My God is not my God

Week of Sunday Februay 3 - Epiphany 4
Gospel: Luke 4:21-30
Epistle: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ 22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ 23He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ 24And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. 25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers* in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ 28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

My God is not my God.

My final conversion is to see that God is not here for me. I am here for God so that others may be healed.  Salvation, freedom, and my personal fulfilment are completed through serving the world and from serving God, not from the world serving me. I am completed by loving others.

Jesus said," Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.’ Luke 5:31-32

I write elsewhere

The big ideological divide in life seems to be between those who decide life is all about  them, and those who seek the common good. This decision cuts across all the religions (or non religions) that we espouse. There are self espousing Christians who, as far as I can observe, are nonetheless practically living to the song “Look out for number one.” They, and theirs, are the most important people in the world.

I also observe strongly committed atheists who are deeply committed to the common good. Religion, or the lack of it, is not the issue.

When we look to live in the world, and to work politically, or make friends or allies, this other division is far more fundamental than philosophy, religion, race, age or politics.

How do I get here from Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth?

I’ve always thought of Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth in terms of “the tall poppy syndrome.” I find something else in Luke.

In Mark 6 people are mightily impressed by Jesus, but then the need to cut him down to size kicks in. They choose to reject him and so cannot benefit from what he has to offer them.

6.2And on the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue; and many who heard him were astonished, saying, "Where did this man get all this? What is the wisdom given to him? What mighty works are wrought by his hands! [But then...] 6.3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?" And they took offense at him. 6.4 And Jesus said to them, "A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house." 6.5 And he could do no mighty work there, except that he laid his hands upon a few sick people and healed them.

Whether Mark had ‘tall poppies’ in mind or not, there is an obvious mirroring of human behaviour in this story.

Luke recasts the story.

Jesus’ rejection in Luke is more clearly a story about social obligations versus God’s obligations.

“What wonderful words. This is Joseph’s son! As part of our village, he is obliged to us. He will do here the same healings he did at Capernaum.”

Except that Jesus does not. He makes it clear that although he is one of them, he is not theirs.

People are outraged because what God does through this Spirit filled person is not what they want. In their view, God is for them. They do not see that are for God. This understanding that we are for God who gives us life and saves us,  is a clear implication of all the gospels; it is the paradox which knows the one who saves their life will lose it, and those who lose their life will save it.

Brian Stoffregen points out there are three parables in Luke 15 where the concern of the story is for the minority and the outsider; the lost lamb, the lost coin, and the prodigal son. Like the people of Nazareth, the older son in the story of the prodigal, does not respond well to his father’s concern for the lost.

So in this first act of his ministry the people do not fail to recognise Jesus! They recognise the gift of God in his words (All spoke well of him and were amazed at the charitos words that came from his mouth. 4:22 ) They reject the gift of God because at that moment it does not pander to them and to their concerns. They do not understand that God is not their God.

Craddock, quoted by Stoffregen, sums it up beautifully: Jesus does not go elsewhere because he is rejected, he is rejected because he goes elsewhere.

The response of Nazareth is a lens to consider what happens in Australia. In a wealthy country which heaps appalling abuse on refugees, lying emails circulate alleging that refugees get welfare benefits far in excess of what aged pensioners and unemployed folk receive!  We clearly think Australia is here for us and our good fortune is for us, rather than that we are fortunate so that we may bring justice and fulfilment to others; no Christian country this.

So in Matthew and Mark, Jesus is not able to work miracles in Nazareth. Here, in Luke, he chooses not try to do miracles. He brings up the subject of why these works will not be done in Nazareth; the subject is not raised by his listeners!

Luke has the story doing double duty. First, it is an apologetic explaining Jesus’ rejection. Secondly, it foreshadows the mission of the church to the gentiles which takes up so much of the Acts of the Apostles.  Loader says of the text, “In Acts we find a similar pattern. An initially positive response among the Jews leads to anger and hatred when the mission opens up to the Gentiles.”

The second aspect of this reading which intrigues me is how it fits into the history of the church. The passage reflects persecution by the “resurgent Judaism of the 80s.” (Loader)

All the gospels show the early Christians’ struggle with the rejection of Jesus, and themselves, by his own people, and the reading this week suggests that the rejection of Christians was sometimes violent. The people of Nazareth took him out to the cliff because they were planning to stone him. You throw people off and then drop boulders on them. In the millennia which have followed, we Christians have used such stories of the persecution of Jesus and the early church to justify the most appalling behaviour toward our parents in the faith.

We once had a delightful time at the Jewish Museum, beginning with a tour of the synagogue. Soon after we began, the old lady who was our guide clearly recognized a well educated question from my wife.

"To be fair, we should tell you we are both Uniting Church ministers," said Wendy.

"Both of you!” exclaimed the old lady. Then, "Well, a clergy couple! I've heard about them, but I've never seen one before!"

We had a wonderful time together.

In the museum, I found a video display listing persecutions against Jews. Something about the presentation of this terrible list—and it was terrible, and was by no means exhaustive—was quite disturbing. There was a sense of people defining themselves by their persecution.

I suspect that for a Jew, it is difficult not to be deeply affected by the history of constant persecution of one’s religion and people. Yet I could not help but be reminded of a friend who worked years in Palestine, and was outraged by the daily oppression of ordinary folk by Israel. She said there was often a sense that the holocaust excused or justified this behaviour.

I spent decades getting beyond abusive treatment as a child. It threw shadows of resentment over everything.  Candidates for ordination had to look “not too strange” on the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory to be accepted for ministry training. Years after school had finished my paranoia rating was high.

Living as a victim had blinded me to the fact that the persecution was no longer there. Living as a victim absolved me from changing. My unhealthy responses were not my fault, said victimhood; I simply could not help myself.

It was not until by some grace I became more able to love others that I saw how much I had been loved by my family and by my church; amazingly so! They had given me a life I was not properly able to grasp. Until I gave up the demand that God somehow reverse and remove the abuse; that is, the assumption that God was for me, and until I began to live to serve others, I could not begin to grasp the gift I had been given. Our museum experience, the finding of a small unsettling shrine to victimhood in the midst of the hospitality and celebration of being God’s chosen people, was part of my own healing.

Loader’s concluding not for this week is true.

At one level Luke’s message is simple and uncontroversial: if you join Jesus in living a life of compassion that is inclusive and without prejudice against the despised and feared, you will be living the life of the Spirit and you will be courting danger. If you start hating the sources of danger and thus dehumanising the enemy, you have become part of the problem, rather than part of its solution. The mission and message of Jesus according to Luke are about undermining the dehumanising categories wherever they have been applied (usually to people seen as threats). This is not about a naive denial of danger where it exists, but it is about living out the freedom that love brings so that people never lose their value, are never written off. That really is good news also in today’s world.

All of this sits alongside Paul’s reflections in 1 Corinthians 12 and 13. 1 Corinthians 12 betrays a concern for giftedness which was in many ways about status and ownership; God’s gifts for me. “A more excellent way,” as Paul says, is the way of Love.

To live the kind of love with which he hymns us in 1 Corinthians 13 is to abandon our self.

Love is patient; love is gentle, it begins. Easy enough perhaps. But to never insist on my  own way, and to hope and believe all things, is to abandon myself. To keep no record of wrongs, as some translate it, seems utterly to deny myself, and to forgo any rights to justice or fairness, if I continue to seek to love at a time when I am injured and my soul bleeds.

Yet it is this imperfectly done love which sets me free to enjoy my salvation. Perfect love casts out fear. (1 John 4) The practice of love heals me.

I began by speaking of “my final conversion.” It does not mean a moment of time when I have succeeded, but a time of seeing and beginning to understand, and beginning to love. That will be a long time; a life time. I will continue to slip into being a victim, and into demanding God be my God.

In the struggle to love I was given a valuable insight by a colleague this week.

[A] woman ... went to Honduras to work in refugee camps for people fleeing the war in El Salvador in the 1980’s.  One day [someone asked why] she always looked so sad.  [She] talked about the grief she felt over all the suffering she was witnessing and her commitment to give everything she had to the struggle. The refugee woman told her, “Only people who expect to go back to North America in a year work the way you do.  You cannot be serious about our struggle unless you and play and celebrate and do those things that make it possible to give a lifetime to it.”  Each time the refugees were displaced and had to build a new camp, they immediately formed three committees, a construction committee, an education committee, and the committee of joy.  Celebration was as basic to their life as digging latrines and  teaching their children to read.
Joyce Hollyday in Turning Toward Home (New York:  Harper and Row, 1989), pp 263-264 I have added the emphases.

Andrew Prior

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