It has been said that “first impressions quite often are lasting ones.” And, yet, the question might be raised, should they be? I am going to share with you a list of some remarks of some critics after their initial encounters with some people. I think you will find them most interesting.
“His theory is ridiculous. It is pure fiction.” Those are the remarks of a professor at the University of Toulouse in 1872 about the research of Louis Pasteur on the concept of germs.
“The only thing different is the hair, as far as I can see. I give them a year.” That was said by the music director of the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 after watching the Beatles perform on the program.
“Taking that pitcher and converting him into a right fielder is one of the dumbest things that I have ever heard.” That was the opinion of Major League Baseball player Tris Speaker when he learned that a decision had been made to make outfield the primary position of Babe Ruth.
“The concept is interesting and well-formed but in order to earn better than a grade of ‘C,’ the idea must be more feasible.” That was the evaluation offered by a professor at Yale University in the 1960s regarding an idea by a student named Frederick W. Smith on building a reliable delivery service. Smith later founded the Federal Express (now FedEx) Corporation.
So, given the rather awkward assessments reflected in these quotations, let us raise the question again: “Should first impressions always be lasting ones?” Perhaps not.
Perhaps, sometimes our initial opinions about people should not be so rigid. Perhaps there needs to be room for people to grow and space for them to make changes. Perhaps we should not automatically place people in a “box” and lock them there.
Personally speaking, this has been a problem in my years in the priesthood. It’s sad to say, but sometimes we priests have made the mistake of forming rather resolute judgments about our peers during our time in the seminary or within the early years of ministry, and we cling to them. And, we hold on to those opinions for years.
I have a feeling priests are not the only ones to make that kind of mistake. Somehow, I can imagine people making those same kinds of premature and unyielding judgments in all areas of life — whether it be co-workers at the office, neighbors, government officials or our relatives.
Yet, it’s not a new problem. Actually, it appears to have been something that our ancestors in biblical times struggled with as well. In fact, it seems to have been much worse back then.
Apparently, in those times, some believed that not only was it nearly impossible for individuals to change, it was the same way for families. Somehow, it was thought that you were held responsible and suffered the consequences of those in the generations that preceded you. This is reflected in a proverb that is quoted by the prophet Jeremiah in chapter 31 of his writings and the prophet Ezekiel in chapter 18. The proverb says, “Fathers have eaten green grapes, thus their children’s teeth are on edge.” So, regardless of whether you had anything to do with such a past, you inherited it, and, you suffered the consequences of it. No doubt, it played a role in the opinions that people formed about you.
Now, even though the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel quoted this proverb, they did not favor such a belief or perspective. In fact, in chapter 18 of his prophetic book, Ezekiel seeks to correct such a false impression. He states that you shall be judged on your own merits. Even if you have a legacy of virtue, if you commit iniquity, then you will be punished. Even if a history of wickedness has cast a dark pall on your life, if you correct that by doing what is right and just, then you shall be blessed. Change is possible.
Jesus himself picks up on that same theme and illustrates it in chapter 21 of the Gospel of Matthew through the use of a parable about two sons. Our Lord seems to be addressing the parable to the chief priests and the elders of his day. It appears the chief priests and elders of his day had been clinging to that notion that people normally did not or could not change. That especially was their impression of the type of people with whom Jesus had been associating. They resented the fact that the people who tended to hang around Jesus were tax collectors, prostitutes and others generally considered to be sinners.
So, to them, Jesus tells of the two sons. He speaks of one son who answered the question of whether he would go work in the vineyard with a resounding “no” — only to change his mind later and go to labor there. Jesus then speaks of a second son who initially answered the call to work affirmatively but who altered his stance and did not venture into the vineyard.
Jesus then sets up a trap to catch the chief priests and elders in their unholy intransigence. He challenges them to tell him which of the two sons was more virtuous. The response of the chief priests and elders in affirming the virtue of the first son is clearly evident, but it just as clearly condemns the self-righteousness and unrighteousness of their previously held opinion. The light of truth exposes the sinful inconsistency of the chief priests and elders who praise the change in the behavior of the first son in the parable but who shame the associates of Jesus — the tax collectors, prostitutes and other reputed sinners — and will not consider them capable of change.
How telling is the message of our Lord, not just for the chief priests and elders of yesteryear, but for us in our very modern times. His message stops us in our tracks and spills the light of truth on our own inconsistencies.
It compels us to ask: How swift are we to form opinions and how long do we hold them? Do we ever yield in judgment to further evidence? Do we acknowledge the possibility of change? Or, do we “put people in a box” and forever imprison them there? Do we make up our minds and never unmake them?
Now, I am not suggesting that we can never form opinions or make judgments. I am not proposing a relativism that suggests that all hard and firm decisions are prohibited. There is a rightful place for hard and firm decisions. Holding fast to the truth is indeed virtuous. Yet, one always should keep in mind that the truth really does not fear change when new evidence clarifies it, and truth is humble enough to embrace such change if it allows reality to shine more brightly.
The real issue at stake is not conviction. The real issue is a recalcitrance that is propped up by a combination of presumption and stubbornness. There is no place for that kind of laziness and arrogance in the Gospel.
Ultimately, then, first impressions definitely are important. They may even in some and perhaps numerous cases be lasting. But, please be cautious, because first impressions should never always and in every case be lasting ones.