When we encounter other people, our incredible brains rush to process what they mean to us. It rushes to categorize the person, using the categories that we’ve set up over time. “Like Me”, “Not Like Me” are the most basic ones, and I heard a study that even infants show signs of using these filters. Over time we develop more sophisticated versions, although most of us retain that primal dichotomy as the “root directory” of our system. People fall into the “Like Me” or “Not Like Me” categories for a breathtakingly wide variety of causes, ranging from ethnic distinctions to the type of music the prefer, the sorts of foods they eat and the ways they would imagine our shared public life together. Not all of these are trivial.
J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter universe played with this pretty well with the “sorting hat” scenes. Sure, there’s some trivial stuff there, sorting people based on style—but it also carried character implications as well. One of the fascinating turns in the series was how Rowling later played on the stereotypes of the sorting—it turned out that the lines between good and evil weren’t laid out precisely as the early scenes seemed to portray. The failure of both heroic and villainous characters to realize that gave the stories serious emotional weight to play around with.
Our own propensity for categorization extends deeply into our religious lives as well, and we’ve been remarkably creative in our invention of divisions and distinctions. Dogma and practice each have their own way of cutting the deck, and style has its say as well in how we perceive the categories of religious practice and the communities that pursue them. Not all of these are trivial either—although some of them are.
Even within religious communities, within congregations, people who are gathered together, presumably with substantial common ground, there are plenty of ways to chop things up. Although Luther’s claim that each of us is simultaneously sinner and saint certainly has merit, we generally see the sinners and saints as different categories of people, and can find people in the church that match our conception of each without difficulty. Perhaps its the type of sin that we use to create the dividing line, or perhaps the intensity of its effects. I think the public/private nature of wrongdoing has often been a categorical marker, and there are others, too. It’s easy to peg a brother in the “sinner” category if he has some other “Not Like Me” markers.
One of the incredible features of the story of Jesus is his propensity to cut against these divisions, or to upend them. Jesus reminds the baffled religious folk that Zacchaeus is “also a son of Abraham”. He proclaims that he has not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance—while making those very sinners his most trusted disciples.
Jesus has a different way of seeing people. He seems to have a particular way of cutting through the externals, the masks that hide people, and he has a way of seeing something more essential, more human. He ignores the lenses that would cast people in a favorable or unfavorable light, and sees them for who they really are. This shouldn’t be that surprising; we’ve known since the time of David that “humans look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart” (1 Sam 16:7).
Perhaps it’s too much to ask that we learn to do the same; after all, we don’t have the same kind of access to the heart, do we? But maybe it’s enough for us to at least hold our judgements in check a bit, to recognize that what we see about people isn’t necessarily the whole story. If we can do that, we keep the door open for not only what God might do in their stories, but through us in their story. Holding back our judgements (or at least knowing that our conclusions are at best provisional and shouldn’t be held too tightly) allows us to be open to participating in God’s work. It puts us in a posture of missional readiness, so that we’re more ready to respond to possibilities. We’re ready for the opportunities to bless their lives that might come our way.