By now you have probably heard about the band of elite British detectives who never forget a face. My wife is like that. Once introduced to someone, she never forgets their face, and usually remembers their name and something about them. It’s an amazing gift, one that can be a bit awkward from time to time. Months or even years later she might see that person somewhere and greet them by name, only to be greeted back by a confused look of wonder about who this person might be and how she knows my name? It doesn’t bother her. She just reminds them of her name and where they met. It helps that she is relatively well known in town, with a reputation as a community activist and well regarded artist.
I, on the other hand, have a hard time remembering faces, or names for that matter. I usually have to meet someone several times before I get it down. Sometimes it’s hard at first glance to differentiate one face from another. When we first arrived here I started participating in a Wednesday morning men’s bible study, and it took me just a little too long to be clear about who was who. At first it looked like a table surrounded by identical white fringed bald heads. Not true, of course. No two were alike. Not all were bald. In time they were as individual as possible, each a good friend. Yet, if I see someone I know fairly well, but out of context, I may have trouble remembering the face, remembering the correct context, and making the connection. On the other hand, once I’ve got it down, it sticks.
Most people, I suspect, are somewhere in between. Where do you fit?
What if it’s not as much a matter of seeing and remembering as it is of not seeing at all? What if others are simply invisible? I don’t mean invisible as if hidden under Harry Potter’s cloak of invisibility, or eerily transparent. I mean invisible in the sense of being plainly there yet unnoticed and unremembered for ever having been present. It was brought up last Sunday as we talked about the woman who had been bent over for eighteen years and was healed by Jesus’ touch. She reminded me of the people who come and go, recognized only as objects of no special interest who, if at all, elicit only momentary curiosity. Jesus saw her. No one else did. It’s not that they were unaware of her presence. They were. She may have even been a familiar presence. But they didn’t see her. She was, in that sense, invisible.
Jesus saw her. He saw her as someone whose face and name he knew, whose story he knew, whose need, however unspoken, was known to him. She was among the marginalized who populate the gospels. To be at the margins is to be on the outer edge of whatever is at the center. The presence of the marginalized may be known, even catalogued, but ignored, unless they get in the way of those working their way farther toward the center where they might find recognition as being somebody. The marginalized are nobodies to those who desire to be somebodies.
Nobody wants to be a nobody. I remember a particular nobody moment when attending a crowded meeting in a posh place. I heard a loud but indistinct question aimed in my general direction, so I said, “Did you ask me something?” She looked me up and down and said, “Your’e a nobody. I don’t talk to nobodies.” Obviously I was among the marginalized at that gathering. Never did learn who she was, but she was sure to have been a somebody. It was an uncomfortable moment, but only a moment. It even makes a funny story when I add appropriate embellishments.
The unnamed woman, the nobody whose name was known to Jesus, had spent her life as a nobody. For us, she is representative of all who are nobody, including entire populations of people that spend their lives on the margins. Even the marginalized have margins populated by their own nobodies. Consider the Samaritan woman at the well, the sick man who had laid for thirty-eight years by the Bethesda pool, Matthew and Zacchaeus the tax collectors. And so it goes. Our human ability to marginalize the other seems to know no limit.
As recorded in the gospel narratives, Jesus consistently engaged those at the margin, offering them the respect of having being seen, recognized, known, and embraced. Jesus restored them to dignity of life in which a new life was possible without regard to humanly imposed margins. Jesus, who is the center of creation, keeps bringing nobodies into the center of attention of somebodies, dissolving margins even as they are reformed. Social patterns of somebodies and nobodies are dissolved, reformed, dissolved, reformed, and dissolved again. Jesus will not let the marginalized remain marginalized.
We have a hard time with that. We want stability. We want to know who is who, and where they fit in the scheme of things. Even in our benevolence we are inclined to act as somebodies gallantly bringing the nobodies into our circle, but it’s still our circle, and we expect them to become as one of us. Jesus will have none of it. The circle is not unbroken, it is dissolved. the marginalized are brought into the center, given new life with a new center, and sent out again, leaving the old center without standing. It’s very unsettling. It leaves one wanting to cry out, “Where is the center? Quit moving it!”
Of course, being right thinking orthodox Christians, we are quick to say that Jesus is the fountain of living water, the well of life, the one through whom and in whom we have our being, he is the center. Which is all true, but he keeps moving. We say he is the same yesterday and today and forever, and that’s true too, but his peripatetic embracing of the marginalized, dissolving margins in the process, is the chief characteristic of what his sameness is all about. Ours is a God who will not sit still. To follow him is to be continually on the move in challenging ways, which brings me back to the nobodies, the invisible ones. For me, and perhaps for you, the greatest challenge is to see them, really see them, as Jesus would see them, and to do what I can, not to bring them into one of my circles, but to dissolve the margins of my circles. I’m not very good at doing that. I like my circles. I like being a somebody in them. Those who are better at following Jesus in dissolving margins will someday be honored as saints. In the meantime, they will likely be ostracized from our circles. We treasure our margins. They are the wrong things to treasure. It’s something to work on.