It’s easy to judge people by appearances. It saves a lot of time, and at some level it makes a bit of sense. My little dog was attacked by a big black Labrador when he was just a puppy. Ever since he has been afraid of black dogs, because his experience of them in the past has coloured his attitudes in the present and throughout his life. But in fact most black dogs are friendly, or are being well controlled by their owners, and pose no risk to him at all. In his mind, however, he is still a small puppy being bitten by a big black dog, and it seems safest for him to assume that every black dog might treat him just the same.
In the way we organise things in life it makes sense that we sometimes categorise people. Those who have fallen into temptation in one way or another need to be preserved from such temptation in the future, and those who might be caused harm also need to be protected. We don’t need to abandon all forms of reasonable discretion to avoid the discrimination that stereotypes often impose on others. But stereotypes aren’t like this. Stereotypes take one characteristic and assume that it applies to all members of a group in the same way. During the Second World War, it was reasonable to adopt the stereotype that every German soldier that the Allies saw would be hostile. Yet in real life, such a sweeping generalisation is likely to cause much harm, and even during the war, it might have been possible to find many German soldiers who were not hostile, and for whom such a stereotype could have been deadly.
In modern, Western and secular societies it has become increasingly inappropriate to discriminate against groups of people on the basis of stereotypes. Sometimes this has gone too far. But this blog post is not about secular laws against discrimination. Nevertheless, there is something properly Christian about the objection to treating people differently because of the colour of their skin, or the country of their origin, or their religion, or their gender. This is because we are not easily reduced to simply being members of a group. If I was not allowed to have a Driving License only because I am a member of the Coptic Orthodox Church, many people would consider that unjust, and even unreasonable, since being a member of the Coptic Orthodox Church should not affect my ability to drive.
If I was blind, however, there would be genuine reasons for discrimination in the case of holding a driving license. And there are many other forms of discrimination which are equally reasonable. Should a 5 year old be able to carry a gun? Should a heavily pregnant woman always be able to take a flight when she is about to give birth? Should someone with a terminal illness be able to get life insurance at the same rate as a healthy person?
My concern, however, is with discrimination within the Church. Not the issue of women taking part in various ministries, but the much more general and universal issue of how we value other people. To some extent this applies to all Christian communities, but it seems to me that if we claim that Orthodoxy is the fulness of life in Christ the we should be acting differently to all others.
In the Old Testament, in the Jewish Law, this prohibition on acting with partiality was enshrined…
Deut 1:17 – You shall not have respect to persons in judgment, you shall judge small and great equally; you shall not shrink from before the person of a man, for the judgment is God’s.
Deut 10:17 – For the Lord your God, he is God of gods, and the Lord of lords, the great, and strong, and terrible God, who does not accept persons, nor will he by any means accept a bribe: executing judgment for the stranger and orphan and widow, and he loves the stranger to give him food and raiment.
And as the prophet spoke to King Josaphat in 2 Chr 19:7, speaking the word of God and saying…
And now let the fear of the Lord be upon you, and be wary, and do your duty: for there is no unrighteousness with the Lord our God, neither is it for him to respect persons, nor take bribes.
And as Job says to his faithless companions…
Job 13:10 – If you should secretly respect persons, shall not his whirlpool sweep you round, and terror from him fall upon you?
Job 32:21 – For truly I will not be awed because of man, nor indeed will I be confounded before a mortal. For I know not how to respect persons: and if otherwise, even the moths would eat me.
Who were those who were treated with partiality in the times of the Old Testament? We can see that there were two categories. On the one hand there were the great and strong, the rich and powerful, those with great prestige in the community of the Jews. They were treated with partiality because they were always given preferential treatment, and if they were some dispute involving them they could expect to win, not on the merits of the case, but because they were wealthy, important and had prestige.
The other category of people were the socially unimportant, the poor, the widows, those whose employment was not very prestigious. They were also treated with partiality. If there was a dispute then they could not guarantee an unbiased judgement, or might not even be able to gain a hearing with a judge at all. It was the external appearance that made the difference. Wealth, prestige and power were weighed against poverty, social invisibility and weakness.
This condemnation of such an attitude was a matter of some importance in the teaching of Christ our Lord, God and Saviour, when he preached. He made it clear that the external quality of a life was of little importance when considered against the interior character of a person.
It has unfortunately often been the case throughout the history of the Church, that those who have wealth and are willing to offer some of it to the Church are given special attention and honour. But our Lord Jesus speaks about this…
Now Jesus sat opposite the treasury and saw how the people put money into the treasury. And many who were rich put in much. Then one poor widow came and threw in two mites, which make a quadrans. So He called His disciples to Himself and said to them, “Assuredly, I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all those who have given to the treasury; for they all put in out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all that she had, her whole livelihood.”
It was not that the rich were wicked, but rather that those who saw them allowed themselves to be overawed by the appearance of things. Perhaps these rich Jews gave the full tithe of what they had, but they could easily afford to. In absolute terms it cost more for the Temple accounts department to process the widow’s contribution than it was worth. But in the sight of God, her contribution was worth much more than the riches being given by the wealthy. The disciples didn’t see it that way. They just saw lots of money being given to the Temple, and probably hadn’t even noticed the widow, who is commended for giving all that she had.
Indeed, just a little bit later we find it written…
Then as He went out of the temple, one of His disciples said to Him, “Teacher, see what manner of stones and what buildings are here!” And Jesus answered and said to him, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone shall be left upon another, that shall not be thrown down.”
It wasn’t just the rich people giving lots of money that had excited the disciples. They were also awe struck by the great buildings and palaces and the Temple in Jerusalem. They were so much more impressive than anything in Galilee. But the Lord Jesus was not impressed. And indeed, just a few years later, after the Romans destroyed the city of Jerusalem and tore down the great Temple, his words came true. For all of the great expense and effort which the wealthy had put into constructing the beautiful buildings of Jerusalem and for all of the glory of the Temple, built with the wealth and power of King Herod to increase his own prestige, it was of no lasting importance. Indeed, how could it be that a corrupt and murderous King, the very one who sought to kill the Lord Jesus Christ, would be allowed to build the Temple, unless it was because his great wealth and social importance blinded the eyes of the Jews.
Elsewhere the Lord Jesus says…
Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank You that I am not like other men—extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.’ And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
We see here that it is not just wealth and prestige which impress people. There is even the practice of religion. The Pharisee had his practice of the Jewish customs sorted out. He was respected as someone who knew what he was talking about. He didn’t commit any obvious sin and whatever the regulations that the Jewish religion imposed, he kept them. Next to him stood a sinful man. Now we shouldn’t imagine that being sinful has any commendable quality at all. But in fact this sinful man was repentant, while the religious man, with a high status in his community, was both a sinner and unrepentant. Not only was he sure that he was holy enough, but he despised people like publican who were struggling with life.
Here is the truth. When we are exalted on the basis of worldly values we will be humbled in the presence of God. We will be brought down to God’s estimate of our life. When we humble ourselves then we will be lifted up in God’s estimate of our life. If we despise a single soul because of their lack of wealth, lack of prestige, lack of importance or position, then we will find ourselves judged like this Pharisee.
It’s not just about how we think about ourselves, confusing worldly success for value in God’s sight. It is how we think about others. Because as soon as we value someone because of their wealth, or their career, or their prestige and importance, we are despising those who do not have these things and we are confusing worldly values for spiritual ones. It is the humble man or woman who has prestige in God’s sight whatever their circumstances.
Do we remember another teaching of Jesus Christ…
So He told a parable to those who were invited, when He noted how they chose the best places, saying to them: “When you are invited by anyone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in the best place, lest one more honorable than you be invited by him; and he who invited you and him come and say to you, ‘Give place to this man,’ and then you begin with shame to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down in the lowest place, so that when he who invited you comes he may say to you, ‘Friend, go up higher.’ Then you will have glory in the presence of those who sit at the table with you. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
It seems to me that there are two sides to this. Of course on the one hand there is the desire within us to be made a fuss of, and to be seated in the most important place. Many of us can be tempted with this particular sin of pride. But it is also, on the other hand, the temptation to elevate others on the basis of their worldly importance. If a sinful man, perhaps a rather dodgy businessman, donated a large amount of money to the Church, would his lack of a spiritual life be brushed under the carpet because of his gift, and because of his social importance? Indeed, would we consider returning a gift given by a man who was not in a good spiritual state? Would we give the seat of honour to someone who lived a dishonourable life just because of their worldly position and prestige? When the heretic Marcion was excommunicated because of his false teachings, the Church in Rome returned the very large gift he had made of 200,000 sesterces, even though it was worth about 80 times the annual salary of a Roman soldier.
If we are encouraged to humble ourselves so that we might be exalted by God, who sees our heart, then it is surely necessary not to judge by worldly appearances and exalt those whose interior life is not matched by their wealth and social prestige.
How does our Lord Jesus instruct us? He says…
Then He also said to him who invited Him, “When you give a dinner or a supper, do not ask your friends, your brothers, your relatives, nor rich neighbors, lest they also invite you back, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”
This can surely be a problematic quality of our relations with others. Do we prefer the company of those whose prestige, position, wealth and influence might benefit us? Or do we welcome those into our lives and homes and churches who can give none of these things. Do we limit our own friendships and those of our children, so that those who have nothing to give but themselves are avoided? Do we consider these the wrong sort of people? When we organise an event at home or in the church, do we exclude those who cannot afford to participate in one way or another?
When we act in such a way it manifests our own lack of insight into the spiritual reality which we confess as Orthodox Christians. The one who is to be honoured and whose company is to be sought is not the one who has a worldly prestige that God does not recognise, but the one who has nothing but a deep and rich experience of God themselves. It is this which is valuable and precious in God’s sight. And if we wish to be commended by God and not merely by other people obsessed with outward appearance, then we will want to value those who have the gift of grace, whatever their worldly condition, and we will want to honour all those who are made in the image of God and who cannot repay our kindness since this grants us the opportunity for selfless service.
What does St James say to us in his letter…
My brethren, do not hold the faith of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory, with partiality. For if there should come into your assembly a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes and say to him, “You sit here in a good place,” and say to the poor man, “You stand there,” or, “Sit here at my footstool,” have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brethren: Has God not chosen the poor of this world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He promised to those who love Him? But you have dishonored the poor man. Do not the rich oppress you and drag you into the courts? Do they not blaspheme that noble name by which you are called? If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” you do well; but if you show partiality, you commit sin, and are convicted by the law as transgressors.
These are hard words. Do we act like this in our lives, in our work, in our relationships, in the Church even? To judge between the one who has prestige and wealth and influence and the one who has none of these things is evil. It is not normal or human nature or reasonable. It is evil. Because it looks at men with the corrupt eyes of the flesh and not with the illuminated sight of the spirit. God has chosen the poor of this world. Therefore when we reject these whom God has chosen we are found to be opposing God Himself. How do we reject them? It is when we show any partiality at all based on prestige, wealth and influence. It is when we neglect friendships and relationships for ourselves and our children with those whom we consider beneath us.
To act in such a way is to show no love at all to our neighbour, to the fellow member of the Body of Christ, and to the one made by God in His own image and His own workmanship. When we show such partiality, when we find it in our heart, then it is sin. This is the teaching of Christ and of the Apostles.
When we judge by appearances we are deceived. We are considering the least important aspect of a person. In God’s eyes it is better to be humble in all worldly things and rich in the things of the Spirit. But if we are not spiritual ourselves it is impossible to understand this. It is impossible to see the worth of a soul. It is not measured in prestige, and wealth and influence but in the reflected glory of eternity.
This is not some minor niggle. This is not some marginal issue without great importance. To view others in a worldly manner is both to think evil thoughts and to sin. It is to find ourselves in the company of the Pharisee whose prayers were not heard. Thank God it is possible to repent of this sin. But repentance requires a change of behaviour and attitude. It requires us to set our values in order. It requires us to follow the teaching of the Scriptures, if we are to avoid rightly being judged as hypocritical.
Make friends with those who have no worldly or social value in terms of prestige or in terms of what they can give in return. These are not only the economically poor. They may be those with chronic illness, with mental health issues, with complicated personal and family backgrounds, with those who do not share the majority ethnicity, with those who don’t have the best of education, or those whose jobs are not the most prestigious. Entertain those who are not able to provide an invitation in return, those who are not able to provide a reflection of the worldly glamour that is so attractive to the one who is not spiritual. Seek out those who have a deep spiritual life and bear the light of the divine presence within them. Do not restrict the friendships of your family to those who are prestigious. Do not allow the congregation to which you belong to develop such attitudes either, but resist them always and offer the welcome to the one who has nothing, and whom God has chosen. In offering a true welcome and hospitality to such as these we welcome Christ in them. In rejecting them as unworthy of us, however we justify this to ourselves and others, we will be turning Christ himself away from the door of our heart.
May the Lord preserve us from such a false and sinful estimation of the worth of those around us, for our salvation.