Seeing Others as Jesus Sees Us

By Bryan Owen

Back in my college days, I visited a friend who lived in Connecticut, and together we made an excursion into New York City. Since Memphis was the biggest place I had ever known, New York City was quite an experience. The tall buildings, bustling crowds, noisy traffic, and a harrowing taxi cab ride underscored that I was in a very different world.

What particularly struck me as we walked around Manhattan was seeing homeless people, many of whom were sitting or even lying down on the sidewalk. I watched as people in nice suits and dresses passed by, and even stepped over, the homeless as though they didn’t exist.

I think my friend was a bit amused that I found all of this troubling. I had never seen anything like it before.

The tables turned when my friend came down to Mississippi to visit me. As we drove through the stark landscape of the Delta, with the sun beating down on cotton and soybean fields, my friend asked in disbelief: “Do people really live in those run-down houses?” Growing up with those wooden shacks scattered around the fields, I was so accustomed to their presence that I really didn’t see them, or give a thought to what it might be like to live in quarters without insulation, indoor plumbing, or electricity. Seeing familiar sights from the perspective of my friend was an eye-opening experience.

To one degree or another, all of us suffer from spiritual myopia, and even spiritual blindness. Sometimes we can’t see what’s right in front of our faces.

That’s happening in today’s gospel reading.

Jesus and his disciples encountered a man who was born blind. We learn from the story that this blind man was a beggar. He probably sat outside the temple gate hoping that persons passing by would take pity and give him their spare change.

But then Jesus gave sight to the man, forever changing his life. Instead of creating ripple effects of joy, that miracle set off a series of events that included controversy, confrontation, division, and rejection as the religious leaders reacted with hostility to what Jesus had done.

The religious leaders and many others had passed this blind beggar for years. But they never really paid any attention to him. True, they saw him with their eyes. But they never really saw him as a person. And now that his eyes can see, many of them claimed to not recognize him.

Some of the religious leaders lashed out, cynically brushing aside the formerly blind man’s testimony by claiming that Jesus’ miraculous act could not possibly be of God, because he did it on a Sabbath day.

A miracle was standing right in front them. The mighty power of God was on full display. A man born blind could now see. And Jesus’ identity as the Savior of the world had been publicly revealed.

But the religious leaders wouldn’t see it. They refused to believe because the eyes of their hearts were darkened. And so, instead of rejoicing that a blind man could now see and be restored to fullness of life as a member of the community, they heaped scorn and contempt on him. And they ostracized him by kicking him out of the synagogue.

No doubt, in their callous actions these religious leaders were an extreme example of a spiritual blindness that hardens hearts to compassion for the suffering and the needy.

But as the Litany of Penitence we use on Ash Wednesday reminds us, we all fall short of the mark by being “deaf to [God’s] call to serve, as Christ served us,” and by “our blindness to human need and suffering” (1979 Book of Common Prayer, pp. 267-68).

Sometimes we’re so busy and distracted by the demands of daily life that just to get by we tune out the needs and sufferings of others.

We may be dealing with difficult work or family issues that make it hard for us to be spiritually open and emotionally available to others in their pain.

Or we may feel anxious or afraid of having an interaction with someone different from us, not really knowing what to say or how to respond.

There’s no question that doing this requires a willingness to be vulnerable. That can be difficult.

And yet our Baptismal Covenant promise to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as [ourselves]” continues to call us to move beyond our comfort zones, reaching out to the sick, the suffering, the searching, the grieving, the lonely, and the lost (1979 BCP, p. 305).

As Christians, our challenge is to really “see” other people as Jesus sees us — not with judgment and condemnation, but with the eyes of compassion and mercy.

To do that, we have to pay attention. We have to be open. We have to reach out and interact, even if it’s something as simple as a smile that acknowledges the humanity of the other person. And we have to imagine what it might feel like to be in that person’s shoes, asking ourselves how we would want to be treated if we found ourselves in similar circumstances.

One of the wonderful things about the blessing bags we’ve had available this Lent is they provide an easy way for us to practice seeing and responding to others with the love of Jesus. Among other items, the bags are filled with toiletries, snacks, toothbrushes and toothpaste, new socks, baby wipes, hand sanitizer, sunscreen, and pocket-sized Bibles.

We can keep blessing bags in our cars, giving them to a homeless or other needy person we encounter, and speaking words of encouragement as we acknowledge the other person’s humanity.

Another way of practicing seeing and responding to persons we might otherwise miss can happen each time we gather for church. And that’s especially true when it comes to noticing and welcoming the stranger in our midst.

Attending a church for the first time, particularly if you don’t know any of the members, can be kind of scary. And depending on someone’s prior experience with churches, just showing up can be an act of courage.

Everybody walks into the church carrying all kinds of emotional and spiritual baggage. Everybody who shows up seeks acceptance and an experience of the love and grace of God. Everybody is seeking a home where they can be loved and valued for who they are.

Those of us who feel comfortable in this church family of St. Luke’s must be mindful of anyone who might be new, and proactive in reaching out to welcome them. Every time we reach out in love to welcome someone new, we welcome Jesus himself.

Each and every day, opportunities arise for us to see and respond to other people with the love of Jesus Christ. Those people include friends and family, coworkers and other church members. They also include strangers and people who don’t look, act, or think like us.

All of them are people for whom God sent his only Son. All of them are loved so much that Jesus suffered and died for them.

God wants to bring all of them into the joy of his eternal kingdom. And God invites you and me to be the eyes that see, the ears that hear, the hands that reach out, and the hearts that open with the empathy and compassion of Jesus Christ.

The Rev. Bryan Owen is rector of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Baton Rouge, Louisiana.


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