From the moment we are born, we are put into categories. Before gender reveal parties became a fad, someone at your birth would have announced, “It’s a boy!” Or “It’s a girl!” Later we found ourselves in other categories. We were put into Mrs. Toth’s first grade… we rode bus 13… we were in the Blue Bird reading group. As time went on, perhaps someone might have described us as a “tom boy,” a “brain,” a “jock,” a “nerd,” or even a “Cat’lick.”
We were not only put into categories by other people, we put other people into categories as well. We learned words like “old fogy,” “city slicker”, “jerk,” “bully,” and even ethnic or racial slurs. The question arises: Why do we put people into categories? One reason is relatively simple: Human beings are so diverse, so complex, so unpredictable, they can be terrifying. We classify them in order to make them less bewildering or less scary. By categorizing people, we make them more manageable, more controllable. There is a down side (and it’s a BIG one) to doing this. Every time we put people into categories, we put artificial limits on their individuality and uniqueness. Thus we run the risk of missing the truth of who they really are.
Have you ever heard someone say (or have you ever said) something like this?
“She’s a girl, she can’t throw a baseball.”
“He’s a Democrat. You know what that means!”
“He’s a man—what did you expect?”
“She’s a nun; she’s no fun.”
If we look at Jesus in the Gospels, we see that people tried to put him into categories too. When Philip excitedly tells Nathaniel about Jesus of Nazareth, Nathaniel asks, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” (Jn. 1:45-46) … When the sinful woman anoints Jesus in the house of the Pharisee, the Pharisee thinks, “If Jesus were a prophet, he would know what sort of woman this is.” (Lk. 7:39) … Jesus’ enemies dismissed him as a “glutton” because he enjoyed food and drink… Even Jesus’ apostles tried to put Jesus into his proper place. When Jesus tells them he must go to Jerusalem and suffer and die, Peter says with gusto, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” (Mt. 16:21-22).
There is evidence in the Gospel that even Jesus struggled with putting other people into categories. When the Syro-Phoenician woman begs him to cure her daughter, Jesus, at first, refuses to do so because she is not of the house of Israel. But her spunky response to his refusal ends up altering not only his perception of her, but also his perception of himself and his entire mission! Most of the time in the Gospel, however, Jesus is shown refusing to put people into categories. He publicly praised the Roman centurion for his great compassion towards his servant and for his strong faith. He saw children not as non-entities, but as precious human beings who could teach adults a lesson or two about humility, innocence, and trust. Jesus refused to see women as second-class citizens. Rather he treated them with respect, offering them genuine friendship. Consequently, many women became Jesus’ closest and most loyal followers. Even on the cross, Jesus saw the thief being crucified next to him as “good” and gave him a promissory ticket for heaven.
What are some of the factors that prevent us from relating to individuals as individuals? The first two factors are time and energy. It takes time to get to know people. It takes energy too. It’s much simpler and quicker just to assume we know who people are—even without meeting them on a level where self-revelation has time to take place! Another factor that interferes with getting to know individuals as individuals is this: people are constantly changing. What was true about someone a year or ten years ago may not be true today. But it’s easier to keep people frozen in the past than to discover how they have changed and grown.
As Christians, we believe God knows us as individuals, as unique human beings, as one-of-a-kind-ers. If we are made in God’s image, then aren’t we also called to relate to others as individuals—as best we can? In fact, learning to relate to others as individuals has a name: it’s called love.
+ Name some of the categories you put people into… like old/young… inexperienced/wise… a certain racial, ethnic, or religious group… a certain occupation
+ Are there individuals in your life right now whom you have put into categories? Who are they? Why have you done this?
+ Have you ever experienced someone putting YOU into a category? How did that make you feel?
Here’s an old hymn written from the 19th Century: “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy.” The original version was written by Frederick W. Faber. It is sung here by Ed Bolduc. God doesn’t put people into categories because of the breadth of God’s point of view and the wideness of God’s love and mercy…
I invite you to write a comment below to anything in this blog today.