What’s So Wrong With Stereotypes?

Second Sunday After Epiphany

The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”
Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida. Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.
“Come and see,” said Philip. When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here truly is an Israelite in whom there is no deceit.”
“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.
Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel.”
Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.”
He then added, “Very truly I tell you,you will see ‘heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” John 1:43-51

(Paul wrote to Titus) One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons” Titus 1:12

“Logic, my dear Zoe, merely enables one to be wrong with authority.” -Second Doctor in “The Wheel in Space”

What’s so wrong with stereotyping? If we are honest with ourselves, we know that we all do it at times. Because this behavior is so universal, social scientists believe that it must have an evolutionary advantage. It seems logical that in primitive societies, it would be very helpful to have a quick means to differentiate members of your own tribe from those of another tribe who might mean to cause you harm. Hunter-gatherers who were too friendly with strangers wandering into their territories might find themselves not surviving long enough to reproduce and pass on their trusting genes. So over the course of centuries, the tendency to mistrust strangers, especially those who are different in observable ways, becomes amplified.

Not only do we all have the tendency to make pre-judgements about people based on our stereotypes of them, we have probably also been stereotyped ourselves. My mother became friends with my third grade teacher, who moved to Alabama from Ohio and was surprised to find that her students were not all barefort and suffering from hookworm.  As a young adult in Kentucky, I shared an apartment with another young adult who was pianist in a black church. I remember meeting some of the leaders from her church who, upon hearing my Alabama accent, asked me in all sincerity if my family owned any slaves. For several years I deliberately (but unsuccessfully) strove to eliminate my deep-South accent, just so people would not make incorrect and disparaging assumptions about my intelligence, habits, or behavior. Having been the victim of stereotyping myself has made me especially sensitive to moticing it when it happens to others.

Stereotyping others is a natural, even logical behavior. But just because something is natural or logical does not necessarily make it morally or even objectively right. When Philip told Nathanael that he believed that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah, Nathanael didn’t believe him. It seemed that people living in Bethsaida held negative stereotypes about the character of people living in Nazareth. If you were from Nazareth, you weren’t a good person. We aren’t told of the reasoning behind the stereotyping. Were they especially poor? Uneducated? Troublemakers? The text doesn’t say. What it does say is that Philip responds by telling Nathanael that he should come see for himself, and Philip does. He has a life-changing conversation with Jesus, and becomes one of his first followers. What might have happened if Nathanael, because of his preconceived ideas about people from Nazareth, hadn’t decided to come and see for himself? He would have certainly have missed out “bigly”!

Jesus seems to have paid little attention to stereotypes when it came to inviting other people to join his inner circle. From the hints we get here and there in the gospels, they seem to have been a very diverse group, ranging on the political spectrum from Matthew the tax collector to Simon the Zealot. Matthew would have viewed people like Simon as violent revolutionaries, while Simon must have viewed people like Matthew as greedy collaborators. And I like to think that both Matthew and Simon changed their opinions of each other after spending three years together on the road with Jesus. That’s usually what happens when you “come and see” for yourself rather than unquestioningly clinging to stereotypes. That’s what happened to my third grade teacher. It’s what happened to me and some of my classmates when my school was integrated in the sixties. It’s what often happens when people travel. Friendship and/or working together for a common purpose can be a very effective antidote to all kinds of stereotypical beliefs and behaviors.

I don’t think God has ever been a particular fan of stereotypes, either. As God told the prophet Samuel regarding the selection of David as king, “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” God definitely never bought into the “oldest, most responsible” stereotype, at least according to the Genesis stories of Abel vs Cain, Isaac vs Ishmael, Jacob vs Esau, and Joseph and his many older brothers. Stereotypes are not just mistaken, but sinful when they prevent us from doing things God has repeatedly commanded us to do. Do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly. Treat other people the way you would want to be treated. Where stereotypes collide with the practice of compassion, it’s pretty clear to me which one God prefers. And if we choose obedience to behaviors prescribed by a stereotype rather than obedience to behaviors God prescribes, isn’t that dangerously close to idolatry?

There are times when stereotypes may serve a useful purpose, but they should always be viewed with suspicion. When stereotypes are never questioned, they can be very harmful to the stereotyper as well as the stereotypee. Nathanael would never have met Jesus if he hadn’t been willing to “come and see” for himself.  Furthermore, stereotyping by one group usually leads to counter-stereotyping by the other group in an escalating spiral.  Walls between the two groups are thrown up higher and higher, until they eventually come tumbling down, crushing everyone in the vicinity.

“Come and see” is still pretty good advice. As I understand it, God is more interesting in taking down walls than putting them up. I think he wants us to join him in his efforts. And that’s good news to me.


Honor Thy Father and Thy Mother

Honor your father and your mother, so that you may live long in the land the Lord your God is giving you. Exodus 20:12

What does “honor” mean? The Ten Commandments were originally written in Hebrew, and English translations don’t always give a complete understanding of a word or phrase. Here, the word used is “kbd”,which interestingly enough has an etiology related to the words “heavy” and “liver”. That isn’t particularly surprising considering that in ancient times being heavy meant that you were rich enough to afford a surplus of food. Eli was described as being “heavy“, which is why he broke his neck when he fell over backward. When a king or other prominent person gave a banquet, honor might be shown by the host to a particular guest by sending choice morsels to the honoree’s table.  Think of Joseph sending his half-brothers portions from his table and giving an extra-large serving to his full brother Benjamin.

So the idea of “honoring father and mother” meant first of all seeing that their physical needs were taken care of. In a time when there was no Social Security, no Medicare, pensions, or 401Ks, it was up to one’s (adult) children to provide for their aging parents’ needs for food, shelter, and clothing. Jesus criticized certain religious leaders of his time for using God as an excuse to weasel out of this responsibility. “For Moses said, ‘Honor your Father and your mother,’ and, ‘Whoever curses his father or mother must be put to death.’ But you say that if a man says to his father or mother, ‘Whatever you would have received from me is Corban’ (that is, a gift committed to God), he is no longer permitted to do anything for his father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.

But the concept goes further than merely seeing that the physical needs of one’s parents are attended to; the attitude in which these services are performed are just as important. I like this reference to a passage in the Jerusalem Talmud, which says that it is possible to feed one’s parent succulent hens and still inherit hell, while a person can make his parent work on a grindstone and still inherit paradise. The passage continues to explain that the child gives a father succulent food, but when the father asks where the food is from, the son answers “Quiet, old man. A dog eats quietly, so you eat quietly.” This son inherits hell. However, the second case involved the son who worked at the grindstone. When the king summoned grindstone workers to the palace to endure back-breaking work, the son told the father to take the son’s place at the family’s own grindstone and to work, so that the father would not suffer or be treated in an undignified manner before the king. This son inherits paradise.”  A better translation for “honor” might be “treat with dignity”. Don’t treat your parents in ways that demean them.  Or as my Asian friends might express it, don’t cause them to lose face.

Honoring one’s parents doesn’t necessarily mean doing everything they say, or agreeing with them about everything. There’s the story of the twelve-year old Jesus in the temple, who got so interested in theological conversations with the rabbis that he forgot where he is supposed to be. Apparently, when Jesus started his ministry, his family did not think it was such a good idea. Mark relates an incident where his mother and brothers came to get him, because they worried he was having some kind of mental breakdown. When told that your mother and brothers are asking for you” he responded, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” . Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”Jesus also used some rather strong hyperbole when he talked about the cost of discipleship, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters–yes, even their own life–such a person cannot be my disciple.” There was clearly some family conflict going on at this time about what Jesus was doing and where it would eventually lead. Yet despite the disagreement, Jesus honored his mother. He did not ignore her, demean her, or neglect her. One of the last things Jesus did before dying on the cross was to ask one of his best friends to take care of her.

“Honor thy father and thy mother”. Exactly what that looks like may look different in modern times, but the principle still applies. Food, shelter, and clothing may be less of a concern than they were in ancient times, but emotional needs such as love and belongingness and self esteem are perhaps more important than ever. Now, go call your mother.

Nevertheless, She Persisted

Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost

Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.
Matthew 15:21-28

The story of the Canaanite woman is both interesting and troubling. The way that Jesus behaves toward the woman seems out of character for him. At first he ignores her plea for help and then he tells her his mission isn’t to help “her kind” of people. He comes pretty close to calling her a derogatory name. Nevertheless, she persists, and seems to show more politeness toward Jesus than he does to her. Jesus responds by apparently changing his mind about who is deserving of his help, praises her for her faith, and there’s a nice happily-ever-after-ending to the story.  It reminds me of the parable of the unjust judge, which doesn’t seem to paint God in a very good light, either.

The traditional interpretation of the story- that Jesus was just testing his disciples and/or the woman in order to teach them a lesson- has always created cognitive dissonance for me. To put it bluntly, it seems cruel, and I see Jesus as being “never cruel or cowardly”.  I never have been very successful with explaining away things in the Bible which bother me, nor tossing out the bits and pieces of it that are hard to understand. Instead I wrestle with them, sometimes for a very long time, until I can come to a conclusion that makes sense to me. I often find that the struggle results in a quantum leap in my faith understanding. No pain, no gain. Like Jacob, I won’t let go without a blessing.

So here’s what I am thinking today about this passage. Orthodox theology teaches that Jesus was a paradox, fully human and fully divine simultaneously. I think that the description of Jesus as “He, being in very nature God” refers to the essential character of God, which is not omniscience or omnipotence, but love. I think that the human Jesus was a product of his culture, which taught him that the world was flat and that Jews were superior to their Canaanite neighbors. There’s a peculiar story in Genesis where Noah’s son Ham walks in on his drunken, naked father, and when Noah wakes up, he curses his grandson Canaan into slavery to his brothers.  The book of Deuteronomy has God commanding the extermination of the Canaanites inhabiting the Promised Land, which Joshua attempts to do as wholeheartedly and bloodily as any of the Game of Thrones characters.  The few who manage to trick Joshua’s invading armies into sparing them are sentenced to be “hewers of wood and carriers of water” in perpetuity. Saul loses his kingship for sparing  King Agag of the Amalekites (a subgroup of Canaanite). Jesus would have heard all these stories, and many more like them,  and I think up until this point he had not really examined them in light of his growing understanding of who he was and what his purpose was in God’s redemptive plan. I think that his encounter with the Canaanite woman was an “eureka moment” for Jesus. The persistence of the Canaanite mother changed the way he thought about insiders and outsiders.

Some may have difficulty with my explanation, arguing that Jesus was sinless and therefore could not have been prejudiced. Which is worse, prejudice or purposeful cruelty in the form of testing, even if it is supposedly “for the greater good”? Perhaps prejudice itself is not a sin; it is when we fail to question our prejudices, or when we act on them in harmful ways, that we fall into sin. I don’t think there is anyone who can truthfully claim to be completely free of prejudice, of making assumptions about people we don’t know. We are all products of our cultures, with a natural tendency to be tribalistic, to be suspicious of people who are not part of our group. But when we get to know an outsider, we begin to question our pre-judgements and assumptions about “those people”. Couldn’t that be what happened to Jesus?

I grew up a white person in the segregated South. My fourth grade history book, “Know Alabama”, imagined happy, contented slaves, portrayed the Civil War as a battle for state’s rights, and described the KKK as a necessary and good constraint on our carpetbagger oppressors. Many schools were named for Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and other heroes of the Confederacy. My Southern Baptist Sunday School teachers applied the “curse of Ham” story to explain that those of African descent were meant to be subservient to those of European descent. My mother, who was progressive enough to be threatened with cross-burning in her yard, once hesitated before handing me the phone to talk to a black classmate who had called to thank my father for his help in getting a job. She hesitated, but she thought about it and handed me the phone.

At some point, I, like my mother before me, and I think like Jesus in this story, began to question what we had been taught. My elementary school was segregated, but my high school was not, and I met black people who were smart and funny and kind and not in the least inferior to me. I read widely from a variety of sources, and began to see history through different perspectives. I also read the Bible quite a lot, and began to notice things my Sunday School teachers hadn’t mentioned. For example, when Miriam and Aaron complained about Moses’s Cushite wife, God struck Miriam with leprosy as a punishment. I couldn’t quite follow the curse of Ham logic, either. Not only did it seem overly punitive to punish all of Ham’s descendents for what seemed to me to be a minor infraction, I didn’t see where Africa came into the picture at all. There were many other Bible stories involving African people in positions of honor and leadership, like the Queen of Sheba who visited Solomon, and the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts. Eventually my own observations and Bible study led me to the place where I decided my textbooks and Sunday School teachers were wrong. But my questioning of tradition began with my first contact with black classmates.

Jesus was no stranger to questioning authority. In fact, there are several examples of him doing that in the very same chapter in which we find today’s story. He rejects both (the misuse of) Scripture and traditional purity laws as the basis for living a life pleasing to God. So it doesn’t take much of a stretch of the imagination for me to think that Jesus, when confronted by the Canaanite woman, might have begun to question what he’d been taught about the proper place of Canaanites. He might have started out holding the prejudices common to his culture, but that’s not where he ended up, and that’s not how he behaved. His essential character overcame his learned prejudices. He healed the woman’s daughter, and he praised her faith. The writer of Luke tells a similar story, this time involving the faith of a Roman centurion.

From what I can infer, at some point in his ministry, Jesus moved from an exclusionary to an inclusionary understanding of God’s grace. Perhaps it was a direct consequence of the unnamed Canaanite woman’s persistence, although we can’t know for sure. What we can be sure of is this: No one is outside God’s grace, and there are no second-class citizens in the Kingdom of God. This is made especially clear in the story John tells of the woman at the well.    Paul, whose letters predate the writing of the gospels, writes in soaring poetry, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

“Nevertheless, she persisted”. It’s a pretty amazing story to think that this woman played the role of teacher to the son of God and caused him to change his mind. I’m impressed…and encouraged. There’s a lot of bad stuff going on in the world today, lots of fear and prejudice and hate. There are people who think God’s grace is meant for them, not others, those who want to exclude rather than include.  It’s scary and depressing and overwhelming at times. But I believe that change can come, not by power and control, but by love.  Persist. “Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”



Samuel: Be Careful What You Wish For


So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah.  They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead[b] us, such as all the other nations have.” But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.  As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.” Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king.  He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: He will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots.  Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plow his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots.  He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.” When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the Lord. The Lord answered, “Listen to them and give them a king.”

Samuel marks the transition from the time of the judges to the time of the kings. In the Christian Bible, it is divided into two shorter books. First Samuel begins with stories about Samuel, a priest who could be considered the last of the judges, and ends with the death of Saul, Israel’s first king. Second Samuel covers most of the reign of King David, arguably Israel’s greatest king.What’s interesting about the stories in the book of Samuel is how realistic they are. Saul and David are both portrayed “warts and all”, and they both had plenty of warts.

Although Saul starts out as a charismatic and effective leader, his mental condition deteriorates and he becomes violent and unstable.  David is serving in court as Saul’s armor-bearer and music therapist, as well as being married to Saul’s daughter Michal and best friends with Saul’s son Jonathan.  One minute he’s a pretty nice guy, and the next he is trying to pin David against the wall with his spear. David escapes with the help of Michal and Jonathan, and Saul seems to spend more time and effort chasing David around the country than fighting Israel’s enemies. He also kills people he suspects of helping David, and gives David’s wife to another man.  Finally, in desperation after he has completely lost control of the country, he consults a medium in order to conjure up dead Samuel for advice. That goes predictably badly for him, and he and his sons die in a losing battle with the Philistines soon after. I don’t think Saul was what the people had in mind when they asked God for a king “like all the other nations”.

David, for the most part, is a good king. He’s certainly more effective than Saul in terms of military success; he almost always behaves honestly and honorably; and he is very sincere in his faith in and commitment to God. When he’s wrong, he admits it and strives to make things right with God and others.  Unfortunately, he seems to have the same problem that many men who rise to positions of power today seem to have, and that’s an apparently uncontrollable urge to have multiple sexual partners. This, of course, turns out especially badly for Uriah the Hittite, but it also results in an incredibly dysfunctional royal family and eventually in civil war. The quality of kingly leadership will continue to mostly decline over the next few hundred years, as recorded in the book of Kings.  Ben Myers, who tweeted through the Bible, summarized the centuries from Saul to Zedekiah this way: 1. So you really want a monarchy, huh? Don’t say I didn’t warn you 2. I told you so.

The people of the twelve tribes of Israel were tired of being pushed around by neighboring tribes competing for the same resources. They thought the best way to stop that would be to have a king: a strong leader who could lead them to victorious conquest of all their enemies, and they could then live in peace and plenty “under their own vines and fig trees”. They didn’t think that a king would also appropriate their resources and use them to further his own agenda. They didn’t think that a king might have feet of clay, and make choices that would cause tremendous suffering among ordinary people. As we might say today, they didn’t think of all the dominoes that would fall, and in which directions..So why did God allow them to have a king in the first place?  What is the writer of Samuel trying to tell us?

Things weren’t going so swimmingly without central leadership in the time of the judges, as evidenced by the repeated “In those days, there was no king- every man did as he pleased” after some particularly horrible happening. Perhaps God, like a good teacher, has to “monitor and adjust” in his earthbound classroom. Perhaps even flawed kings are better than “every man for himself” anarchy. Perhaps God was willing to take a chance that at least some of  Israel’s kings might be more focused on serving others than furthering their own interests. I think that God gives us choice, and  it’s up to us to choose wisely. And I hope that’s good news.