Eight years ago the Society for Research on Child Development completed a longitudinal study on the relationship between physical attractiveness and success. Researchers went into a school, selected thirty of the best-looking children, and tracked the course of their lives until early adulthood. Here is what they found: these children received more teacher attention, achieved a higher grade point average, made more friends, experienced less depression, interviewed better, and earned a higher income, than their less attractive peers.
Other studies support these findings. According to one of them, attractive women have an 8 per cent wage bonus for above-average looks and pay a 4 per cent penalty for below-average looks. Men have a 4 per cent bonus and pay a 13 per cent penalty. Attractive people are more likely to be asked back for second interview at the jobs for which they applied. They are universally perceived as healthier and more trustworthy.
Of course, none of this should be surprising to us. We have only to open our eyes to see this happening all around us every day.
Today our first lesson introduces us to a significant episode in the history of God’s people. But let us first set it against a wider background. Last time we saw how the people demanded Samuel to give them a king, so that they could be like the other nations. Samuel capitulated to their demand, and anointed a man named Saul as their king. No more attractive man could be found in all Israel than Saul. We’re told in 1 Samuel 9:2 that he stood a head taller than the rest. Yet even though he led the people in their battles, he ultimately did not prove himself worthy of ruling God’s people. He lacked integrity, and his heart was not fully committed to the Lord. After disobeying the Lord’s command in his campaign against the Amalekites, Saul forfeited his reign. Samuel confronted him with the news that the Lord had rejected him as king, and would give his rule to another.
We first meet this one today. His name is David. Now the Lord did not tell Samuel in advance about David. The only information he has is that he is to go and anoint a son of Jesse. So Samuel goes to Bethlehem and locates the house of Jesse. The presence of Samuel stirs the whole town. Next to the king, he is the most powerful, most important person in all Israel. Perhaps it is like the vice president making an appearance in Ionia. Samuel does not wish to alarm the people. Nor does he want Saul’s allies to know that he’s about to anoint a new king to replace him. That is why he tells the townspeople that he has come only for the sacrifice, as the Lord instructed him. We may compare it to the town’s 4h fair. It’s an honor to have a dignitary at the 4h fair.
What happens unfolds exactly as we might expect. He goes to the tallest, most handsome of Jesse’s sons, Eliab. He is sure that he is the one the Lord has chosen to be king. Just as it is now, so also was it then. Human nature has not changed in this respect. Good looks, height—these were considered a sign of God’s favor. Even today, in a less religious age, we may still hear the language: “she has been blessed with good looks.” Samuel assumes that Eliab will go far, and achieve great things in life. Maybe he will; since he is good-looking, he probably will. But God tells Samuel that he is not the one. God is unimpressed with height and appearance. For the Lord does not see as man sees. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks upon the heart.
To be sure, God knows that appearance, good looks is what impresses us. He knows that we will always give special preference to those who have them. Good looking people will have their choice of the best partners, the best jobs, the best seats at all of life’s events. But that does not make them great in God’s eyes.
Samuel assumes that the standard by which we measure greatness is the same as that by which God measures greatness. We should be disappointed in Samuel. He should have learned this lesson by now. None more handsome than Saul could be found in all Israel, as we have already mentioned. Here is Eliab is created in Saul’s image! If Samuel had been left on his own, and the Lord had not indicated to him his own choice, Israel would have suffered Saul, Act II.
Samuel moves from Eliab to Abinadab and to Shammah. One by one Jesse presents his sons to Samuel, and one by one Samuel passes them up.
At first the absence of David is overlooked. And this heightens our suspense. Can it be that there is no suitable candidates among all Jesse’s sons? Jesse relieves our fears by telling us that there is still the youngest. He is tending the sheep.
That the first mention of David is associated with tending sheep tells us about God’s ideal for kingship. The king is like a shepherd who watches over the flock. “God chose David his servant, and took him from the sheepfolds. From following the ewes that had young, he brought him to shepherd Jacob his people, and Israel his inheritance. So he shepherded him with integrity of his heart, and guided them with the skillfulness of his hands” (Psalm 78).
God knows what he is doing. Retired Christian Reformed Church minister and author Stan Mast points out that God has a habit of choosing the least likely, the youngest, the outcast, the foolish and the weak and the lowly (I Corinthians 1:26-31) to do his most important work. And God can use the flaws and imperfections of his chosen ones to accomplish his purpose, like choosing a shepherd to be the greatest king and the forerunner of the Good Shepherd, the Lord Jesus Christ.
Since this is how God is, should it not inform how we regard people? We should pause before we leap to the conclusion that the tall, good-looking one in front of us is sure to be a success just because he is tall and good- looking. Perhaps there is the one in the corner, whom the rest ignore and pass up, because of his appearance. Should we necessarily follow their lead and do the same?
That is not the way of God, but the way of the world. God wants us to see as he sees. That does not mean that we will ever be able to see into another person’s heart. That is a prerogative that belongs to God alone. But it does mean that we should stop judging by mere appearances. We should instead always ask God to give us wisdom, which God in fact invites his people to do. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault” (James 1:5).
Interestingly, the word “wisdom” is related to the Latin word vidi, which, when translated, means “I have seen.” Wisdom is a kind of seeing, a seeing of things as they are. Wisdom consists of looking more deeply and seeing things as they really are in order to make right judgments. Seeing in such a way is a contemplative seeing that corresponds to God’s way of seeing. And that can make all the difference in how we interact with people, how we interact with all that is going on around us.
Bearing this in mind, let us return to David for a moment. Did David enjoy success because God helped him? Undeniably. When Samuel anointed him, the spirit of God rushed upon him. The spirit of God is the power manifested in David’s heroism, his military exploits, and the establishment of his kingdom, as we will see in upcoming weeks. David could do nothing apart from God’s power. But God also works through people.
Consider Samuel in this regard. He is among the most important, most influential people in all Israel, both respected and admired by all. His words have weight. It is one thing for one of your peers to tell you. “You are destined for great things in life.” But it is another thing altogether for a powerful and accomplished man or woman to tell you: “I see real potential in you. You are destined to do great things.” No doubt these words helped David keep going at the lowest points in his life. These are words that came to his mind when he was in that cave, with no one by his side, fleeing for his life from Saul. These are the words that sustained him when his men were ready to stone him for leaving Ziklag undefended. To be sure, David believed in himself, and in his mission, because God chose him and empowered him. But David also believed in himself, because Samuel believed in him.
If we have enjoyed any success in life, if we have accomplished any goal we have set for ourselves, it is likely that someone close to us believed in us. We never outgrow this need, especially if we face a task in the present moment that exceeds our capacities, or at least what we believe those capacities to be. At that moment, we need someone to come to us and tell us: “You are capable. I believe in you. God will be with you.”
But most of us are at a later stage in life. Our accomplishments are behind us, our tasks finished. There are likely those, however, in our circles, in our sphere of influence, who are at an earlier stage in life. They may look at us with admiration. If that is the case, then perhaps we can be to them as Samuel was to David. Perhaps we can say to them words that convey: “I believe in you. You have potential to accomplish great things in your life too.”
We should never underestimate how our words can impact such people. “Life and death are in the power of the tongue’ (Prov. 18:21). We may not see immediately the impact our words have, but that does not mean they are without it.
In this connection, our words can also be compared to seeds. In our gospel lesson, we hear about the seeds that are sown in a field. We don’t see them after they are sown. We don’t understand how they grow. They do so whether we or watching them or not, whether we are tending them or not. They grow silently and mysteriously in the fields until the harvest.
So also our words. Our words can implant themselves in the hearts of those who hear them. They remain there, even after we have said them. They may take root there, grow, and later produce a harvest in the form of a life lived to its full potential.
In another connection, we can compare the one before us to a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds on the earth. Our words can play a role in helping that one achieve his or her potential. When the mustard seed grows up and becomes a shrub, and then later spreads out its branches so that the birds can come and rest in its shade, we are impressed. So also when that one in whom we saw potential grows up and becomes something we never could have imagined. And perhaps he or she never would have if we had not spoken those words.
Let us then not to conform to the world, which rewards or punishes those on the basis of what they look like. But let us learn to see others in a way that corresponds to how God sees. Then let us look for opportunities to speak words that give life to them. In doing so, we may help them to become someone they never could have without us. Amen.