Once again, the first reading and the gospel passage share a common theme; they are both stories of God calling someone. In that first reading from the Book of Samuel, the child, Samuel, with the help of Eli, the high priest, discovers that God is actually speaking to him. Similarly, in the gospel of John, we have Jesus calling his first disciples. While these are stories of “calling,” they are, more importantly, stories of “discernment” on behalf of the one being called. Without discernment, how would we ever know the difference between a legitimate call from God and a hallucination? A legitimate call from God invites us to share our gifts in service of others; it asks something of us. Hallucinations come and go and usually are self-serving aspirations of an ungrounded ego. Nothing more.
Let’s go back to the Samuel/Eli story. For hundreds of years, our Jewish ancestors in faith were led by judges and prophets, people God had chosen to lead God’s Chosen People. Everyone was happy with that arrangement until they looked past the boundaries of their own country and noticed that other countries had kings (and sometimes queens). All of a sudden, the Jewish people did not want to be led by a prophet appointed by God but by an earthly king like all the other nations. They no longer wanted God’s protection but only the protection of armies. And since they had free will, they decided to put prophets and judges on the back burners and kings on the front burner.
This child Samuel, with the help of Eli, hears and responds to God’s call. He grows up to be the last judge of Israel. He, by popular demand and by a mob mentality, is forced to anoint Saul as Israel’s first king. Now they have a king like everyone else. Along with paranoia and jealousy, Saul proves to be a terrible king. But what can you do when the mob forces its will? You suffer with a horrible leader, because you did not discern what God wanted for the people only what you wanted. While still remaining king, a kind of “impeachment” happens—Saul (the populist king) is forced out of office and Samuel anoints David (God’s choice) as the new king. Saul’s anointing came through mob mentality; David’s anointing comes from discernment of God’s will.
Let’s jump ahead 1000 years to today’s story, in the Gospel of John, where Jesus calls his first followers. This is how discernment is supposed to happen. When Jesus sensed that two of John the Baptist’s followers were serious about following him, he asks them, “What are you looking for?” Jesus wants to know what is going on in the deepest recesses of their hearts. Jesus is not asking them a head question but a heart question. At every stage of our lives, we should pause and discern that question: Who or what am I looking for? It means going into a soul space in search of the answer. It is kind of scary because we do not know the kind of answer the question will bring us to. But if we dare to ask it, and if we dare to follow where the answer to our discernment will take us, we can be assured it will always bring us to the fulfilment of life that Jesus came to bring each of us. “I came that you might have life, life in abundance” (Jn. 10:10).
When Jesus asks the question, “What are you looking for?” the two disciples did not answer, but, instead, asked a question of their own, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” They did not provide an answer to Jesus’ question, because in the world of discernment quick answers come and quick answers go; they never satisfy the soul in the long run. In the world of discernment, however, it is better to walk slowly with good questions than to run with haste to easy answers. By asking the question of Jesus, “Rabbi, where are you staying?” the disciples are not asking Jesus about his civic address. Jesus’ real home is not his civic address; neither is it your real home. Your real home is the place, physical or not, where you feel God is addressing you! When you can hear God addressing you, you are at home. The disciples in asking Jesus, “Where are you staying?” are really asking, “Where is God addressing you, Rabbi? Where are you most connected to the source of life? What place of life do you move out from?
Why do they want to know this about Jesus? Because they see Jesus as someone who is fully alive, and they want to be fully alive. We all want to be alive and not merely existing. Jesus did not give them his civic address when they asked, “Where are you staying?” but he invited them to spend the afternoon with him. What they spoke about, in details, we will never know. But whatever it was, it was so personal and so powerful that the disciples remember the exact time the conversation began…it was about four o’clock in the afternoon. After four o’clock, their lives were changed for ever. The disciples longed to have their hearts touched in ways that Jesus touched them that afternoon but never thought it would ever happen. They discerned that this is the One (“We have found the Messiah!”), and they also discerned that they could never go back to their old way of life. Once you touch the real, everything else seems artificial.
This is not the only time, in John’s Gospel, where Jesus invites discernment with these words, “What or who are you looking for?” When Jesus is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, soldiers come with clubs and swords. He asks them, “Who are you looking for?” Their souls had always been asking that question, but it never dawned on them that the one they were about to arrest was the answer. There is no discernment only a violent arrest. The loud noise of the mob overpowers the quiet voice of God.
After his crucifixion and death, the Risen Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene who mistakes him for a gardener. He says to her, “Who are you looking for?” Once again, an invitation to discern the deeper question of all our hearts. She goes on with a rant about somebody stealing the body. It is only when Jesus says, “Mary!” does Mary Magdalene, for the first time, feel comforted. Maybe that is what all of us are looking for—God’s voice, one-to-one, speaking unconditional love, gently saying our name.
Discerning the voice of God is all in view of a greater goal—an actual experience of the Risen Lord. Nothing less than that will satisfy the soul. Andrew, the very first disciple called by Jesus, experienced the Lord in a conversation that took the entire afternoon. He remembers every detail, like the fact that it was four o’clock. He runs to get his brother, Peter, because he wanted his brother to also have an experience of Jesus and not just someone’s second hand account.
At this stage in your life, “Who or what are you looking for? Who is looking for you? Who wants to spend the entire afternoon with you?”
Fr. Phil Mulligan