Luke 4:18-19 "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, to proclaim
the year of the Lord's favor."
Imagine the scene. The top celebrity of the day--and
she's from Milpitas. Grown up in this very church. We
knew she had potential: We all pitched in to help see
that she got the right education. We took turns to get
her to lessons and auditions. We knew she was good, but
never quite had a clue that she would be off to such a
quick start. And now, it looks like her career will take
off like gang-busters. Of course, that is great for her,
for her family, for her friends. But think about our
payback--what that will do for us? We've been faithful
as helpers and fans. Her attention will put us on the
map! We'll be able to get good seats every time a show
comes to town. Her attention here might bring others to
this church. It will even get good seats and back stage
passes when we're in other places.
Continue with me in this scene: a concert just for
us--a few numbers, some intimate conversation--some talk of
how it was and how it will be. We hope for some thanks
for all we've done to help get her where she is--well,
maybe she just forgot... we know how that can be.
So, we get to talking about how it is--we hear about the
club dates, and the big plans, the expectations that she
will play all the best houses. And we're hanging on every
word. Just seeing ourselves in the light reflected from
her. We're really excited about how her success will
change our success.
Finally our conversation turns to how it will be. We
expect to hear about the comps she will send so we can
attend concerts. But instead, she reminisces about the
founding of the Genesis congregation across town--how at
a low point in our own congregational life, funding was
poured into a new church start--not our own--and how
effective that has been. OK. We remember that--painful
as those memories are. But what about us? And just
recently, she recalls, the new congregation in Mountain
View--good stuff going on there--must have cost a bundle
and look at all the activity going on in that congregation
--high tech music, really great children's program and
youth group. Boy, you should take a lead from some of the
stuff that's going on there, she says. OK, it is beginning
to feel a little like salt is rubbing in an open wound...
And as quickly as the concert began, she is swept away by
her handlers, and gone to her next gig. No comps, no TV
spots shot from our location, no thanks for the faithful
help we've been for all these years.
OK guys. Lets get her. Maybe we can stop the limo at the
airport. Or, maybe not.
How different are we--really--than the synagogue
congregation at Nazareth. A faithful little group,
listening to a hometown celeb. We hear our favorite and
most cherished scripture: it proclaims the stuff we're
right there for: Social Justice, and getting the Romans
out of Israel--this year. We're with him. Just waiting
for more. And then, instead of filling in the hometown
crowd on how he will lead them to victory--either
military, OR spiritual, so that the "acceptable year of
the Lord" can come to pass--Jesus starts rambling about
the works of God OUTSIDE Israel altogether. No wonder
they want to kill him!
And then it dawns on us. The "acceptable year of the
Lord" isn't whenever WE think it should be. WE don't get
to choose. And guess what. We're probably not the poor,
the blind, the captives or the oppressed, either. So, why
in God's name have we been hanging around the--church ....urm... synagogue--all these years?? It sure isn't because
we'll be first in line whenever God chooses to see fit to
bring in that "acceptable year."
In this short vignette--covered in last week and this
week's Gospel reading--Jesus is at his prophetic best.
Pithy, truthful, pointed, and making folks angry by
interpreting the scripture traditions of the believing
community--in this instance the passage from Isaiah--as
a challenge for his contemporaries. In his prophetic role,
he followed in the path set down by other exalted
prophets: Amos was run out of town. Jeremiah was scorned
and tried twice for blasphemy and sedition. Our Hebrew
scripture examples--just like the proverb that Jesus
quoted--remind us that prophets aren't particularly well
liked in their own communities.
Prophets aren't well liked because they force folks to
look at the secrets of their own hearts. Nothing that
Jesus told the synagogue crowd in Nazareth was news. The
scriptures were well known. But, perhaps they had allowed
themselves to "forget" how far and wide God's love and
grace extends, or that God proclaims Godself the God of
all--not just of a privileged few. Or, as the writer of
Hebrews says, "our judge is the God of all." Whether we
like it or not, God is not the cheerleader of the
Club-of-the-Saved we as Churched-folks have sometimes made God
out to be.
Folks love the parable of the prodigal son, or at least
love it until they realize that it is the OTHER sibling
who is found and rejoiced in. OR the parable of the lost
sheep, until we figure out we are probably one of the 99...
It's hard not to be resentful when, after all our faithful
service, the party is given in someone else's honor. And
Jesus-the-prophet knows that about us.
Do we really want a gracious God? Certainly we do--for
ourselves. But how can we believe a gracious God if we
don't believe that the same grace is given to those
sinners outside our church doors, outside our faith,
outside our boundaries of acceptability?
How can we believe in a truly gracious God if we have
tamed God, and domesticated God, and packaged God
according to OUR will--say as a Christian--a United
Methodist, acceptable to the Northern California-Nevada
Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church? Jesus is
run out of town for his prophetic notion that God is
bigger than that. The synagogue folks try to kill him for
pointing that theirs is not a privileged place. If God is
bigger than that--and brothers and sisters, God IS!--
step back--God is who God is, and we don't get to define
God's limits of acceptability. What's Love got to do with
it? God's love has everything to do with it. For all of
humanity--God is the God of all, God's love spread far
beyond the Church or even our faith., That really is good
What's the basic story:
Jesus teaching and his home town folks really proud.
Then, he goes one step farther... (Or is it too far? ) and
uses the Elijah Elisha examples--and suddenly, after
using these well known passages from 1 and 2 Kings, the
crowd turns on him, and wants to kill him.
What causes the crowd to change their mind so fast?
it really have anything to do with the proverb--a prophet
is never honored in his hometown... did the folks in Nazareth
really think they had a special "in" with God because they
helped to raise up Jesus? (Do we?)
What do the examples/might the examples say about Jesus, Jesus identity, Jesus mission?
Jesus claims the scripture has come to maturity
today in their hearing--that
"The Spirit of the Lord is
upon me, because he has anointed me... . to proclaim the year
of the Lord's favor" (the "acceptable year of the Lord");
and the crowd is congenial, pleased with what they have
heard. And it is almost as if Jesus goads them, as he
puts words in their mouth: "do here the things you did in
Capernaum" Not only does he set them up, he pushes them
down. They have been proud and he throws it in their
"no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown." AND
not only that, but look how God dispenses God's grace: to
those outside the inner circle. To the widow at Zarephath
in Sidon (not any of the widows within Israel!) and
cleansing Naaman the Syrian, even though there were many
lepers in Israel.
God will do what God will do.
Jesus is the hometown guy. In reading this passage he
self-identifies himself as a prophet, and it appears that
for a brief moment his friends and family in Nazareth are
ok with that. But what are the implications?
1. Jesus as
a prophet. A prophet in the biblical tradition is one who
interprets the identifying and life-giving tradition of
the believing community (in this instance the passage from
Isaiah) as a challenge for his or her contemporaries.
Our Hebrew scripture examples--just like the proverb that
Jesus quoted--remind us that prophets aren't particularly
well liked in their own communities. The "yes-men" of the
community aren't prophets--they are yes-men. Hebrew
scripture prophets were frequently in trouble: Amos was
run out of town. Isaiah was teased and chided. Jeremiah
was scorned and tried twice for blasphemy and sedition.
Elijah ended up the house-guest of the Widow of Sidon
because he was on the run. Prophets interpret the
identifying and life-giving traditions for the believing
communities--hitting so close to the heart of the matter
that the audience hears the secrets of their own hearts,
whether they want to or not. If a prophet's reading
isn't challenging, it isn't prophetic.
One note we take
from this in our own scripture work is that when we study
"the manner by which the prophets, including Jesus,
interpreted their traditions in their day we can arrive at
a rule for the way we should interpret Scripture in our
day; and the first such rule would be "Whenever our
reading of a biblical passage makes us
self-righteous, we can be confident we have misread it."
test this in the Luke passage. Jesus read Isaiah: "The
spirit of the Lord is upon me because... ", and the crowd was
pleased and happy he was a hometown boy starting out in
his ministry. Of course, we're pretty jazzed about Jesus
starting his ministry with a passage that so clearly calls
us to a ministry of Social Justice. So, Jesus, in true
prophetic form, continues.
2. Jesus "sermon" as prophetic
Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant,
and as was the tradition, sat down to begin to teach.
He began with the affirmation "Today, these words are
fulfilled" And the crowd went wild. They spoke well of
him. But, of course, Jesus didn't leave it there. He
started to preach.
"you might say... Truly I tell you, no
prophet is accepted in the prophets hometown" And God came
to the Widow in Sidon, and Naaman in Syria"
And the once
accepting crowd was filled with rage.
The rest, as they say, is history (or scripture... ) But we
are left with the events, not the motivation. Kind of a
big "HUH?" Jesus is called to a mission of Social
Justice, God's love and grace are not limited to those
within Israel (or the Church). Sounds good to me. Were
clear on that message. I preach that on a regular basis--Heck, we LIVE that on a regular basis.
But, Jesus started the sermon claiming a prophetic role.
If we're cool with his prophetic message, we've missed
something. Big time.
According to James A. Sanders, in "The Freedom of God's
grace", one of the fairly arrogant things we do when
reading the Gospels is to assume that we in the Church
today have progressed closer to "Truth" than had first
century Judaism. Saunders says, and I have to agree,
that "the human mind is no more able to discern its own
corruption of [our own] consciousness today than it was in
the first century." A simpler way of saying the same
thing: Everything Jesus said to the people of his own
time applies to us. So, Is there some way WE can get
emotionally closer to the members of the Nazareth
community and to the understanding of what went on? Why
does this message make them want to kill him, and make us
pat our selves on the back with self-righteous zeal? What
have we missed??
To really understand how the crowd turned so suddenly, we
need to be able to stand closer to the folks in the
Listen again to the passage from Isaiah: "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, to proclaim the [acceptable] year
of the Lord's favor."
Now, you and I may hear this as a call to social justice:
good news to the poor, release to the captives. But, what
if we were a sect in 1st century Judaism who called
ourselves "the Poor", and believed that, when the Messiah
came, WE got preferential treatment? One of the
discoveries from the Dead Sea Scrolls is that this
particular passage was Very important to groups such as
these--that when the Messiah came, they would have
preferential treatment. Now, it doesn't make a big
difference for this reading, in my opinion, whether we--
that is, you and I--think that 1st century Jews thought
the "end of time" was close, or whether the Messiah
signaled the "end of time/beginning of a heavenly kingdom
", or the beginning of a new era on earth.
Jesus had just told the group that:
- He was anointed to
proclaim the coming of this time: The acceptable
year of the Lord.
- He was the one for whom they
waited. "The scripture has been fulfilled in your
hearing" They assumed:
This was the time.
Very exciting. Time to tell the Romans where to go. Time
for the pious Jews to get their generous due and
preferential treatment. All those who had minded their
"P"s and "Q"s, who had been in church each week, done the
right charity work, followed the rules, would be at the
head of the line--whether on that "great getting up
morning", or simply when the Jerusalem Temple was the Rule
But wait: Then Jesus presses on:
No prophet is acceptable
in his own home town.
This produces the quandary we miss.
Proclaiming a time "acceptable to God" in a place where a
prophets words are never "acceptable," that is, are
You see, Jesus told the group at Nazareth that in one way
or another, the prophet's proclamation of the will of God
was always understood as something else. (boy, talk about
your catch 22's!) And, without pausing for an instant,
Jesus brought up instances of God's grace and love
delivered outside the bounds of Israel and the cultic
Jesus said effectively that in "the acceptable year of the
lord", in the final analysis God would not embrace
Israel, (or the church!), as the sole possessor of truth.
God's ways are not our ways and his thoughts are not our
thoughts (Isa. 55:8). And if we're not going to be at
least in a preferential place in line, are we angry too??
As Fred Craddock observes, "All of us know what it is to
be at war with ourselves, sometimes making causalities of
those who are guilty of nothing but speaking the truth in
love" (Luke, IBC, p. 63). Jesus-the-prophet's sermon
should reveal to us the secrets of our heart, our
corruption of consciousness. As the author of the Epistle
to the Hebrews put it, "Our judge is the God of all. Not
just United Methodists. Not just Protestants, not just
Christians or even Jews. Our God is the God of all. The
mission and message of Jesus according to Luke is about
undermining 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.
Are the folks at Nazareth are really very different than
any of us? We really want the Gospel to say what we want
it to say. If we really understood what we were doing,
could any of us really pray "Your will be done?" It is
an amazing and undeniably dangerous prayer. And we pray
And Jan Lochmann, the great Czech theologian, said in his
inaugural speech at Union Seminary in the late 60's said,
"In Jesus Christ, God did not become a Christian but a
man: ecce homo." * We can all remember the slight shock
we received as children to learn that God was not an
Episcopalian, or a Presbyterian, or a Baptist, or a
professor emeritus of Yale Divinity School. But I wonder
if we have yet been shocked into the realization that God
is not a Christian.
"For God so loved the World."