We are introduced to the concept of “chosen people” almost as soon as the bible opens. Though the earth is covered with the children of God there is one line (Isaac and Jacob’s) of one family (Sarah and Abraham’s) that is chosen to do a specific work for God. They are not chosen for their strength or prowess. They are landless nomads, and not by choice. They lie to survive, are often chased from place to place, have to deal and negotiate to even have a place to bury their dead, and suffer from extreme family dysfunction. By no means are these people the best God has to work with. And even within this deeply imperfect family God chooses the weak, younger sons to carry on the covenant. The usual tenor of the ancient myths is turned on its head. These people are not royalty. They are not demi-gods blessed with supernatural strength or cunning or some other gift that would be taken for granted must be had in order to serve a God. They are nobodies. And even as nobodies, God chooses the nobody among the nobodies to carry on the covenant.
But God is not done yet. Just when the reader has adapted to this perplexing narrative, and begins to be assured they understand the story and characters—which ones are good and which bad—it is all flipped on its head again as the tragedies of Hagar, Ishmael, and Esau are articulated, leaving the reader disoriented and raw, their heart aching in surprised empathy for the very people whose exile and estrangement only a moment ago they accepted as inevitable and necessary. God called Isaac and Jacob for their specific weaknesses, but Hagar, Ishmael and Esau are still heard by God, and they are still under God’s blessing and protection.
Jesus carries on this grand tradition all throughout his ministry when, over and over again, it is the sinners, the outcasts, the people who play fast and loose with the rules, and the marginalized who are declared to be the beloved of God’s kingdom, while those who keep the law with exactitude are called to repentance. But just as the outcast followers of Christ feel they are now able to identify the enemy, we are yet again left confounded as the absolute personification of the enemy, Saul, the most pharisaic of the Pharisees, is called by the Christ against whom he had fought with burning righteous fervor to proclaim the message of the gospel.
Scripture is nothing if not God constantly warning us that we are not as good at judging as we think we are; that we think we know how to label people, but we don’t—and we are going to be very, very surprised with how this all works out.
In times of insecurity individuals and groups seek out a scapegoat to blame for their problems. Scapegoats provide a way for groups to solidify by offering an outsider as an enemy against whom blame and anger, which might otherwise be aimed internally, can be deflected outward instead. But sometimes outsiders can only be blamed so far with any satisfaction. Over time the group begins to realize that in spite of all the blame they have placed elsewhere they still have problems. It is not always enough to have an outsider to villify for the sake of group unity, we may come to feel we must take aim at false insiders who we now see as even more to blame than outsiders for our perceived problems. Fortunately we have a whole slew of labels to choose from that come with so much baggage that we can use them as identifiers of the enemy with almost no effort at all but still to great effect: Intellectuals! TBMs! Liberals! Feminists! Conservatives! Progressives! Millennials! Boomers! Fox News Watchers! Snowflakes! We preach, we blog, we post, exposing the enemy hiding among us as the source of our problems, and we give them an ultimatum: Become like us or take the problems with you and go! But darn it if the blasted goat doesn’t keep coming back!
We’ve forgotten something important about our own history. Something sacred and tragic. We already sent a scapegoat out into the wilderness to pay for our failings. We labeled him and maligned him and let him be blamed for our problems and struggles and fears. Then, just like now, we didn’t recognize him when we did it. We were too eager for someone to blame to ask too many questions. We didn’t know that it was God that we made our scapegoat. And he accepted it, not only for us personally as pained sinners, but also for us communally. So that next time we would take a moment to stop and really look at the person we were attempting to cast out. So that, while we didn’t see God in God, we might see God in this person.
This is where the spirit comes in. The spirit is disruptive to lazy and toxic patterns of enemy hunting and label making. The spirit gives pause, and makes us take a real look under the label into the eyes of the human buried beneath. The spirit is what pushes us off balance enough to make us a little dizzy. A little hesitant. It makes us realize that when we don’t understand another person it may not be because there is nothing there worth understanding, but is rather because we really just don’t understand—but can if we will be still and listen. And must if we are to see as God sees. And what we find is that the very labels that used to make us feel so safe and sure begin to chafe. They are just a little less comfortable than they used to be. At first perhaps only a little, but the irritation grows more and more until it becomes unbearable—because you’ve actually seen the person under the label, and you cannot bear to be guilty of casting God out again.
The only interest that God has in our labels is to rip them off and destroy them. It is God’s own spirit that helps us to see beyond them until the day comes when we don’t see them at all; only the God-created person who was there all along. No longer a scapegoat, no longer an enemy, but something of such complex depth and beauty that we will cry and laugh to think we could have ever thought we could label and blame and cast them out. This path is hard—so hard, Christ says, it will rarely be walked even by his own followers. But at its end, with bloodied feet and broken heart and bowed head, we will find there is still one label left that perfectly describes what we have finally learned to see: Family.
 For more on this read Not In God’s Name by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks