The Gaze

I think we typically like to think of ourselves as autonomous people who stand on our own two feet, and do not require anyone else to be who we are. There is likely something of value in this, but I think it is off the mark in at least one important way. I do not think we generate our image of who we are in a vacuum. I suspect that we are dependent upon others in important ways when it comes to our self-image. What we say to each other is important, but I think there is something even more primal than shared words – the shared gaze.

Here is my hypothesis: I become who I am in large part in the gaze of another. We construct theories of who we are in reaction to how we feel we are being seen. The eyes of another are like mirrors in which I see myself. We are drawn to people in whom we see a vision of ourselves that is attractive and desirable, and we avoid people (if possible) in whom we see an unattractive vision of ourselves. We get defensive when someone’s vision of us doesn’t match how we want to see ourselves. The gaze, then, is a fundamental aspect of human interaction.

If this is true, there are many implications. One obvious implication is realizing how important our gaze is for others. How does the way we “see” someone else limit them or empower them?

To illustrate, let’s consider a few stories. The first is from the Gospel of Mark 6:1-5. Jesus has been wandering around Galilee doing wonderful things and is getting quite a name for himself. He comes to his hometown and teaches in the local Synagogue. The reaction is complicated. At first it seems like his hometown is affirming the homeboy. They were astonished, which is presumably good. They collectively ask, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!”  So, this all seems good. But they continue… “Isn’t this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And Mark then says they took offense at him.

What is going on here? Jesus has been “seen” according to predictable categories as a familiar entity in his hometown. They know who he is and their familiarity makes it difficult for them to see him in new ways. So, they don’t. This is a common enough dynamic. How many children growing up in good homes nevertheless want to get away from their parents about the time they start to go to university? At university they are surrounded (hopefully) by people who see them in new and exciting ways. They are becoming that new vision of themselves that they see reflected back from the eyes of their peers. (At least those peers with whom they are friends.) Yet, when those young adults come back home and are predictably seen as children, in accordance with the standards of familiarity, well, they don’t like it and want to get away! The familiar gaze tells them that they aren’t becoming the new and exciting people that they want to become when they are away with their friends.

Of course, while vaguely similar, Jesus is a bit different. Not many young adults want to see themselves as prophets.

In any event, this story from Mark illustrates that people are limited by how they are seen. How does this limitation manifest itself in Mark? Mark says Jesus “could do no deed of power there.” The gaze has the ability, according to Mark, to limit even the ability of Jesus! (The text, somewhat humorously in my view, continues “except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” Jesus’ power isn’t entirely limited, but it is limited.)

This all prompts a juicy aphorism from Jesus: “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” How tragic is it that it is often those who are closest to us who are most vulnerable to the dismissive gaze that can’t see the new possibilities emerging from someone’s life because of the oppressive weight of familiarity. Sometimes knowing someone well can become an obstacle to knowing them truly.

Another illustrative story I want to consider comes from Luke 18:10-14: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted” (NRSV).

We have two men here, each with his own theory of himself. Whenever we read about Pharisees in the New Testament, we should remember that we are being offered a highly charged representation. The Pharisees were often the biggest rivals the early church had to deal with. It is unfortunate that, thanks in large part to the New Testament, the Pharisees became virtually synonymous with hypocrisy. I suspect that statistically the ratio of hypocritical Pharisees was about the same as hypocritical early Christians (not to mention their modern counterparts).

I suggest that when understood, Jesus’ parables typically surprise and even shock. At least that has been my experience. If this is true of this parable, then it is likely Jesus presumed that his audience saw the Pharisees in a positive light. This parable speaks of a role reversal – a thwarting of expectations. The one who we think should be praised isn’t, while the one we think shouldn’t be praised is. If the original hearers equated Pharisees with hypocrisy, then this parable would not offer any surprises. This suggests to me that this parable might have been told originally before a time when Pharisees were equated with hypocrisy, a time when Pharisees were respected as exemplars of goodness. When approached with this assumption, this parable surprises and disturbs!

Tax collectors, likewise, often vaguely represent sinners for us – that is, the exact type of people Jesus chose to hang out with. Hence, they are seen in a generally positive light. If this is the approach one adopts, this parable does not surprise at all. However, tax collectors would not have been seen positively by the original hearers. Tax collectors were  collaborators with the Imperial Roman powers in Palestine. They were seen as traitors who often exploited those who did not have the power to defend themselves. In short, they were not garden-variety sinners – they were despised. As with any good story, the one listening to it looks forward to the time in the narrative when the good guys (the Pharisees) win the day, and when the bad guys (the tax collectors) get what’s coming to them. The surprise and shock of this parable is exactly its refusal to indulge this expectation. Indeed, it rewards the one who ought to be punished and punishes the one who ought to be rewarded. It is a troubling parable – like most of Jesus’ parables.

Now, the Pharisee has his own theory of himself, and he also has his theory of the tax collector. Unsurprisingly, his theory of the tax collector is not positive, where the one for himself is. The Pharisee stands by himself. According to its Semitic roots, the word “Pharisee” means “the separated ones.”[1] Perhaps this is why he stands apart? He does not want to be associated with those who practice evil, especially despicable collaborators such as the tax collector who stands off in the corner.

He expresses gratitude that he is different from the tax collector. He essentially says, “There but by the grace of God go I. Thanks God!” His theory of the tax collector drives his gaze. When he looks at the tax collector, he is filled with disgust and outrage – who wouldn’t be? The Pharisee looks to heaven in gratitude and thanks God in advance for the fully expected beneficent divine gaze towards himself. He expects that when God looks at him, His gaze will be full of grace and delight. Jesus withhold this from the Pharisee. The divine beneficent gaze does not fall upon the Pharisee.

The tax collector has endured maleficent gazes from pretty much everyone he meets. Everyone he extracts money from looks at him with silent hatred. What compelled people to get into tax collecting? Presumably a promise of money and perhaps some power of sorts. Maybe there was some sort of dire need in his family that required he get as much money as quickly as possible? We don’t know, and this is beyond the scope of the parable. What we can deduce, is that this tax collector was used to being looked at as if he were a problem – as a blight on the neighborhood. Perhaps initially he was able to shrug this off, but as time continued the weight of the collective maleficent gaze would have started truly having an impact upon how he pictured himself. It would have become harder and harder to maintain a positive theory of himself. Over time, it seems that he internalized the collective judgment, and his theory of himself began to confirm rather exactly to the implicit theory mirrored to him in a thousand gazes.

So, he, like the Pharisee, comes to the Temple to approach the divine. But he doesn’t feel accepted and stands at a distance. Fully expecting a divine gaze that conveys rejection and disgust, he doesn’t turn his own gaze up to heaven. He doesn’t dare even gaze towards God, expecting nothing but hate in return. He owns this and owns it as just and fair. After all a thousand gazes can’t be wrong. His theory of himself corresponds with the theory the Pharisee has of him. They both agree that he is a despicable specimen of humanity. Everybody denies this man a compassionate and understanding gaze – especially this man himself. Even the hearers of the parable, who themselves have had  unpleasant encounters with tax collectors, gaze upon this man maleficently.

But, as we know, that is not the final word in this story. It is this man who Jesus affirms, and it is this man “who was justified” – upon whom God gazed in acceptance.

This is not merely a pleasant little story about God’s mercy on sinners – it is a disturbing story about the power of the gaze, and about a God who sees otherwise.

Erich Heller said: “Be careful how you interpret the world: it really is like that.” Only now I would change this to: “Be careful how to look upon people; they really are like that.”

[1] The Greek word is Φαρισαῖος; the Hebrew is הַפְּרוּשִׁים, and; the Aramaic is פְּרִישַׁיָּא.  BDAG, “Φαρισαῖος,” p. 1049.

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