In Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Huck wrestles through a moral dilemma about demonstrating true friendship to a stigmatized person of his day – a man who bore a dual stigma of being black in a racist society and slavery in an exploitative one. To help his friend Jim escape meant violating not only human law but also divine law as it had been interpreted in that society, because to help a slave escape meant stealing property from his or her owner. Not only did Huck worry about God and about going to hell for obeying the impulse of his heart, but he also worried about what people would think of him. “It would get all around that Huck Finn helped a negro to et his freedom; and if I was eer to see anybody from that town again I’d be ready to get down and lick his boots for shame.” But such worries did not prevent him from doing what he knew to be right.
Jesus knew all about stigma. He never hesitated to move among the oppressed people of his day, including the most despised social outcasts. He went about his ministry without worrying about what others would say about his character, his motives, his righteousness. “If this man were a prophet,” said some, “he would have known who and what kind of woman this is who is touching him – that she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39). He also ignored the insinuations and seemed unconcerned about his reputation among the townspeople. “Look,” said those who criticized Jesus and passed judgment on him, “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” (Luke 7:34).
Jesus was not afraid of being called names, nor was he afraid to be identified with the most hated, discredited people in the society in which he lived. He cared about them. He felt their pain, knew their hunger and thirst, recognized their humanity, saw the image of God in them. In short, he loved them. And he longed to minister to them – even if others misunderstood and vilified him. Name calling was as common then as it is now, and to label someone with a scornful term identified with a stigmatized group has always been considered an extreme insult. Today, terms of insult are frequently associated with homosexuality – “queer,” “fag,” “dyke,” “lezbo.”
During the time that Jesus walked the earth, the stigmatized people were the Samaritans, and the term of insult was “You Samaritan!” Samaritans were half-breed leftovers from previous generations when God’s people were enslaved, raped, and plundered by the Assyrians. Not only were they bi-racial and therefore not clean, they were reminders of the horrible atrocities committed against the Israelites during that time. That’s what is so powerful about the story of the Good Samaritan. The hero in the story was one of the most despised people in all of the New Testament yet Jesus refused to dissociate himself from this disdained group of people that he loved.
Have our youth ministries become sanctified segregation machines? Why is it that most of the churches in the suburbs are all white? Why don’t diverse inner-city churches adopt-a-block in affluent neighborhoods? Why do LGBTQ students still avoid the church like the plague?
We should long for the day when people call us “faggots,” and “cutters,” and accuse us of having AIDS because of the company we keep and we aren’t compelled to defend ourselves because we don’t care what man has to say about us. I think if Jesus came back today you might find him hanging out at a Gay-Straight Alliance meeting or with kids who were at a skittles party the night before or out on the corner with all the smokers. You would probably be able to smell cigarette smoke on his robe so he’d be accused of being a smoker too…