In the fifteenth chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus finds himself—for about the hundredth time—confronted by the Pharisees. First century Pharisees, like all Palestinian Jews in that day, are faced with a real problem: secular culture is challenging their religious lives. (Does that sound familiar?) For years the Romans have ruled Palestine, and for centuries before that, the Greeks were in charge. During all that time, Greek culture, with its idols, its materialism, and its tendency toward sexual license have filtered into Jewish life. Virtue is regarded as quaint. Vice is often redefined as freedom. What has traditionally been forbidden is now accepted without question. To the Pharisees, it feels as if their world is a ship slowly but surely filling with water.
The Pharisees in Jesus’ day respond with a vengeance by teaching a renewed religious identity as Jews. They encourage strict observance of personal purity and dietary laws. They also don attire that accentuates their Jewishness, wearing long, traditional robes and placing phylacteries—small leather boxes containing passages of scripture—on their foreheads and arms. They insist that the way to preserve Jewish life is to circle the wagons and keep outsiders and outside influences at bay.
In today’s Gospel we can infer from the words of Jesus something else to which the Pharisees are prone. Jesus says to those around him, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles…Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.” Jesus is not in the habit of addressing nonexistent situations. In other words, along with their rigid and defensive religious observance, the Pharisees apparently have sharp tongues. Not only do they redouble their own religious observance as an alternative to the world; not only do they teach and counsel their followers that fidelity to the faith as they understand it draws one close to God; they also, with a sneer and a scoff, ridicule, malign, dismiss, and debase those who do not see the world as they do.
There is a sociological term for this: “othering.”[i] Othering occurs when structures and practices of one group define those not of one’s group as outsiders. To some extent, this is unavoidable. If I am not of your group, then I am by definition outside of it. But othering goes further than this. Othering defines difference as bad, unworthy, or dangerous.
Othering is closely related to another sociological concept: “belonging.” Belonging is, of course, when affiliation with a group—family, faith community, sports team, you name it—grants people a sense of value, comfort and security of place. Of itself, belonging is good and even necessary. We each have a deep need for a place to stand. We need emotional, spiritual, and psychological homes just as much as we need a physical roof over our heads. Especially in times of distress—times like our own and times like those in which Jesus and the Pharisees live—belonging is a lifeline. I don’t know about you, but my family, my friendship circles, my belonging to the community of Christ Church Cathedral, have never been more important to my sense of self and my location in the world.
As necessary as belonging is, too often its light casts the dark shadow of othering. In a usual year, we see this fairly innocuously during football season, when fans of one team regard fans of another not as sporting opponents, but as demons belched forth from the bowels of hell. Othering perverts belonging into something totemic and tribal. When it occurs at the level of sports, we may most often be able to chuckle, but in other arenas of life it is devastating and deadly. Taken to its extreme, othering grants one group a sense of power and invincibility by doing violence to another group. At their roots, racism, religious warfare, and cultural marginalization are all expressions of othering. They occur when one group’s sense of belonging becomes predicated on defining others as, at best, less-than and, at worst, a threat to be isolated, suppressed, or even eliminated.
And here is the clincher that Jesus grasps and reminds us today, a reminder we would do well to heed: Words are the gasoline poured on the fire of othering. Our rhetoric is not incidental. Our words are not throwaway lines that dissolve into the ether. As Jesus says, “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart.” Our othering words breathe into the world our secret fears and insecurities as animus and venom towards those not like us. Those words validate and grant permission, both to ourselves and to those who hear us, to act out in the real world.
Jesus speaks two thousand years ago, but he might as well be talking to us today. Today, othering language rolls off tongues from the water cooler to the heights of power in Washington, D.C. It is an equal opportunity pursuit. Worst of all are the dehumanizing othering comments about people of different political persuasions, lifestyles, or religious faiths made by Christian leaders. From the mouths of pastors, sometimes even from the pulpit, come words that characterize and caricature those who are different as dangerous, immoral, and so devalued as to suggest that they aren’t even sisters and brothers in our fragile humanity.
The casualness with which we have allowed the blessing of our belonging to morph into the curse—and it is assuredly a curse—of othering those different from us is, I am convinced, the tragedy of this era. Where we think we are being casually clever or self-affirming, future generations will look back and see our othering of those different as short-sighted, emotionally immature, and wrong.
Back in the Gospel, the second half of today’s reading provides the poignant antidote to othering. Jesus is approached by someone who is triply other: a foreigner, a gentile, and one whose daughter is possessed by a demon. At first, Jesus himself, just after warning against the Pharisees, engages in exactly the othering he has warned against. He ignores the woman as though she is not worthy of his consideration, and when she persists Jesus tells the woman he has been sent to tend only to the group of his own belonging. Finally and shockingly, in his fatigue and exhaustion, Jesus literally dehumanizes her. But the woman speaks again, and this time Jesus sees in her need and vulnerability the light of God’s truth. The woman is not other. She belongs. Indeed, in God there is no other. All are beloved. All belong. All are within God’s embrace.
The lesson is radical. The Pharisees’ response to the challenge of the surrounding culture—the response that rigidly defines belonging and circles the wagons to keep “the other” at bay—is not only wrong but leads to the breakdown of human bonds of empathy and understanding. It leads, as it has always led, to destruction. The faithful response, which Jesus himself learns and embraces today, is instead to open circles that are closed, to broaden the bounds of belonging, to recognize that, no matter what our differences—religious, ideological, racial, cultural, political—we are all God’s children.
Our words have power to shape the boundaries of our world. Before we speak, before we applaud the words of another, we should search our hearts, from which our words proceed. And in our hearts we must find a place of belonging for the other so that what we speak does not defile ourselves and our world but graces all of God’s children.