Proper 14 – Year B
Do you remember Magic Eye posters? They are those multi-colored vertical or horizontal repeating patterns that look like a busy piece of fabric until you stare at it for a minute or so, and your eyes relax and unfocus–and suddenly, before your eyes, pops a vivid, moving picture, like, antelope stampeding, or a gyrating, psychedelic version of Mona Lisa.
I hated these posters. They adorned our art rooms in school, and I could never quite get the hang of them. It felt like everyone was in on the joke except me. What was most frustrating was that these pictures were right in front of my nose! I could see them, but I couldn’t see what everyone else was seeing, I couldn’t see the part that really mattered about them, I could only see the visual noise.
Though I missed out on African safari scenes and fanciful recreations of old classics, the Jews of whom John writes lost out on their Messiah. Jesus was Joseph and Mary’s son, the punk kid with gangly arms who had walked around their town many times before—what was it that all these ignorant crowds saw in him? Further, how could Jesus say such outlandish things and get away with it? These Jews from Jesus’ hometown knew better, they knew where he had come from, and it surely was not the sky—it was Nazareth. However, as often happens with humans generally, and especially in the Gospels, they miss what it is that Jesus is trying to tell them. They take the shallowest meaning they can concoct, and when, after trying for the least amount of time requisite to solve the puzzle and they find that the pieces don’t fit together the way that would like, they throw up their hands and say, “See, Jesus? This is nonsense. You are talking about the sky and bread and all kinds of ridiculous things. Come off your high horse before you start to do real damage. We are looking for the Messiah, you know, and you’re just confusing things.”
They think they want someone to overthrow Caesar and end their oppression once and for all. They think they’re waiting for the most amazing political figure ever, who will conquer divisions in government, balance the budget, lower taxes, provide for the needs of the marginalized, and oust all the crooked-types from their positions of power in Washington—I mean, in Jerusalem.
Jesus does not make sense to them because Jesus is not meant for that sort of power. The Jews of Jesus’ day are thinking within the system, so to speak—they’re operating out of what they know about social and political challenges, and though they seek good things, they are not seeking the greatest good, which is to know and worship the one living God.
Jesus does not make their dreams come true. He makes much more vital dreams come true—dreams that they haven’t had the imagination to construct because they’ve been distracted and constrained by the sort of socio-religious system they’d constructed. They were staring at the Magic Eye picture, but their eyes couldn’t focus on Jesus. The educated, religious people were convinced that the visual noise, the messy pattern of shapes, was all that there was. There was nothing else to do but try to categorize and organize this mass of shapes. To carry the analogy a bit further, Jesus came to make the noisy shapes in front of them fall away and reveal himself as the answer. Jesus wants to conquer sin, not congress, and he wants to build his kingdom in human hearts, not in marble halls.
Jesus was not what the Jews were expecting. As St. Augustine puts it, “they saw, and stood blind.” They were so certain of what they were looking at and for—they were looking at Mary’s strange kid and they were looking for a mighty gladiator, that they missed who was in front of them—it was God.
Last summer, a movie came out entitled “The Tree of Life.” It was something like one of these Magic Eye posters—in the months before Jordan and I managed to watch it, we received two reviews over and over, by critics and laypeople alike: either, “It was brilliant. I have no words. It was the best movie ever made. I am going to watch it for the rest of my life. It was just, beyond.” Or “Oh yeah… Well, uh, there were some pretty pictures in it, but man, it was just cheesy and overdone and in the end, kind of pointless.” Some saw the image that jumped in front of their eyes after staring for awhile, and some just saw noise.
Brad Pitt plays the father in the movie’s flashbacks, which comprise most of the narrative plot for the film; near the end of the movie, as his character has grown, he says, “look at the glory all around us. It was here all along, and I never saw it.” This character had spent his life looking for a certain type of glory, teaching his children to be strong and to fight, to strive against the world and bring as much as possible under their submission. In the end, he discovered that he and his children—all humanity—had not been created for that kind of life. The mother in the film life faithfully with a vision of this glory throughout her life; she plays a foil to the fierce father, treating her children with a gentle love, teaching them to approach the world and all people with awe and dignity.
For the father in the film, who spent most of his life under the impression that he needed to beat the system, the world was a harsh place that needed to be guarded against. Some interpreters of the movie have called him an embodiment of nature—what we humans do when we’re left to our own devices. The mother, from the first scene, is an embodiment of grace, living with patience and gentleness for her children and her neighbors, showing them by example and by direction that the world is created by God to be good and full of wonder—the mother tries to teach her children the glory that God created for them. The movie is interspersed with many fantastic scenes of nature—reefs, waterfalls, volcanoes—they say the collecting of these shots took more than two decades. The amazing thing is that the mother is not raising her children in a particularly beautiful place—they’re in rural Texas. Yet, she is convinced that God’s glory and grace is overwhelming and transformative, even there.
God came into the world as the exact opposite of what the Jews expected, because God’s glory is different from what we humans imagine and anticipate. It could be no other way—if God was just as we suspected, if he looked and behaved just the way we or the Jews calculated that he would, then God would just be a creation of our minds, nothing more than what we could comprehend and put together.
The movie’s epigraph came from the book of Job, and it echoes what Jesus tells the Jews in John’s Gospel, and what we are reminded of today: “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?”