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February 2, 2021, 3:57 PM

Dear Friends,

I have seen a few articles recently dealing with labels we tend to place on ourselves and others. Sometimes labels help and other times they are hurtful. Our recent election gave a panorama of destructive labeling identifying opponents as being too liberal, too conservative, not enough conservative, or enough liberal – all of these labels meant to push this candidate or that away from the viewer’s favor. Labels sell, whether they are true or not. They advertise a perspective intended to promote conversion to or away from a brand or person.

Shift that perspective to Scripture. From all four Gospels, the Pharisees, Sadducees, and scribes were all labeled as adversaries of Jesus and his Gospel message. Typically, we generically lumped them together – I know I often do. Yet we also have those who break the stereotype: Nicodemus in John’s Gospel; Joseph of Arimathea in Luke’s Gospel; possibly the Scribe, or expert on the law, who pressed Jesus and was told the Parable of the Good Samaritan; and Gamaliel in Acts. Each of these stood out from the rest. Would four be enough to break the “religious leader” label?

Another example could be the labeling by translators of each pericope [“pə-ric’-ō-pē” – a small self-contained story or event – like a parable or collective of small parables.] Take, for instance, “The Prodigal Son” as it is identified in many translations. The NIV modifies the pericope heading as “The Parable of the Lost Son.” I would gamble that many of us view the younger son as “the prodigal” from the label given it by tradition and interpretation. Labeling the younger son might actually distort the parable by excluding the older son who at the end of it walks away from his father. Which son is lost? Are the labels placed on each small section in the Gospels and then in Paul’s letters, the Pastoral Letters, and Revelation accurate or helpful?

The two parables (pericopes) immediately preceding the Lost Son are labeled “The Parable of the Lost Sheep” and “The Parable of the Lost Coin”. In either parable is the focus really about the stray sheep or lost coin, or is it about the faithful protectiveness of the Shepherd and the persistence of the woman? Maybe they are about the celebration afterwards of redeeming those which are lost? Labels can distort perspective and opinion if we are not careful and vigilant about the information, we see, use and internalize.

When it comes to people and the labels, we place upon them or the ones we assume for ourselves, I believe we can never fully be purely the label. Most times we/they are a mixture of labels we use to identify them or ourselves. My father-in-law made that abundantly clear during the 2008 presidential campaign while he excitedly tooted Sarah Palin and John McCain, more Sarah than John, as the greatest political gift to our country in the last thirty years. I could not see that which sparked several intense conversations about their platform issues and what they would mean for various people in our country. When pressed he declared himself a financial and political conservative and a social liberal. That startled me! He saw himself as a mixture rather than a dyed-in-the wool, straight-line conservative. On certain issues he chose to cross over.

If we are mindful about the labels we tend to use (I will work on my “religious leaders” usage), we might find that they hurt more than they help, perhaps removing some aspect of the other’s humanity. Labels like “white collar,” “blue collar,” “refugee,” “immigrant,” and “homeless” should challenge our faithful sensibilities to see more of the person than the label.

In Christ’s service together wherever He leads,