Prejudiced? Moi?

As the years go by, it`s curious what you find yourself recalling you’re your childhood. The other day I remembered something my Grandfather was fond of saying: He maintained, “You can tell the man by the shine on his shoes”. This was just one way in which he would go about assessing or getting the measure of the person before him and perhaps you have your own `home spun` means of sizing people up.

And it`s fascinating isn`t it, to think about the things which lead us to form say a positive or indeed negative opinion of someone? It could again, be their appearance; whether they are tall, short or whether the clothes they wear are tidy or of the latest fashion. And if we get into conversation then all manner of other things come into play; their accent might trigger certain assumptions about them; the job they do or don`t do; the place they come from; what we discover about their hobbies or activities all serve to create a picture. Of course, a lot of these things are given value because of the culture we inhabit. And (like my Grandfather) generations have had different things which they would regard as significant. In time past, as I say `the shine on a man`s shoes` might have seemed important and for example, I recall once being asked at an Interview: “And who was your father?”… that`s another old one…. along with “Where were you educated?”

Again, these and many other things contribute to the creation of an image of someone; initially at least it`s a working model of what they might be like until perhaps we get a little more intimate with them. I think for the most part we like to believe that in making these assessments we`re being completely objective and benign but if we`re completely honest we know how easy it is to reach conclusions about people based on a certain prejudice. And the problem is that suspecting that other people are doing the same thing; perhaps judging us in a perhaps none too favourable way puts us as we say `on pins`. Knowing that this is so often the `name of the game` a lot of us conclude that it`s important to ensure that we give out what we believe are the correct signals. All around us we see a lot of time, money and energy spent on `image management`. We want to make a good impression. We want to make ourselves acceptable. We want to win approval and all the rest.

Now, I get the impression that this was a game which St. Paul appears to have understood very well indeed. So, frankly, if we read between the lines, we get the sense that his initial assumptions about Christ were none too favourable. From what he calls I that Epistle this morning `a human point of view` he would have seen in Jesus a carpenter from Nazereth; a jumped-up country lad with pretensions to be a rabbi with a rabble of disciples with dubious backgrounds following a bizarre and unconventional agenda; and someone who ended his days shamefully on a Roman Cross. In comparison of course (and this is always what`s going on in this process of sizing people up isn`t it?) he regarded himself as educated and sophisticated; part of the mainstream and respectable.

But to his credit Paul tells us this morning that something has changed. He says “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way”. (2 Corinthians 5.16-17) Just like you and I sometimes discover with a bit of a jolt that our initial assessment of someone is completely wide of the mark, so Paul has discovered this about Jesus. And the important point he`s making is that this has affected not just his view of Jesus but his view of everyone else as well. Something has happened which means that all those categories we deploy for assessing, sizing up and yes `judging` others no longer hold true. That `something` is God raising Jesus from the dead. Because of this Paul has a totally new perspective on God, on himself and the world. But again, significantly it`s changed his attitude to this game we all play: so he says, “We regard no one from a human point of view”.

Now, what we need to grasp here is that when we talk about the Resurrection we`re talking about more than what happened to Jesus; and it`s more than what we hope for in due course. Resurrection points to the in-breaking of the reign of God in the world. This is why the resurrection of Jesus is described in the Bible as the `first-fruits`. (1 Corinthians 15.20): It`s confirmation that God`s new creation is beginning; that he`s putting the world to rights. Practically speaking it means that as we each day attempt to say `Yes` to God, human beings like you and I can begin to live the lives we were originally created for. Lives that reveal what the New Testament calls the fruit of the Spirit: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, humility and self-control (Galatians 5).

And so when we find ourselves in a position where we`re about to size someone up; and give them the benefit of our God-like perspective on their appearance, background and other capabilities we`re invited to pause for a moment. We`re invited to recognise all of this for the nonsense that it truly is. Because, resurrection says the only category which matters is how far this person before me is responding to the God who made them, died for them and rose from the dead.… and how can I help them in that?

I`ve said a number of times that one of the best questions to ask when you turn yourself to prayer is, “How does the Lord God look upon you?” What does he see? How does he size you up, do you think? Of course it`s absurd to ask whether he pays any attention to the car we own or to our accent or to the job we do or have done, our successes or failures; the place we live or the social group we belong to or whether we can find the time to dust the sideboard. No, he sees beyond all of this. He knows us completely. It`s there in the words of Psalm 139

O Lord, you have searched me and known me.

You know when I sit down and when I rise up;

   you discern my thoughts from far away.

You search out my path and my lying down,

   and are acquainted with all my ways.

Even before a word is on my tongue,

   O Lord, you know it completely.

You hem me in, behind and before,

   and lay your hand upon me.

Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;

   it is so high that I cannot attain it.                 

(Psalm 139.1-6)

Or as Pope Francis put it far more simply, his gaze is best described in one word: “Mercy”.

So how would it feel, I wonder for you to pause for a moment in front of the mirror and know this to be the case? To tell yourself that the person in front of you is someone for whom Christ died; who is regarded with mercy and who is called to resurrection life now… to bear the fruit of the Spirit?

And how would it be if you were to become a little more conscious of the labels you attach to others and the assumptions you make about them and then stand back for a moment? Tell yourself … as you meet those people this week; that even if you in your great wisdom don`t like them or the life they have chosen…. that this is someone for whom Christ died; who is regarded with mercy and who is called to resurrection life now. … to bear the fruit of the Spirit?

Give it a try. St. Paul says, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view”. Or as Mother Teresa put it: “If you spend your time judging people, you have no time to love them.”

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