There’s a phrase that’s been running through my head for the last two weeks: ‘those people’. You know the people I’m talking about – those people who drive too fast, those people who drive too slow, those people who make me uncomfortable, who when I see them coming I think ‘oh boy, here we go again…’, those people who talk to much – or are too quiet. The list goes on and on.
There can be whole professions who are ‘those people’. Police officers, judges, who all must be corrupt in some way. Those people who are clearly too lazy get a respectable job and instead end up working in one of those jobs I look down on. Those people from another country who don’t bother to learn my language. Those people who cross the border illegal. Those people whose culture is so alien to me that I just don’t like being around them.
Those people who voted for Trump. Those people who voted for Clinton. Those people who voted for Obama. Those people who voted for Bush. Those people who wasted their vote on a third-party vote.
We’ve seen that phrase in the last couple of weeks. It doesn’t matter where you fall on the spectrum – we all have some group, some professions, even some cultures that we label as ‘those people’. And we saw where it ended up – one group of people streaming out from their anger against another group, both of whom took up the battle cry against their version of ‘those people’. And it wasn’t just protest, it was violence, it was the claim that ‘those people’ were not worthy of care, of respect.
And here’s an ugly word: racism. Because that’s something undergirding this movement of our hearts, that lies beneath the label of ‘those people’.
If we want to claim that this is only a problem for other people, we’re lying to ourselves. The fact of the matter is that when I look into my own heart, when we look inward, we use that phrase ‘those people’. And there are whole swaths of people who we just don’t want to be around, who make us uncomfortable.
And it isn’t just here in the United States, not just in Charlottesville. There was an report this week trumpeting the end of Downs Syndrome in another country. At first glance, this seemed worthy of celebration, until you start reading and realize that the method to eliminate Downs Syndrome is abortion, the ending of the lives of ‘those people’ before they’ve even been born. Because ‘those people’ couldn’t possibly add anything to the world or live lives of worth, right?
We see in Scriptures today the Canaanite woman who comes before Jesus. She is one of ‘those people’ – who don’t worship properly, apart from the people of Israel. And she wants help from the miracle worker whose fame has spread across land – ‘please help my daughter.’
The disciples try to send her away but she won’t go– she persists. And in the midst of all this, Jesus puts to words the sentiment that is hidden in the hearts of the disciples: ‘you’re one of those people – we don’t give the things reserved to the children of Israel to your kind’. And she responds, gives this amazing statement of faith: ‘even the dogs deserve some scraps’.
I imagine that Jesus, having laid bare the thoughts of the Apostles, now turns to her. He’s received her statement – made for her sake and for the hearing of the Apostles – and He affirms both her faith and His mission to offer healing and salvation to all peoples. ‘How great is your faith!’ – and her daughter is healed.
Behind the phrase ‘those people’, those whom we’ve labeled, separated ourselves from – there is a hidden temptation of contempt. ‘Those people’ aren’t worthy of my presence, of my love. They just need to go away. And Christ calls that out today, to His disciples then and to us now.
In the first reading today, the prophet Isaiah speaks the words of the Lord that ‘my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples’. And we see written elsewhere from Saint Paul that there is no longer slave, freeman, Greek, Jew, man or woman. Of course, we all fall into these kinds of categories – but they are no longer to be sources of division.
What do we do about this? How do I respond to the reality that in my heart lies this evil, that in my life I have participated in these activities, I have spoken these words, or I have simply stood silently by while others do so? What can I do to break down the power of the phrase ‘those people’?
First in foremost, we need to recognize that we ourselves are ‘those people’. This is most evident in the sacrament of Confession – where we walk in, saying “bless me Father for I have sinned…. I’m one of ‘those people’”. And the Lord responds as He did for the Canaanite woman: ‘welcome! My healing is for you too – in the amount you need, with abundance and given in joy’.
We need to go to the sacrament and admit ‘I have been one of those people, I have been one who has caused division, who has let it fester in my presence, who has not spoken out against it.’ We need to confess this sin, for it is present not just in our country, not just in our state. It is present in this very room, in our parishes, in our very families. We need to confess our contempt for our brothers and sisters.
We need to lay this on the altar, admit our powerlessness to change ourselves or others – but with confidence in God, ask Him to come down and bless us, our families, our parishes, our world. We need to beg God to heal us, to make this house a house for all peoples.
One of the great things we celebrate in our faith, most especially in baptism, is that we are not ‘those people’ but rather we are His people. And that’s an invitation made for all – that we may be joined to Christ. And Saint Paul’s exhortation against division is no more evident that when we look at the saints across history – we see a rainbow of colors, a plethora of languages, and representation of so many cultures and countries. We see this even in the people gathered at an average parish Mass.
Christ reminds us that He wants to offer His love to all, regardless of skin color, culture, language, history, or sins. We are no longer ‘those people’, we are His!
As we celebrate Mass, as we see a country full of people yelling and shouting – unable to hear ourselves for all the anger that is festering and being brought to the surface – may we ask the Lord to make us that voice in the wilderness, a wilderness yet devoid of grace but thirsting for it nonetheless. May we be given the grace to offer a better way, even as we repent of the times when we have participated in contempt and division, in separation from others. May we proclaim the goodness we have received, the goodness that has been bestowed on us.
Today we celebrate what we see in the story of Jesus and the Canaanite woman, we celebrate our part in that – because we too have been labeled by others as ‘those people’. And yet God has called us out of that vicious cycle, making us His own. Let us proclaim that Good News, that we are His people, that this offer is made for all through baptism into the Body of Christ – that this house may be a house of prayer, for all peoples.