“IS SEEING REALLY BELIEVING?” (Jn 9:1-41): 02 March 2008 (4th Sunday of Lent)
After “The Sixth Sense,” the next best thing from M. Night Shyamalan is “Signs,” his 2002 science fiction thriller about aliens and UFO’s starring Mel Gibson. But the movie isn’t just about hostile aliens; it’s also about an Episcopalian priest who one day finds himself hostile and alien to his faith.
Graham Hess (Mel Gibson) finds that he no longer believes in God because of the recent tragic death of his wife. Aside from coping with this loss, he has to deal with his son Morgan’s asthma condition and his daughter Bo’s disturbing habit of leaving half-filled glasses of water around the house. His brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), a former minor league baseball player, moves in to help him out.
Graham is constantly haunted by dreams of his wife’s last moments, especially her mysterious last words to him when she asks him to tell Merrill to “swing away.” How his dying wife’s last words and all the other apparent coincidences in Graham’s life come together and come to play in their confrontation with the aliens–and they all do beautifully and miraculously–makes the movie really worth watching.
The movie’s title of course refers to the mysterious giant crop circles that suddenly appear in cornfields in various places around the world, which turn out to be the aliens’ signal for an invasion. But it also refers to the coincidences and accidents in our lives that God uses to communicate with us.
In one scene Graham has a heart-to-heart talk with his brother Merril, and he says, “There are two kinds of people, those who see signs, miracles, and those who see coincidences.” In other words, seeing isn’t always believing. Where some people see signs and miracles, others can see only coincidences.
Take our gospel story today: The Lord restores sight to a blind man. The people who used to see him as a blind beggar cannot believe that it is the same man. For the blind man’s neighbors, to see is not to believe.
Also, when the blind man explains to the Pharisees how Jesus has given him his sight, even if they can see with their own eyes that the man has gained his sight, they still refuse to believe in Jesus. When the man claims that Jesus is a prophet, they get annoyed and throw him out. Certainly for the Pharisees, seeing is also not enough for them to believe.
But it doesn’t end there. After being thrown out, the formerly blind man himself meets Jesus and this time sees him with his own eyes, the very person who has healed him, and yet he does not recognize the Lord. When Jesus asks him, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” the man tells him, “Who is he so that I may believe in him?” Ironically, even for the blind man whom Jesus has healed, seeing doesn’t lead to believing.
The gospel message goes against the saying that a lot of people subscribe to: “Seeing is believing.” The gospel tells us that if we insist on waiting until we see before we decide to believe, we will never decide to believe. The reason for this is that not everything can be seen–and certainly not the most important things. The Little Prince has an unforgettably beautiful line that expresses this same truth: “What is essential is invisible to the eye.”
The trouble is, there are many people today who insist on scientific proofs before they will believe in anything. They will not accept something unless they are able to observe it and measure it. There’s a name for this type of thinking—“positivism”—which was really quite fashionable in the 19th Century, when people believed that science and technology could solve and explain everything. Today, however, most respected scientists are quite aware of the limits of science, including the great Albert Einstein himself, who had a sign hanging in his office at Princeton that said: “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”
Some people don’t demand scientific proofs, but insist on religious proofs–or what we call miracles–before they will concede to believe. Just like the positivists, they believe that “seeing is believing.” I know a friend who doesn’t care much about morality. Whenever we end up discussing his lifestyle and the need to mend his ways, he always insists that he will have no trouble converting to a moral life if he finds a visible and persuasive proof of God’s existence.
The problem is, people who make such demands before they believe or before they mend their ways will never change. Even if my friend witnesses a miracle performed before his very eyes, he would most probably not convert. It just doesn’t work that way, as our gospel story shows. The blind man’s neighbors and the Pharisees have seen the effect of Jesus’ miracles for themselves, but they still do not believe in Jesus. Contrary to what my friend thinks, to see is not to believe.
Now, that’s also exactly what God tells his prophet Samuel in the First Reading today. The Lord sends Samuel off to select the next king of Israel, but first he warns his prophet not to make any judgment based on appearances. In the Lord’s words: “Not as man sees does God see because man sees the appearance, but the Lord looks into the heart.” In a word, to see is not to believe.
And so with this directive, the prophet happily goes about his mission, remembering not to choose based on what he sees. But then what does God proceed to do next? He makes his choice of the next king precisely based on appearances! The passage goes: “David was ruddy, a youth handsome to behold and making a splendid appearance. The Lord said, ‘There—anoint him, for this is the one!’”
Reading that made me laugh out loud. Just when the prophet Samuel believes God that to see is not to believe, God pulls the rug from under his feet and does exactly the opposite. It seems to me that God isn’t just telling us that “to see is not to believe,” but something even more important. Through the story of Samuel and David, he also seems to be saying that “to believe is to see!”
“To see is to believe” may work in the realm of science, but it is reversed when it comes to the spiritual life. Whereas in science, “to see is to believe,” in matters of faith, “to believe is to see!” Only after we decide to believe will we see and will we cease being blind. We must first believe, and then we shall see.
It’s quite possible that God is putting up signs everywhere in our lives and dropping hints all over the place, and we still fail to recognize them for what they are and simply regard them as nothing more than coincidences. In the movie “Signs,” it is only when Graham allows himself to believe that all the apparently insignificant and unconnected details of his life are not mere coincidences that he is able to recognize and interpret the signs that God has been sending to him.
If this season of Lent, you are still waiting for some scientific or religious proof before believing, you’d better wait no longer. Better still, make God wait no longer. Make the decision to believe–and then you will see.
Believing is seeing.
Here’s a Quick Question for you: “Do you recall a time in your life when God sent you a sign right under your nose, and you failed to recognize it then and only got it afterwards? Think about it, and share a thought, a feeling, or a question.
(image: from “Signs”)
Note: If you’re interested, watch the video clip I uploaded from the “Signs.”