Week of Sunday January 24 2016 - Epiphany 3
Gospel: Luke 4: 14-21
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
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.
Working through the favourite bedtime story for the nth time plus one, my weary colleague saw that the eyes were shut and the breathing had slowed. So without the slightest change of tone, and with the same even cadence, he turned three pages at once, and continued to read aloud. The eyes opened wide, and with an indignant gasp, the child said, "That's not right. You've missed some out. You changed it!"
In this story about Jesus, the congregation knew he had missed some out. They knew he had put some other bits in. No wonder "the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him," and they "were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth"; they saw what he had done. It was so well improvised that we westerners don't realise he's changed anything unless we read a commentary!
Would people have such deep memory of the biblical text? Apparently it was common place. I once saw an Iman questioned about particular chapter and verse reference in The Koran. He found the place, read just a few words aloud, and then, looking up, continued to quote a whole block of text from memory with no further reference to the book. People in Nazareth knew what Jesus was doing.
But understand they are not upset that Jesus has changed the text; that was a common method for interpreting scripture. We frequently see the New Testament doing this when it "quotes" the Old— in fact, it's what Luke is doing here! In the drama which Luke has constructed, the point at issue is what conclusion Jesus will draw from his improvisation on the text.
The immediate outrage arises because people realise he is not playing a variation of the same old tune, but proposing a thorough-going resetting of their religion.
The Year of the Lord's Favour is also called the Year of the Jubilee. It's the time every fifty years when the clock is meant to be reset. The playing field of life is made level again for all players, and those who have lost out are given back what was once their own. We can read of this ideal in Leviticus 25. It was meant to be a national repentance, and deliberate practical enactment of justice for the whole land.
Jesus proclaims that this year is enacted in himself. But he proclaims it without "the day of vengeance of our God". That's the bit he misses out when he quotes Isaiah 61, which says, "… to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God."
The text he is quoting is poetry: what Jesus does is something like quoting the song from Our Town by saying, "Love and marriage go together like a horse." You couldn't miss it— as the reader you cannot avoid hearing the missing words… and carriage. Vengeance against the nations who had oppressed Israel was integral to people's sense of the day of the Lord's favour. It formed a part of their sense of justice. "For the Lord has a day of vengeance, a year of vindication by Zion’s cause." (Isaiah 34:8, for example)
Jesus then makes it clear this is what he is about.
'… 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.’
The truth is… there were many sick children in Australia, and Elijah went to none of them but a small child on Nauru…
The truth is… that God is not on the side of the people of Israel- but that God is on the side of all people. The instant rage at Nazareth is mirrored in our own times by those who cannot imagine a life without enemies or a God who is not vengeful.
John Pavolitz recently posted a piece headlined "President Obama’s Tenure Has Been More “Christian” Than His Critics Will Ever Admit"
While not at all perfect and certainly deserving of great scrutiny and pushback, in so many ways President Obama's tenure has championed justice, equality and the inherent dignity of all people in a way that closely mirrors the stated mission of Christ; certainly as much as any politician on either side can claim. Many Evangelicals either don't like to admit this or they simply no longer recognize the kind of life Jesus was actually calling his followers to live when they see it. That's because there's a stylized, bastardized Christianity that many politicians and celebrity pastors have peddled for years; one that has slowly but surely become our American template. It's a bloated, opulent, consumerist, aggressive, nationalistic, might is right amalgam that really doesn't resemble Jesus much at all.
In short, Obama's critics want The Year of the Lord's favour only for themselves, not others. They want to define it as them getting what they desire. This includes a deep psychological need to purify/justify their desires by projecting their own evil and shortcomings upon others who are different, instead of dealing with their own failings. Like the people in the story of Jesus preaching at Nazareth, they are enraged when it becomes clear that God is not there to endorse and enable their cosy project. The President's blackness is itself a repudiation of a world in which his critics are supreme.
The same disease is rampant on social media in Australia, where people post bowdlerised right wing American sentiment. This week one of my cousins gently and gracefully questioned the possible underlying implications of one such post by another of our clan, and was quickly slapped down by someone else. The same instant rage that races to the edge of the cliff.
Those who are enraged fail to see that, in Jesus' words, they are among the captives who need release, and who need a recovery of sight; that they are themselves oppressed, because they are not free to love and respect all other people, but must have enemies.
At the root of all this lies an understanding that life is about winners and losers. We want to win, naturally enough. But what the Faith tells us is that there are no winner or losers, just people. Anything else is a failed humanity.
In practical terms for today and tomorrow, this means that the followers of Jesus are on the losing side! Our culture is built upon the notion of winning and losing— our economy is based upon competition, not cooperation— yet the followers of Jesus are called to serve, not win. Our associating winning as the way to the good life is attached to a sort of moral superiority which assumes that our way of being is right and good. Winners are assumed to be better people; the losers and those who are different deserve punishment or, at least, their failure. But the followers of Jesus are called to step away from the comfortable life we have been told is our right since birth.
No wonder we are so easily enraged in church! The God we want to comfort us makes us supremely uncomfortable by suggesting that we are people of privilege who owe much to the less fortunate around us. God says we are the problem.
The breakthrough insight which lets us "pass through the midst" of our fear and rage to a new way of being is the understanding that our culture as it is, is not good for us. That the incessant bombardment encouraging us to consume is a call to slavery. That the calls to hate the outsider enslave us to fear. And that the hatred of difference forever nails us down to the floor of our misery.
I use the metaphor of the floor deliberately. Our freedom is not found in "going somewhere else." That's part of the winning and losing idea of life and culture. It's the equivalent of thinking we can leave our pain behind by shifting to a better suburb; it never works, and it impoverishes the place we leave behind.
Our freedom lies in breaking through the floor and rebuilding the foundations. Our rage and fear is no stupidity on our part. It is an instinctive recognition that we are being called to "a harsh and dreadful discipline"— we should read dread-full in its original sense.
Richard Beck wrote this week (his six part series is worth the read)
The Little Way of hospitality is welcoming others, especially the most marginalized persons, with small acts of kindness and inclusion. As Thérèse wrote, "a word, an amiable smile, often suffice to make a sad soul bloom."
Small things, yes, but hugely difficult to do. Imagine how your life would change if you started daily and intentionally seeking out the most difficult to love people in your life to welcome them with a bit of warmth and kindness. Think, even, of how you might practice the Little Way on social media with hard to love people!
The Little Way may be little but, in the words of Dorothy Day, it is a harsh and dreadful discipline.
Beck describes something of what I have been trying to live. It's terrifying. In emotional terms, it feels like living on the edge of the cliff; so much of my life conditioning says life will fall apart and I will fall off the edge if I go this way. Yet I think— despite my shamefully poor living out— that it has given me more healing and freedom than anything other Christian discipline I've attempted.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
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