Spiritual Snobs

By McKnight, Scot | The Christian Century, February 22, 2005 | Go to article overview

Spiritual Snobs


McKnight, Scot, The Christian Century


Sunday, February 27 Psalm 95; John 4:5-42

IT IS TEMPTING to sit in judgment on others. Sometimes we do it in jest, as Mark Twain did when commenting on Adam. "Adam was but human--this explains it all. He did not want the apple for the apple's sake, he wanted it only because it was forbidden. The mistake was in not forbidding the serpent; then he would have eaten the serpent."

But sometimes the serpent eats us, and then we judge in earnest.

Just a few days into the wilderness wanderings, the children of Israel encamped at Rephidim and found no water. They blamed Moses. We may be tempted to blame them too. How can these people, we ask, after experiencing a miraculous liberation from a first-class oppressor, after watching the enemy collapse under walls of water, after waking up with manna at their feet--how can they carp about not having water?

In a penetrating essay on the "put-down," Joseph Epstein says that judging others is "malice formulated in tranquility" and the "civilized person's equivalent of the perfectly aimed knockout punch." More recently he puts the whole enterprise together in his study Snobbery: The American Version. We too often operate, he suggests, as the "statustician." He defines "snob" as one who arranges to make himself "feel superior at the expense of other people."

If we judge the children of Israel, whom the psalmist says had hard hearts, we also must judge the apostles. After watching Jesus feed a village of people, the disciples are challenged to think through what Jesus should do--he's afraid to send the crowd home lest they collapse on the way. But Mark says the apostles had hard hearts (Mark 8), so we condemn them for their faithlessness. But should we?

A parishioner once informed me that if he had been in Jerusalem when Jesus was put to death, he would have been crucified along with him because, as he trumpeted, "I would never have allowed my Lord to be even arrested without fighting for him! Nope, not me. I'm not like the rest of these faint-hearted Christians!" The claim astounded me. His self-promotion was masked as self-perception. Here was a 60-year-old who hadn't looked in a mirror for a long time.

He is not alone.

The problem is neither logic nor faith. The problem is us. When we look within ourselves or at others, we are prone to self-promotion or blame or judgment. When we see who we really are, we see hearts struggling and minds fighting and souls doubting. And then we are like both the children of Israel and the apostles.

The Samaritan woman sees a better way. Instead of seeing Jesus as simply a Jew, she sees a revelation of God. She sees the good news that comes straight from the mouth of Jesus: water, water that gives new life in the Spirit. …

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