Whose gaze matters?

Jonathan Rowe, 22 February 2023

Joel 2: 1–2, 12–17; Matthew 6: 1–6, 16–21

I wonder if you have taken a selfie recently. Many of us do to capture a moment with family or friends, perhaps posting the picture to WhatsApp or Facebook. Even if you don’t take selfies, it’s impossible for people living in Britain to avoid being filmed. CCTV cameras are ubiquitous: we live in a surveillance society, constantly observed by others.

When we know we are being observed, we change our behaviour. In fact, a famous psychology experiment discovered that even a picture of a pair of eyes would change behaviour.

Being seen means people play to the gallery. We pay attention to how others’ perceptions. Eventually, we come to judge our own behaviour using what we think other people will think as the way of assessing what we do. When we think like this, our lives become a constant round of keeping up appearances.

The idea that we live in the gaze of others helps us understand our gospel reading. The key question, though, is whose gaze matters.

The gospel advises us to pay attention not to the gaze of those around us – our neighbours, friends and family. Instead, we are enjoined to pay attention to God’s gaze.

For some of us that may appear an unwelcome notion, especially if we have been told that God is someone who is constantly on the look-out for things we do wrong. But God’s gaze is first of all a loving gaze. He looks on his creation and his creatures with love. He sees you and me and loves. He is for us.

God looks on his creation and his creatures with love. He sees you and me and loves.

Even when he sees the things we do wrong, he sees them through Jesus, our redeemer. So, the gaze of God is a kindly, encouraging, loving. His gaze is not to be feared, but welcomed.

Our response is to look to him, to put him first, to work for him and worship him. Naturally, that’s not always easy to do, which is why the gospel contrasts the sort of things that we should do if we are concerned about God with the sort of things that we will do if we are more worried about what other people see and think.

Lent is a time to focus on our response to the God who loves us. It’s a time of penance not because we must earn his love; but because we want to acknowledge his love.

So, at the start of Lent we have the opportunity to receive a mark on our foreheads as a sign that we are serious about looking first to God. The sign points to something beyond itself. It’s a sign that Christians are people who live in the gaze of a loving God. And it invites us to return that gaze, today, every day this Lent, and beyond. Amen.