This week, manners and civility were a hot topic in my house. As most of you know, my wife Erin writes for The Globe and Mail, and we tease her that whatever topic she is working on at the time tends to come home with her. Sometimes it’s math games or mindfulness. The story she did about housework was fun for all of us. This week, she was researching rudeness, and this led to all sorts of “conversations” at the dinner table and a corresponding rise in ‘pleases’ and ‘thank-your’ around the house. Because they are not here today, I have a little more wiggle room than I am used to. But I am not talking behind her back – which would be rude – I ran this by her first.
So manners were on my mind, when I sat down to ponder the gospel this week. In it, we have our story of the two disciples, who meet an apparent stranger on the road to a village named Emmaus. We, of, course, know right away that it is not a stranger at all, but Jesus, who is keeping his identity a secret. The three fall to chatting, with the disciples’ relaying the recent events to the stranger, shocked that he does not already know about them. Jesus listens quietly as they retell the events of the crucifixion, and the women arriving at the empty tomb. And Jesus, still a stranger, reminds them that they have been foolish and slow to believe, that they have been looking as though blind – failing to truly acknowledge the Resurrection as promised in scripture.
And when they arrive near the village, Jesus makes as if to go on, but the disciples stop him and invite him to join them for dinner. “Stay with us,” they say “It is almost evening, and the day is now nearly over.” So Jesus joins them, and after they have had supper, he reveals who he is. Their eyes were opened, we are told, and they recognized him. And then he vanishes.
This gospel story, of course, is meant to bolster the faith of the disciples going ahead – much as our story about Thomas did last week. It is the epilogue of the Resurrection. And it allows us to hear the story another time, as the memory of the celebration of Easter fades.
But is it a coincidence that Jesus – whose ministry was all about caring for the stranger – appears himself as a lone stranger on a dusty road? He falls into conversation and is then welcomed for dinner. The disciples, no doubt inspired by their conversation, do the right thing: they invite a stranger into their home, because then as now it was not safe to walk at night on your own. The disciples do the civil thing: they treat a stranger as a friend.
When was the last time any of us did such a thing: bringing a stranger into our circle, with little information about him or her, seeking no gain ourselves? Not often, I imagine.
And yet, as I learned myself this week, after a little web searching, we are obsessed with people being rude. In Vancouver, there’s a new campaign to get people to be more polite on public transit and to stop doing things, incredibly, like cutting their toenails on the bus. We complain about sidewalk hogs, chatty movie patrons, and loud cellphone talkers. The last is probably the most universal pet peeve – the invasion of our public space by people sharing – and sometimes yelling – the most intimate details of their lives, their latest fight with a spouse, their cranky colleague at work, or just their party antics the Friday before.
Many argue that we are ruder today, but I suspect it’s just that we have found different ways to be rude, and the bar has shifted. Certainly, as a society – our rudeness is judged by how others are treated – we are significantly more polite with people from different cultures and backgrounds – compared to Victorian times when the upper classes liked to pretend the lower classes didn’t exist. If we think we share too much today, at least we are not as repressed as those “Downton Abbey” folks when nobody said what they were thinking. Still, you don’t have to look very far to catch people flipping the bird in the car, or failing to open doors, or sniping at store clerks. Or just generally acting as if they are the only ones who matter.
There’s a theory about why this is. A British anthropologist suggests that our society has just gotten too big. In the old days, community was smaller, and everyone knew everyone else, and even if you didn’t like your neighbor, there was a social cost to being rude to her. Your reputation mattered, and you couldn’t afford to lose face by letting your dog do his business on your neighbor’s pristine lawn.
Today, though, we spend more of our day with strangers – or at best, acquaintances. We are not as invested in those relationships, and so rushed and stressed, we don’t take as much time to be civil within them.
But if that’s true, then isn’t the key to treat even strangers as friends – just as the disciples did on that road to Emmaus? To make strangers friends, we really need only to engage, to offer a compliment, to find some common ground – just as the disciples did. Having shared the news, they probably felt as if this person was no longer truly a stranger, and so they could extend a dinner invitation as they would to a friend. And their reward for that generosity was great.
There’s a lesson, as well: that when we extend kindness to people we don’t know, we never know what will happen or who we will meet. That person you invite may become a dear friend – I have certainly seen that happen. But the “love one another” rule that Jesus imparts to us, in the end, is not about rewards – just like true civility, I learned at one dinner chat this week, is opening the door for someone and not getting upset when the person doesn’t say thank you. Because in the end, when we are kind to a stranger, we may see Jesus in that person, or we may not. But we will certainly see Jesus in ourselves. Amen