Lately I have been especially struck by the destructive practice of labeling, and how widespread it is in our time. In America these days racial profiling seems to be on the rise. Partisan political categorizing and outright hatred towards people of different persuasions are increasing as we move towards a national election. I regularly hear people refer to others as right-wing republican, liberal, fundamentalist, illegal, racist, evil, terrorist or jihadist.
Around Tierra Nueva people struggle with labels continuously. Some seek to remove tattoos that mark them according to their gang affiliation. Others seek to find employers who will hire them in spite of their felon or ex-offender labels. Many of the people we serve have been diagnosed as ADD, psychotic, bipolar, borderline, and many others labels, and told by mental health professionals that their conditions are permanent, requiring them to be on meds for the rest of their lives.
I have grown to hate the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and our current penal code. Labeling dehumanizes people, reducing them to something that is much easier to incarcerate, medicate, deport, hate or even eradicate. Labels categorize, entrap, curse and brand us in ways that are nearly impossible t shake. Thankfully when we find ourselves before Jesus there is hope. He can remove labels and undo “permanent” conditions!
In Luke 5:12 there is a man covered in leprosy, a condition was seen as permanent in Jesus’ day. Jesus’ way of dealing with this man most certainly challenged the people’s normal, limited “realism” regarding what was possible, bringing them into a Kingdom of God-inspired imagination. In a recent jail Bible study I describe leprosy as a condition that was viewed as irreversible in Jesus’ day. I ask the inmates: “What are some conditions or labels that are viewed today as incurable and therefore permanent?”
The men come up with a list that grows as I read this story in four back-to-back thirty-minute gatherings with inmates. “Addict,” “alcoholic,” PTSD, hepatitis C,” “HIV/AIDS,” “bi-polar,” “felon” and a host of other labels and conditions, including “disabled,” “terminally ill,” “sex-offender,” “chimo”(short for child molester), thief, liar, thug, psychotic.
A number of men share that they experience the labels “felon”, “ex-offender,” and “ex-con” as fairly permanent identity markers that keep them from getting jobs and from being accepted in normal society, including in churches. I describe how according to Mosaic Law, lepers were required to keep their distance from the public, crying out “unclean” when they came around people. We talk about what it would be like today if they would be required to cry out “I’m a criminal” or “I’m a felon” warning people whenever they walked through a mall or grocery store. This led to some good discussion, and the men could see that lepers in Jesus’ day had it pretty bad. We next discussed the question about how the leper got breakthrough.
“So what does this leper do when he sees Jesus?” I ask, inviting someone to read the next verse.
“When he saw Jesus, he fell on his face and begged him, saying, “Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean” (Luke 5:12).
The men take note of the leper’s humility, desperation and faith. Rather than yelling out “unclean,” the leper declares that if Jesus is willing he can make him clean. The inmates can see that the leper believes Jesus is able to take away a disease viewed as permanent, cleansing him totally of this condition and removing a label thought to be permanent. Many of the men don’t seem to question Jesus’ ability and power to change their situation. The bigger question for them is that of the leper: ‘is Jesus willing?’
Many people caught up in addictions, criminal lifestyles and multiple labels assume God is behind their afflictions or the consequences of their sins. Hyper-sovereignty and retributive justice are inherent in the dominant mindset among the world’s poor and marginalized. If your fate and punishment are written in God’s book, there’s no choice but to surrender. In contrast, the leper here voices a thin but true faith as a kind of declaration that awaits Jesus’ response: “If you are willing you can…”
Jesus responds with direct action that goes beyond the leper’s request. “Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him,” making himself contagious in the eyes of any onlookers.
“Does the leper say, ‘if you are willing, you can touch me’? I ask. “Why would Jesus reach out and touch him?” I ask.
The men are moved that Jesus’ care for the leper surpasses his fear of impurity, or of what people think.
Jesus both touches the leper and also declares his desire to cleanse him instead of showing agreement with and fear of his condition: “I am willing, be cleansed.” Immediately the leprosy leaves the leper, showing itself to be a foreign invader that withdraws before Jesus powerful touch in the same way that demons flee at his command. Jesus holiness is stronger than the contagion. Jesus’ purity overcomes the impurity, eradicating the contagion and erasing the label. Jesus acts here as the ultimate tattoo remover!
Jesus sends the man who is now healed of his leprosy to the official diagnosticians for verification: “go, show yourself to the priest and make an offering for your cleansing, just as Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” Jesus sends him as a sort of apostle to the labelers, inviting them into a robust realism that includes the fact that Jesus eradicates conditions thought to be permanent. We talk about how that would be like going to the court to check on your criminal record and finding that it was erased or having your doctor verify that you don’t have Hep C.
I end the Bible study inviting the guys to risk asking Jesus to cleanse them of a label or condition that they’ve experienced as permanent. I suggest that taking a step of faith will increase faith, and that this story shows Jesus’ willingness to give us a new start. The men appear willing to take a step of faith and ask Jesus to touch them, to cleanse them. I invite people to silently speak out what they want Jesus to do for them and the circle is quite. With eyes closed the men appear to focus in on the task at hand with hope.
I encourage you to try praying this way yourself, expecting Jesus’ cleansing, transforming touch. May you let Jesus the label-remover challenge your tendencies to label others and yourself. May you remember to see yourself and others the way God sees you and them: as made in God’s image, a beloved daughter or son of the Father of Jesus—our Father. May we let our own and other’s identities in God’s Kingdom become the dominant reality in our mindsets and practices, “on earth as it is in heaven.”
See http://www.bobekblad.com/category/blog for past blog entries.