Why You Should Be Kind To Jerks: 22OT

I remember hanging out with a group of friends, seems like it was probably freshman year of college, people I was just getting to know. It was one of those kind of random groups; it’s not like anyone was invited, just whoever happened to be there. Anyway there was one guy who was just really annoying the heck out of me, and I knew I wasn’t the only one. And I was kind of thinking, “how are we going to get rid of this guy?” But everyone else seemed to just accept it. Naturally and automatically. After a ridiculously long time, it finally dawned on me that they just didn’t want to exclude him, that they cared more about being welcoming than they did about the purity and coolness of the group.

Have you ever had one of those moments where you suddenly realize that there are lots of people in the world who are just much, much better human beings than you?

In hindsight I can look back and understand why I desperately wanted to be part of a group that only accepted cool people. Because that's how you know you're a cool person, right? So my jerkness came from insecurity. Which means that I was very lucky to find a group so accepting. I needed it as much, or probably more than, that other guy.

Can't you see that "Friday" was a call for help?

Jesus is using a simple example to take us into some pretty deep waters. It’s about which seat you take. How you position yourself in regard to others. He identifies two different approaches, and I think that’s because in the end, two is all there are. You can seek advancement and honor, or you can seek humility and service.

The Lord’s example gives us a simple, clear picture of how this works. You walk into a dining room. The cool people are at one end and at the other end... well, you know, there’s the other end. Which way are you drawn?

Let’s not let ourselves off to easily. It’s easy to say, “well I don’t like uppity snobs anyway, I like simple regular folks.” But I don’t think Jesus is talking about uppity snobs versus regular folks. I think he’s talking about attractive, desirable company versus kind of downtrodden, less desirable company. Think of it this way: the exclusive end of the table will probably tell more clever jokes. They will probably have better manners. They will probably even be more pleasant and sociable. They got those seats for a reason, and it wasn’t by being unlikeable. The world has been nice to them, more or less, and their personalities show it. It’s easier to be nice to others when the world is nice to you. Some of the people at the other end - well, maybe the world hasn’t been so nice to them. And we shouldn’t be surprised if they show it. If you’ve never thought about this, think about it now. Think about how the world treats people who are clever and beautiful, who can afford to dress snappily and can flash the kind of smile that opens doors, who’ve been taught etiquette and grace and, ahem, hygiene. Think about how the world treats those who lack all of those things. Think about how different their experience is of applying for a job, buying a gallon of milk, walking into a room of strangers, or apologizing for dinging someone’s car. Add up all those little moments over a lifetime. 

I’m stressing this point because we need to understand that seeking the humble places will not always be the most pleasant option. When I was in high school they told us to do community service because it would help our college applications and make us feel good about ourselves. How self-centered can you get? Dorothy Day had a more realistic approach. Someone approached her about helping the poor and joining her work. Dorothy thought this person was being a little to romantic about the whole idea. She said, “there’s two things you need to know about the poor: they’re ungrateful and they smell bad.” Her point was that service must come from love of the other, not from desire for affirmation or personal reward. You don’t do it because it feels good. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t... irrelevant. You do it because it’s right, because you’re seeking the good of the other.

I got a really good piece of advice once: pay attention to your gut reactions to people, and use that to help you understand them. For example: if someone strikes you as a bore and you feel yourself wanting to escape, you can figure others probably react to him the same way. It's a good bet that he's spent a lot of his life around people who were trying to get away from him. What's that like? And that realization can open the door to compassion. If you’re dealing with someone difficult and you think “this guy has the personality of a drunk wolverine with a toothache,” think how few people he’s going to see today who are happy to see him. There’s that door of compassion beginning to open.

Jesus is asking us not to let ourselves focus only on the attractive people. I don’t mean just physically attractive, I mean the kind of people whom other people are drawn to for whatever reason. Good for them! But he’s asking us to focus most of all on those who are a little harder to love, who maybe aren’t so lucky, those to whom the world isn’t so nice. That could be because they’re poor, or sick, or it could be because they seem angry all the time and hardly ever smile. It could be those who are so needy that they exhaust everyone around them until they’re left alone.

Now, at this point I think it’s worth considering two wrong ways to go about this sort of thing. The first we could call condescension. This is taking the lower place, but out of a sense of superiority. Like “oh, these pitiful people are so lucky that I’m bringing some of my wonderfulness into their dreary lives.” That’s no good. The other wrong approach is resentment. This is when we’d take the lower place as a sort of class warfare, like we’re taking the side of the lowly against the fortunate. No good. That’s just snobbery in the other direction.

The call of Christ is to seek the lower place not out of condescension, not out of resentment, but out of humility. All of us have our moments when we are hard to love. Those are the times we need love more than ever. When people are hard to love, love them anyway. Sometimes people can make it very hard to respect them. Respect them anyway. Because they need it more than anyone. Not because they’ve got it coming, not because they deserve it, but just because they need it. And because you’ll need it to when it’s your turn to not be at your best.

Christy went to our church and she was a little older than me... she was 17 when I was 12 or so, one of those impossibly cool high school kids that you aspire to be. She got sick, and by the time anyone had a clue what was happening she was gone. Her funeral Mass was in the high school gym, the only place that could fit everybody. A number of students took the invitation to say something. One after another said the same kind of thing: something along the lines of “not many people talk to me, but Christy did.” “Not many people are nice to me, but she always was.” “She was good-looking and cool, not like me at all, but she always made me feel like I belonged.”

In seventh grade, I knew I was catching a glimpse of something very special and very rare, a higher way of life than I’d ever even attempted. It was another of those moments when you realize some people are much, much better human beings than you are. She didn’t condescend. She didn’t pity. She just respected and loved. She found something to like in people, even when she had to look a little harder to find it. Especially then! She’d got farther in seventeen years then most people get in a lifetime.

Sometimes we’re the person who’s hard to love and respect, and sometimes we’re the ones who have a little extra to give. The world could use more Christys. More people who walk up to a table thinking not “who here will serve my interests?” but “who here needs a friend?”

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