Making assumptions about people

Look at the pictures to the right. What is the woman feeling in each case? Most of you can easily identify her emotional state (or something in the ballpark), as well as imagine a mini-story of what made her feel that way. And you can do this almost instantly.

One of the wonders of human nature is how quickly we can size up people. Whether we’re aware of doing so or not, we decode and respond to the nonverbal cues — tone of voice, posture, fleeting facial expressions and the like — that signal what the other person is feeling and intending. That taken-for-granted, automatic ability is what helps us navigate the social world.

That’s the upside. The downside is that we can quickly and efficiently get it completely wrong. We make up a story and stick to it, even if it’s wrong, even in the face of contrary evidence. It takes a bit of a jolt to make us step back, let go of our preconceived notions, and see the other person for who he or she really is.

Knowing this about ourselves, we might have a bit more compassion for the Roman tribune who assumed the apostle Paul was an Egyptian terrorist.

. . .

In previous posts, we’ve seen how Paul, at the end of his missionary travels, returned at last to Jerusalem. He’d been repeatedly warned that severe hardship awaited him there. His supporters in Jerusalem tried to prevent trouble by instructing Paul to do things that would make him seem like a particularly pious Jew.

The strategy was too clever by half. When Paul was completing a purification ritual in the temple, one of his detractors jumped to conclusions, and ironically accused him of defiling the temple by bringing Gentiles into it. A riot quickly ensued. The mob would have beaten Paul to death if the ever-watchful Romans hadn’t intervened.

The tribune in charge of the soldiers didn’t know who Paul was or why the crowd was trying to kill him. Trying to squeeze answers out of the mob only made things worse. But he had already jumped to his own conclusions. To his credit, he realized his error as soon as he and his men attempted to carry Paul away for interrogation:

Just as Paul was about to be brought into the barracks, he said to the tribune, “May I say something to you?” The tribune replied, “Do you know Greek? Then you are not the Egyptian who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand assassins out into the wilderness?” Paul replied, “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of an important city; I beg you, let me speak to the people.” (Acts 21:37-39, NRSV)

“The Egyptian” is not a character from a James Bond or Mission: Impossible movie. He was an outsider who, not long before this episode in Acts, had come to Jerusalem with messianic pretensions. His followers were led to believe that the walls of the city would fall and that the Egyptian himself would be installed as the new ruler. The Roman governor Felix, of course, responded to such subversive nonsense with lethal force. The Egyptian escaped. Hundreds of his followers, however, were not so lucky.

The tribune knew that if the Egyptian ever showed his face in the city again, especially during a festival, there’d be more than a few souls eager to help this failed revolutionary meet his maker. But the tribune went on to conflate that story with the terrorism of the Sicarii (that’s Luke’s word in the Greek), the “dagger men” who quietly assassinated aristocratic Jews who were pegged as Roman sympathizers.

Those are significant and erroneous assumptions about Paul. Imagine the tribune’s surprise, then, when Paul, who was being carried into the barracks, faced him and spoke in polite and cultured Greek. Paul was respectful of the tribune’s authority, even as he tactfully corrected him: Is it okay if I speak?  I’m actually not Egyptian, but a Jew. I’m a citizen of Tarsus, an important Roman city. So please, if you would, put me down and let me speak to these people.

Not everyone from Tarsus would be a citizen there. Paul was subtly letting the tribune know that he was a man of social standing — possibly of higher standing than the tribune himself. Without having to be told directly, the commander knew it would be wise to grant Paul’s request.

Paul now takes his stand on the steps between the temple and the adjoining fortress, flanked by Roman soldiers. Like a great orator, he motions for silence, and the mob begins to quiet and listen. Will they, like the tribune, be able to let go of their erroneous assumptions about Paul?

As we’ll see, not so much.