What Labels Convey
August 14, 2005
A religion teacher brought a clear glass jar into her classroom that was filled with a yellow substance. She asked the class, “What’s in this jar?” At first the children were not sure, but after examining it and smelling it and even tasting it, they realized that it was honey. “It’s honey,” the children said.
“Good,” said the teacher. Then she took a piece of white paper and wrapped it around the outside of the jar and fastened it with tape. She wrote on the paper: Vinegar. Holding up the jar again, she said, “Now what’s in this jar?”
“Honey,” all the children said.
“But the label says its vinegar.”
“It’s honey, just the same,” said the children.
The teacher seemed satisfied and she put down the jar and looked directly at the class, “What you have learned about jars,” she said, “Apply to people.”
In our world, people come to us with labels: labels of race, of income, of religion, of culture. But we would be amiss if we were to confuse the labels from the real people that we encounter. In fact, as followers of Christ, we are called to be very wary about what labels convey because they are often at odds with the real people we meet. Jesus deals with labels in today’s Gospel. He is in pagan territory and a Canaanite woman comes up to him. She is a Gentile, a non-Jew. In the culture of Jesus’ day, there was a prejudice against Gentiles, that they were unable to have a genuine relationship with God. For a while Jesus participates in this prejudice. He refuses to heal the woman’s child, saying that his ministry is only for the lost sheep of the House of Israel. But the woman persists, and in time Jesus recognizes her faith and heals her daughter.
As far as I can tell this is the only scene in the gospels in which Jesus changes his mind. Instead of relating to the woman with the label “Gentile,” he perceives her as a genuine woman of faith. What Jesus does in the Gospel, we are called to do. As followers of Jesus, we are asked to deal with people, not through the labels they bear, but as the people that they are.
For example, the label “Jew” still carries a negative association in many Christian circles. Even though Catholics have worked diligently since the Second Vatican Council to repudiate the erroneous claim that Jews are responsible for Jesus’ death, even though we have tried to echo the powerful statement of today’s second reading that the gifts and call of God to the Jewish people are irrevocable, that they still remain the beloved, chosen people of God, it is still easy to find slurs and jokes that characterize Jews as unbelievers, as money-grabbers, as people who would manipulate their own influence for their own benefit. To accept that prejudice is sinful and it is contrary to the Gospel. We who follow Christ are asked to deal with other people in truth, not according to the false and prejudicial labels, which are often found in our environment. If we claim to be believers, we must not say, “This is the way Jews are,” or “this is the way Moslems are,” or “this is the way alcoholics, or homosexuals or people of a different race are.” We must ask ourselves whether we are viewing others through our own real experience or through the prejudices that labels can convey.
To allow our lives be directed by the half-truths of labels is a serious flaw. It places us in direct opposition to the design of God.
God makes people. We make labels. So instead of letting our lives be directed by the prejudices that a label can carry, we are obliged to discover and to respect the real people God has made.
The Gospel and Boundaries
August 17, 2008
Matthew 15: 21 – 28
There are many ways to explain what it means to be a Christian, many paths by which we might describe how to follow Christ. But today’s Scriptures present us with a very practical description: a Christian is one who reaches across boundaries. We live in a world of boundaries. We are divided, time and again, one against another. Our planet is divided into different countries separated by distinct languages and customs. Our city is divided into neighborhoods. Some of us are white, others are black or yellow. Some of us are gay, others are straight. Some of us are rich, others are poor. Some of us are male, others are female. Sometimes the argument is made that these divisions are healthy and that we will be most happy and most safe when we remain separated from one another. When this viewpoint is translated into social policies, it gives rise to segregation, apartheid, or designing the master race. It is a sad fact of history that a society divided does not lead to peace but rather to violence, war, ethnic cleansing, genocide, or holocaust.
People of faith should be the first ones to recognize the fallacy of accepting divisions among us, because our Scriptures present to us with a vision of unity. In the first pages of the Bible creation is described as a gift from God in which all that is made is good. All humanity, male and female, are made in the image and likeness of God. The Hebrew prophets look forward to a day when all people will be one. Today’s first reading from Isaiah describes a day when all people will worship together on God’s holy mountain. So both in our origins and in our future the scriptures describe a unified world. But today’s world is one of many boundaries. And overcoming those boundaries is a real challenge.
In today’s Gospel Jesus struggles with boundaries. He withdraws from Israel to Canaanite country, and a Canaanite woman comes and asks him to heal her daughter. The Canaanites were not Jews. They were pagans who worshipped many gods. Their sacrifices were seen by Jews as abominations. Most Jews of the time would withdraw from Canaanites. They would not interact with them. Jesus seems at first to follow this approach. He does not respond to the woman. And when she presses her case, he insults her, calling her a dog. But the woman’s persistence, cleverness and faith win out in the end. Jesus heals her daughter. Jesus reaches across the boundary of religion, race, and gender and gives the woman an example of God’s love.
You and I, as followers of Christ, must imitate his example. To be a Christian, it is not sufficient simply to live peacefully in our own subdivision of the world. We must remember the intention of creation and the promise of that future day when all will be one. We must work to build God’s kingdom which is a kingdom of unity. We must do what we can to tear down the walls which divide us.
Parents here hold an essential responsibility. They are called to explain to their children the ways in which the world is divided and how it is God’s intention that those intentions cease. Young people returning to school – particularly high school and college—will enter an environment with much more diversity. Their faith calls them not simply to remain in the comfort of their own clique but to reach out to someone who is different, to try to build understanding and perhaps even friendship. All of us in our neighborhoods and in our jobs must remember the vision of Christ to treat those who are different from us not only with toleration but as children of God. In this political year, when we exercise our right to shape our government, our decisions should be guided by the gospel. Those candidates who call for inclusion and solidarity merit our support. Those who base their platforms on exclusion and fear do not reflect God’s vision for the world.
We live in a world marked by boundaries, but as Christians we understand that those divisions are not according to God’s will. We are called to build God’s kingdom, a kingdom where people can be one. To do this we must first identify who in our life is the stranger, the foreigner, the Canaanite. Then, following the example of Christ, we should reach across that boundary and offer an example of God’s love.