Sun, Mar 22, 2020

Perceptions and expectations


At the height of the Second World War––

in nineteen-forty-two––

a system of rationing was introduced.

Limits were placed on essential items:

each adult was restricted to half a pound of tea every five weeks;

two pounds of sugar and one pound of butter each fortnight… 

and two and a quarter pounds of meat weekly.

From time to time milk and eggs were also included.

Clothing was significantly rationed;

petrol even more so.

Rationing was enforced via the issuing of coupons––

which was administered by the Rationing Commission—

and breaches of the regulations were heavily punished.

The reasoning behind the system was to manage shortages.

But, more than that, the Australian War Memorial suggests it was: 

“to ensure the equitable distribution of food and clothing”.

It was also intended as a measure to encourage people to save money…

which, it was hoped, could be invested in the government’s war loans programme.

Rationing, then, came to be seen as one’s patriotic duty…

to support the government’s war efforts…

and, ultimately, to support the troops abroad.

Old black and white photos of people––

mainly women…

calmly and almost cheerfully–– 

standing in long queues to collect their rationed goods have surfaced on social media this week.

Posted alongside them were starkly contrasting photos…

of the chaotic and frenzied, brawling and selfish hoarding… 

in supermarket aisles of recent days.

As we face what some have suggested is the greatest crisis since the Second World War…

we’re reminded that we live in a very different world!

And it’s a very different worldview!

Almost eighty years ago––


there was a much stronger sense of a shared social contract.

Instead, at least one commentator suggested that––

far from being an aberration––

the recent hoarding of toilet paper and other essentials… 

is the logical outcome of a socio-economic and political system…

that implicitly rewards competition and self-sufficiency.

And it’s the logical outcome of a hyper-consumerist society.


How we react to things is fundamentally shaped by the world in which we live.

It shapes our worldview and our outlook:

our norms and values;

our expectations and aspirations.

And how we react to things is fundamentally shaped by our life experience:

by our past hurts;

interactions with significant others;

and childhood memories.

Together, they all shape what we see…

what we expect…

and how we react to things.


That would also have been true for people in Old Testament times.

And it certainly would have been true for the character of Samuel––

in the stories that we have about him.

According to the extended narrative…

he had been sent to live with Eli, the priest, while still an infant;

he had heard God speaking to him since he had been a young boy;

and he had spent his whole life serving God.

Saul’s failure as king, then, would have been deeply distressing…

so it’s no wonder that Samuel was grieving.

His experiences and his grief would have shaped his expectations for a new king––

but so, too, would his cultural conditioning.

People in antiquity didn’t think psychologically––

not like us.

Rather, they understood each other in terms of group-determined stereotypes. 

They assessed each other according to family or kin-group…

race or place of origin…


and class. 

To their way of thinking…

if you knew those details about a person you knew the person. 

If you knew those things, you knew the person’s character––

you knew the sort of behaviour that you could reliably expect. 

Similarly, they also believed that character was determined by form:

that you could tell a person’s character from the way that he or she looked;

that you could, in fact, judge a book by its cover.

As a product of such a world, Samuel would not have been any different.

So, the sort of king that he would have been expecting—

the sort of king that his experience would lead him to believe was needed––

would have been tall, broad-shouldered, and strong…

ruggedly good-looking…

charismatic and forceful…

wise in manner and appearance.

He would have expected him to come from a reputable, honourable family.

He definitely would not have expected to go to a relatively small and insignificant town––

such as Bethlehem;

nor to a relatively unimportant family in the town––

given that…

according to our story… 

Jesse doesn’t appear to be ranked with the town’s elders.

But, at the least, Samuel would have expected the new king to look like a king.

So, as Jesse’s sons file past, his first reaction is to judge them on external appearance.

After all, that was a normal cultural expectation.

And he’s impressed by Eliab––

clearly tall, broad-shouldered, and strong––

just what Samuel imagined or expected.

But God, we’re told, saw it differently…

for the Lord does not see as mortals see—

they look on the outward appearance, 

but the Lord looks on the heart”.

God had a different expectation.

God was more interested in his inner-being…

his motivation and resolve…

his will and intent…

and didn’t assume that these could be known from externals––

flying in the face of all cultural expectations.

Furthermore, in so looking… 

God chose the one who seemed least likely to accomplish God’s purpose––

the one who was the least significant;

the one who was forgotten, marginalised, effectively a nobody.

Because God thinks differently.

Because God sees differently.

Because God operates from a topsy-turvy logic…

confounding our expectations…

shattering our presumptions and illusions…

challenging the things that we take for granted…

and stomping on our cultural assumptions.


But, so often, we just don’t get it.

We even see that in this story.

Having made the point that God doesn’t care about appearance––

because God looks at the heart––

when David finally does appear…

what’s the first thing that we hear about him? 

He was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome”.

The author instinctively undermines his own point!

And it’s something that we continue to do too, isn’t it?

When a congregation is choosing a new minister, what do they look for?

So often it’s someone strong and charismatic––

in the right sense––

outgoing, and personable…

and the one thing that they check out…

is how she or he preaches.

How often do we assess political candidates by their appearance…

by the way that they come across in the media?

In our success-driven, me-centred, image-conscious society––

appearance matters.

So, as God’s people, we struggle.

We continually struggle to grasp the nature of God…

as One who sees differently;

as One who overturns expectations.

So God keeps on reminding us:

like choosing a humble young shepherd boy to be king;

like revealing God’s self through a weak, vulnerable baby… 

born to an insignificant pair of peasants;

like demonstrating God’s love and power to save and transform…

by means of a gruesome instrument of torture, 

which was designed to demonstrate the abject shame and powerlessness of its victim;

like choosing to love us

and to call us to serve others––

despite any doubts that we might have;

despite any sense of unworthiness that we might harbour;

despite our fears…

our prejudices…

our cultural captivity…

our weaknesses, faults; and failings;

despite our best excuses.

Because God sees possibilities that we don’t begin to imagine;

and God never lets our myopic vision have the last word.

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