Knowing a Good Thing When We See It
Recently, a friend of mine and I were reflecting on the many ways in which people are experiencing suffering. After a pause in our conversation, they said, “You know Pascal had this idea about the hiddenness of God. It seems to me that God is really good at hiding.” Their thought was that all the stories of suffering that we were sharing made it hard to see that God was alive and really active in the world.
Blaise Pascal was a 17th century philosopher and theologian. When he wrote about God’s “hiddenness” he meant that the existence of God is not readily apparent to us in the ordinary way that things are, “like the midday sun . . . or the water in the sea.” It was, in part, his way of arguing for the existence of God while accounting for our everyday experience in a serious way.1 In the context of my conversation with my friend, it was our way of acknowledging that lots of things aren’t going the way we’d imagine they should, if God were more present, or more obviously present, in the world. Maybe you’ve had similar thoughts.
Yet, as I continued to think about the way Jesus acts and teaches in the Gospels, I began to wonder if it’s a question of divine hiddenness or of human blindness. One story in particular came to mind.
In the gospel according to Saint Luke, as in the other gospels, there is a recurring pattern. First Jesus clearly tells his disciples that it is necessary for him to go to Jerusalem and be crucified. Then the disciples respond is such a way that it is obvious that they can’t wrap their heads around what Jesus is saying to them. The death of Jesus doesn’t seem to correspond to their expectations of how God shows up in the world. The third and final occasion of this pattern is followed by a telling miracle story. In the wake of his disciples’ confusion, Jesus is confronted by a man who is blind and begging on the road leading into the city of Jericho, the town which Israel had conquered on their way into the promised land.
As Luke shares the account, the man hears the noise of the crowd accompanying Jesus and asks those near him what’s going on? They tell him that “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” The blind man recognizes this as an opportunity for him and so he calls out to Jesus. But when he does, he doesn’t repeat the crowd’s words. Instead, this blind man calls out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” This is an important shift. “Son of David” is messiah language! When the blind man uses that title, he shows us that he sees Jesus for who he really is!
So, we have this contrast: On the one hand, the disciples who have vision and Jesus clear teaching are blind to how God is working. On the other hand, a blind man sees Jesus for who he really is and asks for the only thing that one can really ask for from God, mercy.
After he receives the gift of sight – a gift that he already had – he becomes a follower of Jesus, going with him to Jerusalem.
In Matthew and Mark’s account of this miracle, the blind man is identified by name, Bartimaeus. This suggests that Bartimaeus was known by name in the early church.
In spite of his blindness, God was not hidden from Bartimaeus. He knew a good thing when he saw it.
This idea that God‘s actions are hidden from our view was not exclusive to Pascal. Martin Luther also observed that God is hidden from us, but he meant it in a different way than Pascal. For Luther the call to recognize the hiddenness of God was the call to recognize God‘s presence where we find it. It was Luther‘s way of saying “pay attention to the way God is showing up.“ It’s not in loud or flashy or glorious fashion, it’s in simple everyday ways. It’s when ordinary people gather to hear the Gospel and have actual fellowship with Jesus and one another in gifts of ordinary bread and wine. It’s when human beings receive that enduring love and honor from God and express it to one another through simple acts of care and compassion. It’s when two friends meet together and grieve the suffering of those around them.
Perhaps these are not the ways in which we would have God show up were we designing the cosmos. Perhaps we would like God’s glory to be more glorious, more obvious.
The third century Egyptian pastor Origen imagined an argument with someone who was critical of Christianity. Among the objections of his Celsus, his imagined critic, was the astonishment that after his resurrection Jesus didn’t just show up to Caiphas, the High Priest who had accused him, and to Pontius Pilate who had condemned him to death in order to show them up. If Jesus had truly been raised from the dead, the argument went, then why didn’t he prove it by making himself present to those who had killed him? Origen’s response was simply that God’s way is a way of love, not force. To have confronted those who executed him would have been antithetical to God’s way of love.
On days when we become aware of the breadth and depth of human suffering, we do well to remember that God is not absent from us, even in those times. Rather, the love of God who is Jesus is right in the middle of it with us.
It’s good to know a good thing when you see it.
Feb. 23, 2022
1This article does a good job of describing Pascal’s thought: Nemoianu, V. Martin and Philosophy Documentation Center. “Pascal on Divine Hiddenness:” International Philosophical Quarterly 55, no. 3 (2015): 325–43. https://doi.org/10.5840/ipq201572038.
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