You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Cover (1 Samuel 16:1-13; 2 Corinthians 5:6-7,14-21; Mark 4:26-34)
When I was a boy, one of the things my parents taught me was the saying, “You can’t judge a book by its cover,” which, of course, means that sometimes outer appearances are deceiving. What may seem humble and unassuming on the outside, may be wonderful and rich on the inside. This applies to actual books, of course, but also to people, places and things. The reverse may also be true, that what seems attractive and even flashy on the outside may be twisted and harmful on the inside.
I traced the saying back into the 19th century, but, surprisingly, the thing that set that saying in my mind for life was the legendary rock-n-roll song by Bo Diddly in 1962, when I was 15 years old. I quote a bit of it from memory with some reverence:
You can’t judge an apple by looking at a tree,
You can’t judge honey by looking at the bee,
You can’t judge a daughter by looking at the mother,
You can’t judge a book by looking at the cover. Songwriter: Willie Dixon
And on it goes. It’s necessary to get to know people places and things at a deeper level than judging by externals and appearances. Such will almost always lead to a superficial judgment that allows us to misjudge what is important.
In the real world media marketers’ stock in trade is “book covers,” so to speak. We are continually bombarded by the proposition that if things look good, they must be good or right, or important. There’s a Latin phrase caveat emptor, “let the buyer beware, that applies. We are, most times, wiser to go deeply with people in order to get in touch with them, rather than judging too quickly on what we see on the outside.
This can also develop in a different direction. There are some decisions that are well-made on the basis of readily quantifiable data. As I say that works sometimes, but only sometimes, not nearly always. Quite often we cannot settle for quantifiable data as the best or even possible way to make a decision and we must be prepared to decide on different bases.
Our scripture lessons for today all work together to tell us that Christians need to take care with the bases upon which we discern success and failure, what is and isn’t worthwhile, in both individual and church life. These biblical texts caution us that appearances can be deceiving (and we cannot judge the book by its cover). These scriptures also suggest that the criteria that faith communities use to discern where they’re headed should be sharply different from the culture’s.
In the Old Testament we share in a piece from the story of ancient Israel’s stumbling toward the monarchy. Israel was under attack from the Philistines, another people-group that, arrived in Canaan around the same time as Israel did. The Philistines were possibly the remnants of the Mycenaean warriors that are best-known from the stories of the Trojan War told by Homer. Israel was living in the hill country, where most of their settlements of that period have been found, through local officials called judges, who ruled the people in times of crisis especially. The Philistines, however, had a firmer chain of command and launched a broad attack on Israel as a whole, that showed the inability of local responses to meet it. In Canaan, and across the ancient Near East, the most common way to unite whole peoples was to choose a king. It is often the case that in times of difficulty that all kinds of people look around for a strong central leader. Some of the elders of the people proposed that Israel do just that. Now, remember that Israel had been born in rebellion against a king in Egypt, and so, there was a reticence among some to adopt such a plan. Samuel, who was a judge and a prophet, was central to the opposition. In spite of it all, however, the danger was such that the plan to choose a king went forward even in the face of Samuel’s opposition. These chapters of 1 Samuel were written and collected long after the events, and actually do not stay with one point of view on the monarchy but vacillate. For the most part, however, as the story goes, Samuel (and many with him) thought that choosing an earthly king meant rejection of their heavenly king. With such opposition, Saul, the first king, was probably doomed to fail from the beginning.
Now, all this happened before we came into the story today. We begin with God’s startling announcement that, although Saul was still alive, that God had already chosen Saul’s successor to come from the family of Jesse who lived in Bethlehem. Now all the ancient hearers of this text would know that this successor would be David, but we all love a good story. God appointed Samuel to anoint the new king, which seemed terrifying to everyone. Samuel was afraid because Saul was still alive, and anointing a successor could seriously limit Samuel’s life expectancy. The elders of Bethlehem were terrified when Samuel showed up (unannounced pastoral visits sometimes do that) so that he had to assure them he wasn’t there to cause them any trouble. In any case Samuel said he was there to offer sacrifice, and Jesse and his sons were invited. And, beginning with the first-born Eliab, Samuel looked over the candidates and thought, “this has got to be the one. I mean he’s so…tall.” Each time God said, “No, it’s not.” It’s not the height, or colour, or physique that counts, because, God looks on the heart, and doesn’t judge a book by its cover. Finally, Samuel called for David who wasn’t even there, but was out working in the flock.
We can’t take time to unpack all this today. The important point for this morning is that divine criteria for discerning the right thing to do are different from human criteria. Samuel seemed content to say “Look at the cover.” And, if given a chance, we probably might do likewise. God is not so satisfied, even though David had a pretty nice cover, that wasn’t the point. At the least, this story ought to make us cautious in discerning simply on external, bottom line, verifiable criteria in spiritual matters such as the mission of a community of faith, even a little one like ours.
The Epistle Lesson contains some broad hints of what such criteria might be. Paul had a mutually frustrating and stormy relationship with the Corinthian congregation. This group contained some folk with overwhelming confidence in their own spirituality. They thought that they were the spiritually elite who knew just what to do and just how to do it. They were always anxious to exert a little more obvious spirituality and piety than others. You know that how this is usually heard by others is, “If you had just as direct a line to the Almighty as I have, you’d know I’m right.” For his part, Paul was ruthless in trying to take them down a notch or two spiritually. His sternness – though we sometimes defend it because Paul’s an apostle and all that – was, in some ways, counter-productive in his relationship with them. It reminds me of the relation between Samuel and the elders of Israel who were vying with one another for control.
Paul said that this Corinthian supreme self-confidence was mistaken. We don’t walk or live by self-confidence. Paul said, “We walk by faith not by sight.” The contrast here is between who sets the criteria for living, ourselves or God? Paul said it is the latter. The clear implication of living by trust (or walking by faith) is found in verse 16. It means “we regard no one from a human point of view.” We live by adopting, insofar as we are able, the perspective of God toward others and the world. Paul did not underestimate the radical nature of adopting such a perspective. Indeed, he wrote: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new.” In Christ God not only remakes us, but the whole world. Everything looks different to us now because we’re looking at things with God’s eyes. Paul then talked about what those eyes see by relating Jesus’ cross to the lives of those who follow Jesus. The cross is not only a physical thing, or something that we look on simply as a matter of historical interest. It involves us. Christ died on our behalf. In that death, our self-centeredness also died so that we might live on Christ’s behalf. God makes us ambassadors on Christ’s behalf that we might not live on our own behalf, but might do as God does in the world. Here is a key criterion that Paul offers for discerning ways to go. Do the things we do (as individuals, as families, as church families) work on behalf of reconciliation to God and to one another, or not?
How hard this is! It is wonderful that the two little parables in Mark’s Gospel can come in at the end to assure us that it is God who works to help us become what we ought to be. Again it isn’t about self- confidence, but about God.
Parables are strange and wonderful things. How we read them and how they challenge us will depend upon where we are standing at the time we encounter them. These are both optimistic parables. The first one talks about a farmer who works and a seed that grows. The emphasis, however, is not on the farmer’s daily work; only on the sowing and the harvesting. In between, the parable says the seed just grows – he does not know how. The farmer just lives – sleeps and rises. And one day it’s harvest. Of course we know that the farmer works all the time, but the point is that the growth depends not on ingenuity but on the unseen working of what is identified as “the earth itself” in the parable. God gives the growth. Although we work away at the business of becoming ambassadors for Christ, we must never forget that it is God that enables us – it is God that makes the seeds planted in ourselves and others grow. Alongside of our work is God’s.
The second parable, the mustard seed, counsels disciples not to worry because they look insignificant and too small for the work they’re asked to do. It is God’s work. When I get together with my colleagues in ministry around here, I am always aware of how much smaller we are than they, and how much smaller our budget is than theirs. But here’s the thing that helps me. Tiny mustard seeds grow surprisingly large plants. Even little plantings can have significant harvests. The important spiritual criteria are not found in the quantifiable, or the attendance figures, or the budget – the numbers here. We ought not be judged (or judge ourselves) by our “cover,” so to speak. Most important is what we are becoming and how we work together. We can gauge how much we are becoming those who live on behalf of God in Christ, by how much we are becoming those who live on behalf of others. And God is more concerned with that work than we are or could ever be. So, in the words of Jesus himself, “Fear not, little flock, for it is the Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.