The Challenge of Losing Labels
“Have you come here to destroy us?”
The question the unclean spirit asks our Lord today is a curious one. Remember: this was a spirit that was speaking through the man it possessed. The man’s words, certainly, must have seemed strange to the gathering at the synagogue that day. Imagine someone getting up in the middle of Mass and calling out. (It’s happened to me!)
The demon has Jesus’ number; he knows who this “Jesus of Nazareth” truly is: the Holy One of God. Christ’s response to him is also interesting: “Quiet! Come out of him!”And, with a final flourish, the demon is gone, and the man is healed.
Demonic possession, first of all, is real. It still happens, and to assume that it is not real or only a metaphor for psychological or physical duress is to minimize the actions of evil spirits in our world. However, these psychic, physical and spiritual difficulties are also real. People suffer chronically, and these “demons” that they carry are just as menacing. The man in that synagogue cried out. It was probably scary – it was probably to be expected. Perhaps he had “that look” – like those we see on the streets of the city, muttering to themselves.
The point for this man was that his demon defined him – he was identified with his ailment, whatever that may have been. He was “crazy” or “blind” or “angry” or “self-destructive” or “violent” or whatever else people may have labeled him. He was not seen as a man – he was a condition – a “case.” Such was this identification that when the man speaks to Jesus (or as the unclean spirit speaks), he himself believes that he is this “case” and not a person. Any attempt at healing him would be seen as “destruction,” since the man was so used to being seen as identified with this demon.
“Have you come to destroy us?”
We know this condition too. Surely, we might not call it an “unclean spirit” or “possession,” but we too have our troubles; we too have our labels on our identity. We often define people by what they do, or the condition they are in, and not by who they are.
“She cuts herself.” So we say, “She’s a cutter.”
“He killed someone; he’s a killer.”
“She’s gay.” “He’s straight.”
Goof. Nerd. Terrorist. Handicapped. Homeless. Ingrate. Loner. Loser.
All these labels don’t get at the heart of who the people who bear them are, though. They might describe some trait or choice they have made, but they can ignore the person who is present there. The man in the synagogue was so wrapped in society’s labels of him that any attempt to free him from whatever infirmity would be tantamount – in his mind – with loss of his identity, with destruction.
Jesus cuts through all that. He, as God, looks at the person and sees the wholeness that he truly longs for. When he silences the unclean spirit, he is silencing all those voices and attitudes that would prejudge him as “one of those people.” By calling out the demon, Jesus is calling forth the true person who has almost been lost.
Being healed by God is not always an easy, pleasant process. Sometimes, it involves the convulsions of suffering and sacrifice in order to realize the wholeness we desire. The dignity that each one of use carries does not come from any relationship except that fundamental relationship of being a child of God. Therefore, our focus is on the things of God, as St. Paul says. Define yourself first as a person made in God’s image and then as a husband, a wife, a priest, a sister, et cetera. When we drop the labels that we so easily (and lazily) apply to others, we are forced to see the person behind that label; and they are not very dissimilar to us!
The authority with which Jesus taught – which impressed those who heard and saw him – is an authority that comes from seeing through the artificial and secondary distinctions that separate our brothers and sisters from our human family. It is those who recognize and accept this authority of Jesus – the power of God to make us whole – who know the effect of that power in their lives.
The challenge of the gospel is to remember that under every label there is first a person – a person longing for wholeness. The freedom that comes from knowing who Jesus sees us to be is a freedom that allows us to then live out that wholeness and call it forth in others.