“Let us make man in our own image, according to our likeness…” (Genesis 1:26 KJV)
“…I was a stranger and you invited me in…” (Matthew 25:35 NIV)
From a recent devotional I wrote: “Even though every human face is different, all are made in God’s image. The Talmud says this indicates something special about God. When coins are minted, they are stamped with the same seal and are alike. But when God stamps each person with the seal of the divine image, they come out different.” This brought back a conversation I had with Ma when she said everyone has their own unique relationship with God.”
Also from the Talmud, a parable that shines a light on what happens when we forget that everyone bears God’s image.
After his visit with his teacher, Rabbi Elazar mounted his donkey and strolled along the riverbank. He was elated and his head was swollen with pride because he had studied much Torah.
He came upon a very ugly person who said to him, “Greetings to you, my rabbi.”
But the rabbi didn’t return his greetings. Instead, the rabbi said to him, “Worthless person, how ugly is that man. Are all the people of your city as ugly as you?”
The man replied, “I do not know, but you should go and say to the Craftsman Who made me, ‘How ugly is the vessel you have made.’”
Immediately the rabbi knew he had sinned and insulted the man just because of his appearance. He jumped off his donkey, bowed before the man, forehead to the ground, and said, “I have sinned against you; forgive me.”
The man answered, “I will not forgive you until you go to the Craftsman Who made me and say: ‘How ugly is the vessel you made.’”
The rabbi walked behind the man, trying to appease him until they reached the Rabbi’s city. Everyone came out saying, “Greetings to you my rabbi, my rabbi.”
The man said to them, “Who are you calling my rabbi, my rabbi?”
They said to him: “To this man, who is walking behind you.”
The man said: “If this man is a rabbi, may there not be many like him among the Jewish people.”
They asked him why he said this. The man told them about how the Rabbi had insulted him. They said to him, “Even so, forgive him, as he is a great Torah scholar.”
He said to them: “For your sakes I forgive him, provided he accepts upon himself not to become accustomed to behave like this.”
Immediately Rabbi Elazar rabbi entered the study hall and taught: “A person should be soft like a reed and not stiff like a cedar, as one who is proud like a cedar is likely to sin.”
What do we see when we meet a stranger? Automatically and without us knowing about it, our brain is plastering the stranger with sticky notes, labeling the person with answers to questions: “Man or woman? Young or old? Race and ethnicity? Short or tall? Slender of overweight? Well-dressed or sloppy?” And for Rabbi Elazar, “Attractive or ugly?” And, along with these labels, come all the assumptions and biases we have formed about these labels.
It’s easy to forget that the stranger you just met, covered with all these sticky notes, is made in God’s image and is a child of God just like you.
The man and the people of the city did Rabbi Elazar a great favor. They acted like a mirror and showed him what he was really like. In this moment, the man and the people of the city became the rabbi.
Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield had a similar experience when he started his journey to become a Buddhist monk. He was instructed to bow each time he entered the monastery and when he received his teachings. And this wasn’t any baby bow. It was the same drop-to-your-knees-head-to-the-ground bow that Rabbi Elazar gave to the man he met on the road.
A week later, his teacher laid another requirement on him. He had to bow to his elders – any monk who had been studying longer than him. For some it was easy; for others, not so much. He had a hard time bowing to a young man who was only there to please his parents. And there was the sloppy old farmer on the farmers’ pension who didn’t meditate at all.
This bothered him until he saw them with new eyes. He bowed to the wrinkles around the farmer’s eyes, for all the difficulties he faced, suffered through, and triumphed over. He bowed to the vitality and playfulness of the young monks and the incredible possibilities ahead of them. Soon, he was bowing to everybody and everything. This reminded me of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet after the Passover meal, setting the example of how we are to serve and take care of each other.
We are other people. We are the direct result of all the relationships in our lives – from the momentary ones to the long-lasting. The health of our world depends on the health of these relationships. All we have to do is peel away our sticky notes and see the image of God.
Prayer: Eternal God, bring in your light. Gives us eyes that see and hearts that are open. Help us make connections so no one is a stranger and strengthen those connections so we can chase away the spirit of chaos and division.