Labels can be dangerous things. Though they’re meant to make it easier to understand certain positions, individuals and ideas, they often do the opposite: Labels can cause us to ignore nuance in of favor generalizations.
They often elicit emotional reactions instead of thoughtful engagement.
No one understood this better than Jesus. While on earth, He didn’t just challenge labels—He defied them. He made people rethink what it meant to be “religious.” He taught that the “first” was actually the last. He said that the “least of these” should be who we are concerned about. He was a “king” whose kingdom was not of this world.
His life and ministry demonstrated just how destructive it can be to paint people with broad labels, instead of seeing them as complex, thoughtful individuals.
Here are five things people probably would have called Jesus if He were around today, and a look at why using these kinds of labels can be so counterproductive.
‘A Lazy Millennial’
Here are some facts about Jesus: He never owned a home. He was never married. He didn’t start his real “calling” (publicly) until the age of 30.
Up until He started ministry when He was already out of His twenties, not much was known about the life of Christ other than it was probably relatively unremarkable. So much so, that when he returned to his hometown after traveling with His disciples, people were legitimately surprised he’d become such a big deal. Mark 6 says:
“Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.
Being a carpenter is a perfectly respectable profession, but when Jesus returned to his old neighborhood, even then, people only saw Him as the insignificant, single twentysomething He was when he left.
People looked at Him like they often look at Millennials today: Who do they think they are? Why do they think they can make a difference?
One of the underlying lessons of this story—especially for Millennials shackled with labels like “lazy” and “entitled”—is to distance yourself from the haters.
Don’t focus on the doubts of critics; focus on your calling and on the one who gave it to you.
Why would Jesus likely be accused of being a partier if He were around today? Because that’s what people said back then too:
The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is proved right by all her children (Luke 7:34).
Jesus’ life defied legalistic standards enforced by religious authorities. Yes He was holy. Yes He was sinless. But, He wasn’t afraid to meet people where they were.
Jesus wasn’t concerned about how hanging out with certain kinds of people—tax collectors, prostitutes, sailors and fisherman—would effect how others perceived Him. He cared about people more than His own reputation with the religious establishment.
Also, His first miracle was turning water into a wine at a party when it ran out, so He likely wasn’t overly legalistic about alcohol consumption.
Jesus mostly steered clear of politics. He was a man of principles and convictions based on the Gospel—not political labels.
He advocated paying taxes (even if you thought they were being used unjustly). He told the rich man that if he wanted salvation, he needed to “Sell [his] possessions and give to the poor, and [he] will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” He said, “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” He said that the love of money was the root of all kinds of evil.
We’re not saying Jesus was a socialist. We’re not saying he was a capitalist. We’re are saying that He didn’t see things through the lens of political or economic labels. He was unconcerned about how his individual teachings about money and politics would cause Him to be labeled.
He didn’t toe a political party line. He toed the kingdom line.
He looked at each situation and used the principles of the Gospel as the central guide point—even if it didn’t sit well with people.
In a politically charged culture, we have a tendency to assign overly broad labels on people—whether they fit or not. Jesus defied labels because His way of doing things transcended them.
Jesus’ teaching ended up angering traditional religious leaders and drawing suspicion from the authorities in power.
But, Jesus never set out to cause trouble. He was concerned with speaking truth, no matter the consequences.
Jesus’ life is a testament to the courage to speaking out against injustice, standing up for those in need and speaking truth even when it’s unpopular, and even if it means being labeled a troublemaker.
‘A Clique Leader’
The term “clique” has developed a negative connotation. It’s generally thought of as a close group of friends, who are reluctant to allow outsiders in.
Sure, when they become intentionally exclusive, cliques can become a negative social force. But, the reality is, there is value in maintaining a close group of friends. Jesus spent most of his time during his ministry with 12, hand-chosen disciples.
They were his friends. They helped Him, and He helped them. They ate together. Traveled together, and eventually they helped deliver the Gospel to the world.
But, not everyone could be a part of the inner circle. In Mark 5, after delivering and healing demon-possessed man, he approached the group as they were leaving town:
As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon possessed begged to go with him. But Jesus said, “No, go home to your family, and tell them everything the Lord has done for you and how merciful he has been.” So the man started off to visit the Ten Towns of that region and began to proclaim the great things Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed at what he told them.
Jesus wasn’t being exclusive or clique-y. After all, we’re all called to be disciples. But, during his lifetime, He understood the value of close relationships, and investing in people close with you.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.