his love of God was pure, or just based on earthly prosperity.  The Pharisees should have known better.  But they dismiss the man born blind as a sinner, as cursed by God.
            We still struggle with equating earthly blessings with divine favor.  If we have a good job, if we have a good family, if life is relatively easy, then we assume God loves us more.  But as soon as those so-called measures of divine favor are taken away, we assume that we have done something wrong, and that God is displeased with us. 
            The reality is that you can’t judge a book by its cover.  Some people seemingly have everything: a good job, lots of money, a handsome family, popularity, and any of the ways by which the world judges favor.  And yet, to whom much is given, much will be expected.  Sometimes what those “favors” mask are real struggles in living out the faith, in being faithful to God, in seeing the world as God sees it.  Sometimes the prosperous are really spiritually blind.  While those who have very few or even none of those “favors” have a deep and abiding relationship with God, and rely on Him because they have nothing else on which to rely.  While they seem blind, they, like the man born blind, recognize God as He comes to them, ready to accept His healing.
            The one who proves this the most is Jesus Himself.  On Good Friday we’ll hear from the Prophet Isaiah: “Even as many were amazed at him, so marred was his look beyond human semblance and his appearance beyond that of the sons of man…[and] there was in him no stately bearing to make us look at him, nor appearance that would attract us to him.  He was spurned and avoided by the people, a man of suffering, accustomed to infirmity, one of those from whom people hide their faces, spurned, and we held him in no esteem.”  We have a God who became man.  He did not come as a prince, or as a wealthy merchant, powerful and rich as He was, but instead placed Himself in the family of a carpenter, who was too poor to offer the usual sacrifices to the Lord.  We have a God who allowed Himself to be beat, crowned with thorns, stripped naked, and hung on a cross; a man who was cursed, as St. Paul says citing another passage in Scripture: “Cursed be he who hangs from a tree” so that we might receive the blessings of God’s eternal life of the Kingdom. 
But God’s blessing was never taken away from Jesus, despite his poverty, despite his death in utter shame and disgrace.  Jesus remained the source from whom all blessings flow, even though we thought of Him as accursed.  And so we cannot assume that because life seems to be going well, our souls are ready for heaven.  It could, in fact, be the opposite, if we rely on ourselves and not on God.  We cannot assume that because we suffer some shame, like the man born blind, that God is punishing us.  Because, from all eternity, God planned to allow that man to be born blind so that Jesus could reveal His true nature by the healing of a man born blind, a healing which led that man to believe in Jesus and worship Him. 
The way to know that we are being blessed by God, no matter what the trials, no matter whether or not the world thinks we are favored, is to believe in Jesus and act accordingly.  Then, at the end of time, we will be able to judge a book by its cover, because those who lived contrary to the will of God and separated themselves from Him will suffer eternally in hell, while those who followed Jesus and lived as a faithful disciple will receive their glorified body in the eternal banquet of heaven.  Blessed are those who are called to the eternal wedding feast of the Lamb.