A big, burly fellow with tattoos all over his arms, a torn T-shirt and black hair slathered in mousse walked into church. He strolled up the aisle and sat down beside me while I was waiting for daily Mass to begin, and I thought (and here I go again with my usual judging), "This is great, just great, some street thug has to share my pew. What if a gang fight erupts?"
And while I was kneeling there, more concerned about a rumble than Mass, the alleged thug got up and left – to stand in line for confession.
Confession? It shows how much I know, and it shows once again what a lousy judge of people I am. Even worse, I’m notorious for judging on first impressions, which are generally wrong and usually prejudicial. What I always fail to remember is that God doesn’t judge the same way we do.
I often think of that account in the Old Testament where the prophet Samuel examines Jesse’s sons to find the next king of Israel, and of the seven he saw, the Lord rejected them all. Then, Samuel learned there was one more son, David, who was the most unlikely candidate to be Israel’s king by human standards but the Lord’s choice.
Samuel thought for sure Eliab was the chosen one, but the Lord said, "Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart."
I’m ashamed to admit my constant pastime is judging people by "the outward appearance" whether I’m walking the streets of Manhattan or watching commuters on the crowded train or strolling through the supermarket or daydreaming in church when I should be concentrating on Mass.
I judge people by the way they dress, by the way they look, by the company they keep, by their job title, by every conceivable measure – or mismeasure – known to man and woman. "Stereotyping," you might call it.
But God forbid if anyone does that to me or tries to pigeon-hole me just because I wear a bow tie and horn-rimmed glasses and have a bald head, sort of like an over-the-hill Pee-wee Herman.
"Judge not, lest you be judged." Didn’t Jesus say that? Time and again I’ve been proved wrong, so now I have a new approach. I pray, "Jesus don’t let me judge the book by its cover. Stop me from being judgmental. Help me live and let live."
As soon as I find myself thinking ill of someone or "profiling" him or her, I try to pray for the person – the woman with the too-tight dress in church, the teenager with the pierced nose, the girl with the tattoo on her back, the suave banker with the silk Italian suit, the athletic and rowdy beer guzzler. I have prefabricated impressions of them all.
The crazy thing is I’ve done this all my life. When I was growing up, there was a woman who paraded into church on Sunday morning, wearing a different wild and crazy hat every week. Her hats were so large they almost obstructed my view of the altar, and she always sat in the first pew as if she owned the church. Back in the ’60s, I was looking for a hypocrite under every rock, and here was one in broad daylight.
However, it was a painful but necessary lesson for me because after years of judging this woman and finding her guilty of every conceivable indiscretion, I learned she was one of the kindest, most compassionate people in the parish. She helped feed poor families, and she visited the sick in the nursing homes. I was the hypocrite.
In another case, there was the woman who went to daily Mass and always prayed the rosary, and I thought to myself, "This is probably one of the holiest people I’ve ever met." But the truth was that she was one of the most intolerant and judgmental people there was, sort of like me at times.
She was so convinced of her personal sanctity that she consigned everyone else to hell.
There are many people like her, the phony pious ones. I can spot them a mile away because, I fear, I may be one myself. As my mother always told me, "It takes one to know one." From our perches above the fray and above the squalor, we sit in judgment on humanity. Very often, the self-righteous pharisees need prayers more than sinners do.
Only Jesus can judge because he has all the information, and even with all the information, he would much rather be merciful because Jesus prefers mercy to justice. Shouldn’t we try to live the same way?
J.F. Pisani is a writer who lives with his family in the New Haven area.