Years ago, there was a certain band-director who was known for building a winning program, no matter what it took. One tactic he used was to take coat hangers and shape them into a circle, with the hangar part made into a handle. If you messed up the marching drill, you had to put down your instrument and carry one of these coat-hangars, while the other members of the band chanted a little ditty that called you a Zero.
I’m sure that at this moment, many of you are thinking “what a horrible thing to do to a young person!” And yes, it’s certainly not an example from the John Wooden school of leadership.
I submit, though, that every one of us is guilty of the same thing. We see others as “zeros” in at least two ways. Make the jump to see where you fit.
In Luke 19:8, Jesus tells the familiar parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector. Both men go to the Temple to pray. (So, both are religious.) The Pharisee is thankful that he is not like other people: thieves, adulterers, rogues … or even that sorry tax collector over there. (Some translations note dryly that the Pharisee was praying to himself, which is a parable unto itself.)
The tax collector, on the other hand, repeats over and over, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner.” And Jesus notes that it was the tax collector, not the Pharisee, who left there “justified before God.” In other words, the tax collector approached God the right way, with the right attitude, and moved closer to God as a result, while the Pharisee left pretty much the same way he had come in — in self-delusion.
We could draw the contrast between the two men: the slimy occupation of tax collector versus the upstanding religious mien of the Pharisee. We could talk about humility, or prayer, or confession, or any number of other topics within this parable.
But I want to go back to Zeros.
The opening verse, Luke 18:9, says that Jesus had a target audience for this parable:
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt.
In the KJV, that last phrase is translated “despised others.” In the Greek, the verb is
ἐξουθενέω, which means “to make of no account, to despise utterly.” That same verb in other places is translated “set at nought.” And what is nought? Another word for zero. Nothing. Not there.
In other words, Jesus is talking about those who see others as less-than. And my earlier proposal is that we see others as zeros, as less-than, as noughts, in two ways.
First, there is active contempt. This often comes from either an underlying lack of self-esteem, or from an actual belief of superiority.
Some people can only feel good about themselves by putting others down. The only way they can be a 1 is to make you a 0. They use religion to feel better about themselves, and the more righteous they feel, the better they feel about themselves. (For an insight from someone who has lived this reality, see my poem “My God-Doll.”) Some of the most toxic self-righteousness in the history of humankind has come out of this use of religion.
The other type of active contempt is from those who actually believe they are superior. Their hubris is not a cover for insecurity; it is real. Unlike the contempt based on insecurity, which can often be blustering and overt, these “true believers” are often quite reserved about it. They can be smooth, pleasant, friendly. It is only when you cross them, or your needs might impinge on theirs, that you realize where you stand in their eyes.
We do not know which of these types of active contempt the Pharisee was practicing. We only know that he actively held himself to be morally superior to the tax collector, and assumed that God thought the same. He was blind to his condition when he entered the temple, and he was still blind to himself when he left.
And if I was a betting man, I would bet that many of you who have read this far are feeling superior to the Pharisee. Surely I do not practice either sort of active contempt for my fellow human beings, right? That poor Pharisee, so unaware of the reality of his heart.
While pointing out irony can be fun for a writer, I will take a pass on it for now, and agree with you. Yes, I suspect that many of us who try to be Jesus-followers are more self-aware than the Pharisee, and we do not practice active contempt very often.
But then there’s passive contempt.
Passive contempt is when we act as if the other person doesn’t matter. It’s not that we are actively trying to put them down, or actively comparing ourselves to them. It’s just that we don’t see them as a fellow human being, at all. We don’t see them as having concerns of their owns, or needs, or desires, or feelings, or of being of any value, at all, one way or the other.
As far as our actions are concerned, they are a Zero.
This manifests itself is all sorts of ways. Using service people the same as we would a machine. Ignoring the needs of anyone not connected to us in some way. Running our business to benefit us and our shareholders, with no regard to its impact on others. Designing our laws from only our point of view, to benefit only ourselves. Living our lives with blinders on, unable to see people as people and not things.
When I think about Jesus, though, I know in my gut that he was different: he saw everybody. And I mean really saw them, all of each of them. Each person was a unique creation of God to him. And he treated each of them the same — special and loved of God.
THAT is the mark of the Jesus follower. Not only have they moved past active contempt, they are constantly on guard against passive contempt as well. They live their lives aware of every person around them, connecting, loving, caring, seeing. They understand the truth of that fake Bible verse we used to quote in college — “1 Smith 10:12 — we’re all in this together.”
This post is already over-long, but I want to close with a final quote about love versus contempt, from Elie Wiesel:
“The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”
In our zeal to not be actively self-righteous like the Pharisee, may we also pay attention to the self-righteousness of blindness to others. Remember — we’re all in this together.