I was in conversation with a friend and coworker of mine the other day while at lunch. During the conversation he mentioned to me that he was recently struggling because he had recently learned about the conviction of a person he knew. It had made him struggle, because if it had been anyone else, he would have just thought of this person as a murderer, but he knew him and he struggled to reconcile that person with the atrocity that he had committed. You see we hear about murders all the time from the news and we see their pictures and there is something that triggers in our mind. That person is now labeled as a murderer. My friend was struggling because he knew this person beyond that identity, beyond that label. He knew him as a human being.
Who are you? Or perhaps a better question, who do people say you are? This concept of labels and identity is of paramount importance because they’re insidious in nature and often wholly destructive. Many of us carry around these labels without ever realizing that we have them. Many labels have been given to us and some have been cultivated by ourselves and the things we’ve done. For instance, I’ve heard people call themselves stupid because they did something wrong or made a mistake. That label of stupid may sound trivial, yet it begins to take root and insecurities build up. Often they try to prove themselves in order to compensate or they bring others down focusing on their weaknesses. The insidious power of the label makes it so that they don’t realize what they’re doing and in the end they’ve been hurt and caused hurt all because of a simple label. It doesn’t stop there however, we use labels to describe others as well. We may never say them out loud, nonetheless these labels lie just below the surface dictating how we behave around them and interact with them. The more strongly we hold to those labels the more we are governed by them.
There is hope though in the midst of this. The theme of identity is crucial to the gospel and the entire narrative of scripture and offers redemption and hope. I want to take a second and look at a single passage that is one of my favorites and perhaps one of the more mysterious passages in scripture. It comes from Genesis 32 and it is often referred to as Jacob’s wrestling with God. During the tussle, the man changes Jacob’s name to Israel. One cannot pass by this too quickly. You see the Hebrew culture understood this concept of labels. They understood that the name you give to someone sets the course for their life. It is often why kingly names were given with the hope that the child would live in to them. Just think about what Jesus’ name meant: God saves. So anytime a person’s name is changed, we should look with an intentional gaze as to why. The name “Jacob” has the meaning of “usurper” or of “the one grasping at the heel”. It is a name that was given to him because he grasped the heel of Esau when they were born. Unfortunately, just a cursory glance of Jacob’s life will attest to the fact that his name dictated his behavior. He tricked his brother out of his birthright and inheritance, he deceived his father into blessing him, he cheated his uncle, and now he is wrestling with this man. Throughout his life he has been one for deception and for looking out only for Jacob. Yet the man changes his name to Israel. The profundity of this cannot be overstated.
The name Israel is much debated in scholarship, but the general consensus is that it is a combination of two words: “God” and “struggle.” It is vague, however if this means that God struggles with Israel or if Israel struggles with God. Some even contend that it isn’t “struggle” at all, but “rule” in which the meaning would be that “God rules Israel.” Yet the fact remains that it establishes a close-knit relationship between Jacob and God. Here God is saying that your identity of deceiver and of usurper has ended and now you have a new identity, an identity that is going to change the world. It is this identity that sets the path for ancient Israel to struggle with God’s will and for God to struggle on their behalf. In it lies a promise, a promise to be close, a promise of a beautiful relationship.
We have just gone through the Easter season where this was made true of us. When Jesus said on the cross, “It is finished.” He was saying that our old labels, the ones that inhibit us from growing, the ones that call us enemies of God are at an end. The empty tomb invites us to leave those labels there, to take up a new mantle and new identity in Christ. Not only that, but it calls us to examine our labels of others. Do we hold, unconsciously ideas about others that cause us to behave differently around them? Do we harbor some preconceived idea about them? When we follow those labels and treat people according to them we inhibit their growth and make them carry a burden that is not theirs to bear. Instead can we offer hope? Can we believe in people and help them see a vision of what they could be? God invites us into a beautiful relationship with him where we put to death our old selves and become something new. We become coheirs with Christ, sons and daughters of God almighty. Alleluia!
I want to point to one more passage to conclude. Jacob understood this message and his life began to turn around. Later in life we see him a bit more patient and less deceptive than he was. His wife Rachel dies in childbirth and she names her son “Benoni” which means “son of my sorrow.” Here this new infant has been given a name that is sorrow-filled and has the opportunity to set the course for his life, but Jacob does something in that moment. He names him instead, “Benjamin” which means “son of my right hand.” The simple change is made, but it is beautiful. On the one hand his name was one of sorrow and sadness, but on the other there is strength and courage. Jacob realized the importance of a label and intentionally chose one that offered hope for Benjamin’s future. Be careful what labels you use of others and yourselves. Indeed, perhaps Shakespeare misspoke and indeed a rose by any other name would not smell as sweet.