The humorist and actor Robert Benchely once wrote, “There may be said to be two classes of people in the world; those who constantly divide the people of the world into two classes, and those who do not.”
Benchely then drew the droll conclusion that “Both classes are extremely unpleasant to meet socially, leaving practically no one in the world whom one cares very much to know.”
Benchley’s characterization of the world is funny because he, by dividing people in such a way, has unwittingly placed himself in the first of the two classes, among those one cares very little to know. But, of course, there was nothing unwitting about it, which is what makes his remark so witty.
With his self-deprecating humor, Benchely was taking on a serious subject: the human proclivity to exclude people who differ from us. If we can classify someone, put them into a box and label them, it becomes easier to discount them. They are, after all, just liberals … or conservatives … or whites … or blacks … or Mexicans … or …
In recent years, some politicians have used this human inclination to “otherize” people to their advantage. It has become part and parcel of the political playbook. It is, however, nothing new.
In societies with clear-cut class divisions, both ancient and modern, otherizing people was embedded in the culture itself. People were Rajanyas or Shudras, aristocrats or laborers, the educated or the ignorant. Societies have always had their untouchables as well as their unreachables.
It was clearly so in first century Palestine, when Jesus emerged on the scene. Otherizing people was a way of life. People were not only divided into a caste-like structure with landowners, priests, merchants, artisans, peasants, and slaves but also into the categories of “clean” and “unclean.”
For one prominent group, the Pharisees, avoiding “unclean” people was a way of life. Their very name means “Separated Ones.” They otherized people with intention, determination and, sometimes, brutality. Their reasons for doing so were ostensibly religious, but in practice it was also a powerful tool for guarding their own social status.
Jesus, however, didn’t play the game. He was constantly upsetting the otherizers’ applecart and mixing everyone up. This made him suspect in the eyes of the influencers, as it always does when people deny or defy an established social class system. One can hear the consternation in the Pharisees’ voices when they said, “This man welcomes sinners” – read “unclean people” – “and eats with them.”
Or this, from a prominent community member: “If this man [Jesus] were a prophet, he would know who is touching him and what kind of woman she is…” In the eyes of such people, Jesus was a trouble-maker and a rabble-rouser, with no respect for cultural norms.
They were not altogether wrong. If Jesus wasn’t a rabble-rouser, he was at least a people-raiser. And there were some cultural norms he clearly did not respect. He did, however, respect people, like the woman whose presence at a social gathering so offended Jesus’s host.
Jesus and his followers quickly became known for their disregard of the social standing codes. They met with untouchables, the (by societal standards) irreligious, women, whom Jesus counted among his closest friends and followers, and even with some Gentiles! From the perspective of the establishment, Jesus had “chosen them over us,” which was simply unforgiveable.
The good news Jesus spoke and modeled was of a God who is radically inclusive, a God who “receives sinners.” He does not treat people differently, based on their race or gender or standing but gladly welcomes all who will come to him. Jesus modeled this very clearly, announcing: “…the one who comes to me I will never send away” (John 6:37).
For people who had been sent away so often, who had been taught that God didn’t want anything to do with them, this was good news. It is good news that the church of Jesus must announce and live today. Whenever the church joins in otherizing people, it denies in practice the gospel it proclaims, but if it welcomes “the other,” it incarnates the good news in a way people can understand – just as Jesus did.
First published by Gatehouse Media