A Demon Called "Labels"
I want you to imagine the scene in today’s Gospel. Put yourself there. Close your eyes and try to picture it. You’re in the synagogue in Capernaum. There’s a large crowd gathered today, because you all heard that Jesus was around and would be teaching. You came to see His face; you came to hear His voice; you came because He is special. Having listened to His words, you are amazed at how convincing His authenticity is – He lives what He teaches, and He knows His stuff.
In the midst of this astonishment, you hear a commotion. There is a man there – you’ve seen him around town before. He was one of “those people.” You know: the ones with the messy hair, the dirty clothes, the ones who always seem to be hanging around at the intersections and the dumpsters outside of the local Taco Bell. This guy is in the synagogue now, and he is acting up – again. His commotion becomes unavoidable, and now everyone – even Jesus – is surrounding him.
Then, the man speaks: “Have you come to destroy us?”
What an odd thing for him to say. Odd, but to terribly surprising. After all, this guy was "crazy," right?
Well, open your eyes now. Think about what we just witnessed. We are told that this man had an unclean spirit; sometimes we call this a “demon.” He is possessed, and we assume that it is the spirit that is speaking. However, what you witnessed was this man speaking, saying scary things. And he wonders if this “Holy One of God” is going to destroy him.
Friends, possession certainly happens. It is a spiritual reality in our world, and Church ministers often deal with it. However, the important thing to keep in mind is that these are not disembodied spirits – like little devils floating around. These are people with unclean spirits - possessed. And there are many of them.
Today, our demons can be different. We often call them addiction, chronic illness, depression, or just plain bad luck. However, these demons are real for us too. In fact, they are often so real that they become our labels; and our labels become our identities. Consider these:
He’s gay. She’s liberal. They’re foreigners. He’s a criminal. That one’s a junkie. She’s a slut. They’re conservative. He's a geek - a loser. She's weird, stuck-up, fake...
These are all parts of us, but they are not all of us. However, when we label others, over time that starts to become their identity. We begin to believe that we cannot be anything else – anything more – anything better. These labels become our demons, and they "possess" us. In fact, to lose that demon – even the negative things like addiction or illness – could feel like losing who we are. Paradoxically, we begin to cling to these labels, and they even become obstacles to letting Jesus work in our lives.
“Did you come to destroy us?”
Jesus did come to rid us of these labels and to remind us that we are all – all – children of God. We all have inherent dignity – whether we are gay, straight, white, black, native, foreign, rich, poor, homeless, or comfortable. This dignity is part of our God-given identity, and no one – not even the Devil and all his unclean spirits and demons – can take that identity from us. At our Baptism, we were claimed by Christ and adopted by God the Father (who knew the entire course of our lives and every single label we would bear), and we are loved eternally. Jesus knows this, and He will not let this unclean spirit deprive one more “crazy man” of that dignity.
Our task as disciples of Jesus is to recognize this dignity in ourselves and in one another. It is why Jesus suffered and died for us all. No one is beyond that; and no one can be reduced to a single label. We are far more complex than that. It’s been said that “every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.” This is so true because of the love that Jesus came to show us.
Now, "saint" or "sinner," only one label matters for us: Child of God. That is our identity – one we share with the Lord.