"The Luncheon of the Boating Party" is a famous artwork by the French impressionist painter Pierre Auguste Renoir. As the title implies, it depicts a group of people enjoying a pleasant social day together, boating followed by lunch.
An interesting exercise with this painting is to follow the gaze of each of the characters depicted. They are nearly all looking at someone, but not the person they are situated closest to, or with – their attention is elsewhere. What the artist intended by this is a matter of conjecture and imagination. The observer is left to flights of fancy, as is the case with all great art. We, the viewer, are also part of the group, observing whichever character attracts us.
Perhaps Renoir was trying to show a group of young people who were still trying to discover their correct partners. Perhaps he was depicting the inherent loneliness within some relationships, a desire for what was missing. An exception in the painting is the rapt attention of the young woman depicted in the bottom left corner, who is gazing at her dog, which in turn looks directly at her. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Renoir depicted this lady, who was to become his wife in future years, as having a firmly-focused gaze.
There is something almost disturbing beneath the pleasant social interaction. It is so human. Is the lady with the glass to her mouth socially inept, still compulsively drinking when everyone else has finished? The young, warmly-wrapped man, hovering over the girl in blue so much that he is pushing her sideways, is he jealous? When you look at the detail of their hands on the chair she seems to be fending him off. The muscular boatman to the left of the painting is observing the well-dressed, slight men – is he uneasily comparing his brawn to their business acumen? There are so many stories here, so many little details that add to the intrigue.
So it is with our lives. What are we looking at? Who are we comparing ourselves to? Who is busy watching us when we think we are unobserved? Who is the centre of our attention?
God, like ourselves beyond the painting, is the master observer. He sees our interactions. He knows every story. He understands our longings and unfulfilled ambitions. Satan, that master storyteller of lies, convinces us that our own relationships, the ones we should be attending to more than any other, are nowhere near as interesting or fulfilling as what others have, or what we could have elsewhere. We see the results everywhere in the world, in the constant attack and breakdown of so many marriages, friendships and other relationships. So many people in this world are captivated by the search for a partner who can fulfil their innermost desires, a search which only results in more loneliness and pain.
God alone provides what humanity cannot. He desires first an attention as rapt as that woman gazing at her four-legged companion. God alone is utterly trustworthy and true to His promises. He is completely faithful to us. When we grow in God through reading His word, the Bible; prayer and fellowship in a Christian church community, we develop a loving relationship second to none.
We cannot make fallen humans our Gods. They were never intended to be that way and will only fail us.
That is not to say God does not want us to interact with people, far from it.
When God is our first priority, He will lead and guide in all our other relationships and they will fall into their proper perspective. And if we are yielded to Him, His Holy Spirit will work not only to enhance our own lives, but will draw others into His kingdom.
Look deeply at God, so the people looking at you may see Him too.
“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” Hebrews 12:2 (New International Version of the Bible)