crowdHave you ever tried “people watching?”

People watching involves sitting in a public place and watching the people that pass by.  But there’s a part of this game, that leads the observer to start making some judgments.

You look at the person and, based on what you see, you try to weave together a story for their lives.  Who are they?  Where do they come from? What do they do?  What’s their biggest fear?

People watching isn’t just a game though.  It’s something that we can do at any given time and in any given place.  “People watching” leads us to judge others simply by looking at what’s on the surface level.  Maybe you’ve tried this kind of people watching:

  • You see the dirty clothes someone is wearing and you make a judgment about them, what they do, etc.
  • You see the hair going in every direction, the unshaven face, the lines, the wrinkles and you make a judgment.
  • You see the expensive car, the expensive suit, the shoes, and you make a judgment about that person

Those kinds of judgments can lead us, simply on surface-level observations, to show favoritism to one person over another.

This isn’t something new. It’s been going on since humanity was created.  It was going on in the first church and it is addressed by James, the brother of Jesus, in the Bible. Here’s how he describes it:

1 My brothers and sisters, when you show favoritism you deny the faithfulness of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has been resurrected in glory. 2 Imagine two people coming into your meeting. One has a gold ring and fine clothes, while the other is poor, dressed in filthy rags. 3 Then suppose that you were to take special notice of the one wearing fine clothes, saying, “Here’s an excellent place. Sit here.” But to the poor person you say, “Stand over there”; or, “Here, sit at my feet.” 4 Wouldn’t you have shown favoritism among yourselves and become evil-minded judges? — James 2:1-4 (CEB)

Sometimes we have to be confronted with our judgment and favoritism so that we will know it exists. That was the case on a cold January afternoon in Washington, D.C.  A man found a spot in a subway station during the height of rush hour.

Thousands of people walked by as the modestly dressed man spent the next 45 minutes playing through six pieces from Bach on his violin.

In those 45 minutes, only six people stopped and paid attention as he played.  A couple of those who stopped to watch were children and their parents grabbed them and hurried them along.

In that 45 minutes, 20 or so people walked by and tossed money into the man’s violin case.  In all, he received $32.

When he finished playing, he stood up and put his violin back into its case and walked out of the subway.  There was no applause and no acknowledgement of the gift that he had just shared.

“People watching” leads us to judge others simply by looking at what’s on the surface level.

Maybe it was because of the way that he was dressed.  Or, maybe, it was because people saw him as a someone trying to make some money in the subway.  Maybe it was because of the way that he went about it.   Maybe he was just ignored.

Yet, what thousands missed out on in that 45 minutes was a free concert from world-class musician Joshua Bell who was playing on a violin valued at more than $3.5 million.  A couple of nights before, Bell had played a sold-out concert where tickets went for an average of $100.

His appearance there was part of a social experiment arranged by the Washington Post.    It was designed to gauge how we perceive our surroundings and whether we would notice the exceptional in a common, everyday setting.  It was designed to expose our bias and favoritism.

From a distance, it’s easy to take a look at that story and say, “How could so many people miss this?”  Yet, this is a scenario that we can play out everyday, even in church.  Do our preferences and our perceptions get in the way when it comes to how we see others?

Do we let some we encounter blend into the background?  Do we ignore them because of the way they are dressed, the way they look, or our perceptions about their motives and desires?

That’s the message that’s at the heart of these words from James.  In the time of James, the way that wealth and power was displayed was through the way that people were dressed.  James warning is don’t get caught up in looking at the clothes, the outside.  Instead, don’t judge “a book by its cover.”  Look past that and look to the heart.

Maybe the best way to confront our own tendencies to play the people watching game is to flip it all around.

Have we been judged based on our outward appearance?  Have others built a narrative about us based on what is on the surface?  Have others ignored us or passed us by, our thrown a little pity our way because they have misjudged our actions or motivations?  How did that feel?

That’s a challenge we need to take to heart when we feel compelled to play the “people watching” game.

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