THE MARGINALIZED, THE OUTCAST, the different, the diseased, the stranger, the warehoused—these are the people Our Lord frequently ministers to in and holds before us as examples of living faith. And so, if we wish to be Christians (i.e., those who have Christ living through us), then we should also show intentional compassion to these same folks.
But who are they? The marginalized are the people whom we—in our mind, in our society, in our attitude—shove to the sidelines and think little of. The outcasts are the people who are dismissed and about whom we say (perhaps not with words) that they don’t deserve our time or our rights. The different are the people that we think don’t measure up to our standards of what is normal or acceptable or good. The diseased are the people whom we’re afraid to approach for fear of catching their physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual ailment. The strangers are those who come from places or cultures that we can’t or won’t understand. The warehoused are the people we shut away in care facilities or detention centers or anywhere else so that we can relieve our guilt of having to face them.
In every instance, these folks are the ignored and the invisible.
Too often, however, we not only ignore but also think that the “others” are higher maintenance and so need more of Our Lord’s time. But when we think this way, we are saying that we are the “normal people.” And that’s a mark of pride, no different from the Pharisees and others who wondered why Jesus ate and reached out and spent time with ostracized.
Yet these are precisely the folks Our Lord reaches out to. On purpose. And with compassion. In the Gospels, these folks are the publicans, the sinners, the lepers, the Samaritans. They include St Photina (the Samaritan woman at the well), St Matthew, Zacchaeus, St Mary Magdalen, the 10 lepers, the “yapping” woman who begged from crumbs from the Master’s table, and St Dismas (the “good thief” to whom Jesus promised Paradise).
No doubt, Our Lord feels for and identifies with the marginalized. Because He Himself was marginalized, outcast, and ignored. By His own people. “He came to His own and His own received Him not.” In fact, they often attacked His origin (suggesting He was a bastard), His ethnicity (saying He was from Samaria, and so not a real Jew), His education (questioning His credentials to teach), His authority (who is He to forgive sins).
Yet I think the primary reason Christ identifies and aids the marginalized is because He sees that we need them more than they need us. For in the sidelined Our Lord sees in them both a greater appreciation for His ministry and help, and therefore a greater empathy to those in a like position. And in this way, they become our teachers.
In a way that challenges our pride, it works like this. For my salvation, I must not only see the marginalized. Even more so, I must see not that they need me but that I need them! This is best expressed by the beggar who once asked why passersby were denying their way to salvation by refusing to help him.
The path to salvation, then, is a path which humbly says these words to all those whom society shoves aside: ‘I take your suffering and burden so much that it becomes my own. In taking on your travails, I become marginalized myself and then can see things differently and with more compassion, just like you do.’ That’s the real stuff that takes courage: humility to admit we need them and their suffering and perspective more than they need us and what we can offer.
That’s why Our Lord frequently ministers to folks that I tend to ignore or push aside. It’s not just because Our Lord is compassionate, nor even to show us what mercy looks like. And it is certainly not so that I can thank God for my blessings and the times of been so close to being “one of them.”
Rather, the marginalized are God’s gift to me so that I might work on my own salvation while learning from them how true compassion works.
V Rev John W Fenton