To discern the will of God, pay attention to faces over ideas
A Reflection for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time
Ideas are fine, but faces are better. Most of the time you will want a mixture of the two, but if you must prioritize, go with faces. To illustrate, compare two vocation stories. One is driven by a notion. The other comes from an encounter with a face.
The Prophet Jonah plans to preach conversion to the great city of Nineveh. Scripture tells us that this is a command of God. Accept the notion’s divine origin, but do not neglect its human dimension. We do not know how this perception came to the prophet. Did it arise naturally in Jonah’s thoughts, or did it arrive miraculously?
Whatever the mode of revelation, while on his way to the city, Jonah could not reconcile his understanding of God’s will with his own convictions about the people of Nineveh. An idea alone, God-sent though it was, seemed feeble in the face of the prophet’s well-established prejudice: The people of Nineveh were not going to listen. They never had. Jonah would need to make his way through a whale before he could surrender his opinions and perceptions to God.
What is the difference between the disciples and the prophet? Simply, the power of the human face.
Now, a vocation story with a face. St. Mark opens his gospel by telling us that Jesus is the Son of God (1:1). What he does not tell us is how Simon and Andrew—and then James and John—knew that it was the Son of God saying to them, “Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men” (1:17). The evangelist does not clothe the call in anything that we would consider miraculous.
Indeed, St. Mark will insist that the disciples never fully understand Jesus. They are often confused, even mistaken. Yet they never face a crisis of faith until the arrest and crucifixion of their leader. What is the difference between the disciples and the prophet? Simply, the power of the human face.
Perhaps the apostles and the Hebrew prophet began in the same spot. A simple notion entered their minds: God stands before me. Or, perhaps better put, God must be within me because I can now see what I could not see before. But here is where they divide: Jonah sees a plan, but the disciples look upon a face.
The disciples were attracted to the very face of Jesus. The more they followed it, the more they trusted it. They were not pursuing ideas, not so much learning notions as they were coming to love and to understand a person.
The disciples were not pursuing ideas, not so much learning notions as they were coming to love and to understand a person.
The next time you wonder about the will of God for your life or for our society, try to match your fancies with a face. Ideas alone are sterile. They may be good or bad, fruitful or folly, but they arise within us. They are part of us. They cannot call to us, befriend us or ask us to trust them. Ideas do not expand our own humanity. Only another person can do that. You can befriend a face. You can come to love or even surrender to a person.
In trying to discern the will of God, always favor faces over your fancies. Ideas are something we impose upon the world. Faces are the way the world calls out to us. God comes to us in the faces of others.