Monday, February 1, 2016

From Breeding Contempt to Embracing Warts

Do you remember Aesop’s Fable The Fox and the Lion?

When first the Fox saw the Lion he was terribly frightened, and ran away and hid himself in the wood.

Next time however he came near the King of Beasts he stopped at a safe distance and watched him pass by.

The third time they came near one another the Fox went straight up to the Lion and passed the time of day with him, asking him how his family were, and when he should have the pleasure of seeing him again; then turning his tail, he parted from the Lion without much ceremony.

Written around 600 years before the birth of Jesus, this fable gave rise to the proverb familiarity breeds contempt, wryly amended by Mark Twain to say familiarity breeds contempt – and children.  The fable and proverbs arising from it assert “extensive knowledge of or close association with someone or something leads to a loss of respect for them or it.”  In other words, we value least what we know best.

Several Boston researchers conducted a series of clinical experiments to determine if there is any truth to this.  In one study they showed a number of folks pictures from a dating site with three descriptive statements about each person.  When the subject showed interest in a particular photo they asked if he/she would like to know more about the person.  Most subjects believed additional learning would lead to greater liking, but the opposite took place.  On average, more information led to less liking.

Listen to this statement from their study paper:

We propose that the relationship between knowledge and liking within individuals is in fact negative: that more information about any one person leads, on average, to less liking for that person.  We further suggest that this relationship is due to the lure of ambiguity. At first acquaintance, individuals read into others what they wish and find evidence of similarity, leading to liking.  Over time, however, as evidence of dissimilarity is uncovered, liking decreases.  In short, the present investigation shows that “less is more” in interpersonal affinity.

Jesus, of course, did not know of this study and there is no way of to know if he knew of Aesop’s fable, but he was most certainly aware of the wisdom behind it.  “No prophet is accepted in his hometown.”  If you had lived with Jesus for thirty years, watched him grow up, skin his knees, go through the awkward teenage years, struggle to master a craft, and do just about everything else any ordinary person does, you too might react adversely to his claim to be the fulfillment of scripture.  To them he was common.  Their familiarity with Jesus breed their contempt for what he claimed to be.

And it seems to go both ways.  Yes, they know Jesus, but Jesus also knows them.  He knows their small town, narrow-minded, provincial ways.  He knows their ideas are uninformed, yet rigid.  He knows they will not receive his message unless he performs some kind of miracle to back up his assertions, but miracles don’t work that way.  They never occur to create faith.  They always emanate from a faith that is already present. 

By citing biblical stories of the widow at Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian, Jesus states unequivocally that his ministry will be offered to strangers and outsiders, to people who do not know him and therefore have no preconceived ideas about him. 

As with anything we read in the bible, it is tempting to divide this one into us verses them.  The ‘them’ would be the people who think they know what Jesus is all about and have dismissed him.   The ‘us’ is us good folks here who have received Jesus’ message and based our lives on it.  But I am aware of the presence of both us and them in me.  There are parts of me that are oh so familiar with Jesus.  I have heard it and seen it so many times that it has become ‘familiar’ – something I have grown cold and callus to over time.  And then there are those parts of me where Jesus and his message is a total stranger; places I have yet to hear the Gospel, but desperately need it.  I suspect the same is true of you.  You, like me, have grown tone deaf to some aspects of discipleship while being totally unaware others.

I think the terminology of the study – similarity, ambiguity, and dissimilarity – is helpful.  The more we see Jesus as being similar to us the more we like him.  This becomes much easier as we foster ambiguity by limiting our knowledge about what Jesus teaches, asks, and demands of us.  Ambiguity keeps dissimilarities to a minimum.  We see dissimilarities not between us and Jesus, but between us and other followers of Jesus who recognize in him what we do not see, do not acknowledge, and do not like.  Mainline churches do not like evangelicals’ passionate, personal commitment to bring Christ into every aspect of their lives.  Evangelicals don’t like how mainline churches focus on social justice.  But the truth is, Jesus does both… and even more.  When we proclaim Jesus as Lord we are saying we cannot reject the ways Jesus is dissimilar from us.  We are saying we must conform ourselves to him.  We must be transformed into his likeness.

Someone once quipped “Familiarity breeds contempt and absence makes the heart grow fonder – just means that when you go away I really miss hating you.”  The fable of the Lion and Fox reminds us being in relationships is challenging.  The more we know a person the more we find not to like.  Our faith tells us why this is: each of us is a fallen, broken human being.  None of us is perfect.  If we are looking for the perfect partner or the perfect friend or the perfect boss or the perfect neighbor or the perfect teacher or the perfect president we will always, always be disappointed. 

In the 17th century Sir Peter Lely was commissioned to do a portrait of Oliver Cromwell.  Cromwell, knowing that Lely’s style was to create embellished depictions of his subjects, said the artist, “I desire you would use all your skill to paint my picture truly like me, and not flatter me at all; but remark all these roughnesses, pimples, warts and everything as you see me, otherwise I will never pay a farthing for it”.  From this emerged the expression “warts and all”. 

Our faith holds Jesus loves us warts and all.  Perhaps this is the greatest dissimilarity between us and him.  Whereas we loath what is not like us in others, Jesus loves all that is unlovely about us.  We are called to be who he is, but it is not something we can achieve on our own. 

Today’s New Testament lesson often is read in the context of a wedding, but was written to a deeply fractured faith community.  In either setting, the qualities of love Paul describes are both a goal for each person and a gift from beyond.  Both work hand-in-hand.  As I set out to love I find God’s Spirit moving in and through me.  As God’s Spirit moves in and through me I determine to embody a love from beyond.  For us, familiarity should not breed contempt, but rather compassion and a Christ-like love.  Liking is something we have little control over.  You either like chocolate chip cookies or you don’t.  But loving is a decision, an action, an attitude.  We choose to love – not in a romantic way, but in a Christ-like way.  How well we do it depends on our commitment and our connection to Christ’s love in our own lives.