When I was a college undergraduate, my ethics teacher taught that ethics come down to this: being able to see clearly. We can engage in all sorts of philosophizing, all sorts of ethical calisthenics when we get into a quandary, but when it comes to a situation where we must make a difficult ethical decision, we are only as good as our ability to see clearly, our ability to see a situation as it really is.
Recently, I was reminded how true this has been in my own life. For Christmas, my mother divided boxes of mementoes she had collected through the years into three bins for me and my sisters. In my box was a thick stack of letters I’d written when I was 16, away for two months on a service trip to Mexico that pushed me to the limits of my physical and emotional abilities. This past New Years, I sorted all of those letters into chronological order, nestled into my couch, and read them—and it was fascinating. Remarkable, to have the perspective I have 30 years later. The experience felt like flying, hawk-like, over the matter, able to see a context I could not see when I was deep in the weeds of my young life. I could see the fear and homesickness lurking behind my words, the eagerness to please and know the comfort of approval, the many ways I was conforming in order to survive that summer. Conforming to many things, but most importantly to beliefs I didn’t share before the experience and wouldn’t share afterward—simply conforming so I would fit in and feel less alone. Reading the letters now, from my perspective today, I can see how completely lost in a fog and overwhelmed I had been at that time, at sixteen, in that disorienting experience. Yet now I truly see what was happening, and even more chilling, all that would happen in the year after I returned home: my family selling our house and moving across town, my changing schools and friends that year, my making unhealthy choices with boys, my leaving high school a year early for college, and then just two years after returning from that trip, my ending up married at 18 to a young man who was incredibly emotionally abusive.
At sixteen, I had sold myself up the river—blindly. And the consequences to follow were profound.
How often we cannot see our lives clearly when we’re in the midst of them. We recognize this when we look back on situations five, ten, thirty years earlier in our lives, and see how completely bamboozled we were by our inability to see a situation clearly. We walked into so many jobs, friendships, commitments, loves blindly. And the fact is, we should all assume that at this very moment, we are doing the same thing. There are things we now don’t see clearly, and we will look back from a distance of years, and see just how much we could not see. We don’t have to beat ourselves up about it. It is part of being human.
On the surface, this Sunday’s New Testament readings in the Common Lectionary, from 1 Corinthians 8:1-13 and Mark 1:21-28, seem not to have much in common—but they actually touch on a similar theme. They are both about seeing clearly. First, the Pauline passage. 1 Corinthians 8 is part of a “letter” Paul writes to the Corinthians that scholars believe was comprised of several short letters—a whole course of correspondence between Paul and the community in Corinth, dealing with all and sundry problems they were facing (issues like incest, inequality, litigiousness, power struggles). One problem had to do with eating food prepared at temples to the Greek gods. Apparently, this was a great way to get food, as people in the early Jesus movement in Corinth wanted very much to take part in it. And what’s the problem? If they do not acknowledge the Greek gods, how is the food at the temple different from any other food? The gods are nothing, so the food would be nothing out of the ordinary, right? Paul tends to agree with this assessment. Food is just food. But, he says. But. The problem they are dealing with is about seeing something clearly, seeing what really is. And since some in Corinth cannot see that food sacrificed to the Greek gods is just regular food, and they think there is something idolatrous and irreverent in eating that food, it becomes a problem for them, a stumbling block. The important consideration is not the food itself, it is how the action of eating the food is seen by fellow community members, and how to be a loving friend to them, where they are right now.
The story from Mark is also about seeing clearly. It is one of the first stories in that gospel—right at the beginning. And it asks whether people of one group or another are able to see clearly who Jesus is and what he is doing. Can they recognize that he is showing God to them, revealing this before-time reality he likes to call the “kingdom of God,” or is he just another run-of-the-mill itinerant preacher? In the first century, both before and after Jesus, several wandering teachers developed a following—several were even known for healings and wonder-working. One cannot blame the people of Jesus’ day for being skeptical.
And in this story we read in Mark, the people are skeptical. Jesus teaches in the synagogue. But who is it that recognizes Jesus, that sees Jesus as the “Holy One of God”? It is the “unclean spirit” in the story. The audience at the local Capernaum synagogue check him out, and they aren’t so sure. They notice there is something intriguing about Jesus. Unlike the dime-a-dozen preachers and scribes, he speaks “like one who has authority”; yet still they have doubts. The truth is, you and I probably would also. The story reveals that the unclean spirit does see and know who Jesus is, and he wants to know what Jesus is going to do about it. “Have you come to destroy us?” the unclean spirit asks. “What have you to do with us?” —Jesus responds by sending the spirit away.
In the Corinthians passage, Paul writes about the concern of seeing something that’s not really there: people who think they see friends honoring rival gods by dining out at the temple. In Mark the issue is that Jesus is recognized by someone in the audience who really sees him, but the one that recognizes him happens to be an “unclean spirit.” Whereas the good folks who go to synagogue every Sabbath, who look put together on the surface, cannot see what is right before their noses.
This is true for all of us at times. We cannot see what is right before our noses. So this is the important thing to remember: Our most important spiritual work is creating the silence and space in our lives that allows us to see a bit more clearly, inviting in awareness. There is no more important spiritual work, because sometimes the stakes of not seeing can be incredibly high. I think for example of climate change denial. There are spiritual practices that foster greater mindfulness, greater awareness, the ability to see, to be shown by the Spirit something we otherwise could not see. We are people who honor revelation. Yet these spiritual practices require solitude and silence so truth can be revealed. And we have perhaps never been more pulled away from these practices by so many enticing distractions. It is certainly true for me. I have to be careful, to know when to turn off the podcast or the great audiobook. I have to tell the truth to myself and to acknowledge I need help with this whole business of seeing. After prayers of gratitude, my most frequent prayer is: God, help me to see clearly.