From the Gospel of John:
[Jesus said,] “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment.”
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – John 7:24 (NRSV) – February 8, 2014.)
My grandmother was a great fan of that old shibboleth, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” We all know what it means: you have to get to know someone (“read the book”) before you can make any judgment about them. “Appearances,” goes another, “can be deceiving.” Until you have worked passed and through the surface, you cannot know and make judgments about what lies underneath. Until, as the Native American teaching goes, you have walked a mile in another person’s moccasins, you have no basis on which to render judgment.
On the other hand, we all know how incredibly difficult it is to avoid doing exactly what Jesus here counsels against, how very hard not to do what the old sayings say we shouldn’t. Everyone makes “snap decisions” based on very little evidence, and everyone is influenced by their first impressions of others. I’ve been acutely aware of this during the past week while interviewing applicants for a part-time job at my church office.
Since the job is part-time (and not particularly well-paid), I’ve not done the same kind of extensive job-skills testing, or background and reference checking, that I would do with a full-time, high responsibility job. I’ve relied mostly on first impressions gained during the course of a brief interview and a quick review of resumes and letters of recommendation.
When I was first in the job market as a professional, I was counseled on the value of a good first impression. I learned about something called “the halo effect,” which is the psychological phenomenon in which our perception of positive traits about one aspect of a person gives rise to the perception or expectation of similar qualities in the individual as a whole. For example, you might be impressed with how tastefully and neatly dressed a person is and, thus, perceive them as organized and knowledgeable in their work; they may, of course, be nothing of the sort.
First impressions matter, but eventually substance will prevail. While dressing well may predispose an interviewer to think the applicant must be a good worker because she creates a competent first impression, the effect will wear off if she turns out to be a poor secretary. “Time will tell,” advises another old shibboleth.
So I have tried even more this week not to make judgments on first impressions. The person I hire will be working not just with me, but with every member of the congregation. It’s important that I choose wisely. A snap decision just wouldn’t be a good idea!
Jesus is quite obviously right to counsel against judging by appearances. But it’s awfully hard advice to follow! Sometimes Jesus says some really hard things: “If your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away” (Mat. 5:30), comes immediately to mind. I find, however, that his “hard sayings” are less difficult to follow than when he’s simply giving reasonable advice! It’s when Jesus sounds like my grandmother, that it’s hardest of all.
A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!
Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.