Fourth Sunday After Epiphany
Year C, RCL
February 3, 2019
North Fork Ministries
In the synagogue at Nazareth, Jesus read from the book of the prophet Isaiah, and began to say, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, "Is not this Joseph's son?" He said to them, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, 'Doctor, cure yourself!' And you will say, 'Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'" And he said, "Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian." When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They 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. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
While this story about Jesus teaching in the synagogue appears in Matthew and Mark also, only in Luke do we find Jesus recounting the prophesies of Elijah and Elisha. In Matthew and Mark, Jesus’ message wasn’t particularly well received – he was able to heal a few sick people, but performed no deeds of power - the miracles the people of Nazareth had heard about. But in Luke, the people’s response is quite a bit more animated; they were filled with rage and drove Jesus out of town, apparently ready to stone him. What exactly did Jesus say in Luke that made everyone so angry?
As a teacher, Jesus starts off pretty well with the people of Nazareth. In the passage preceding the one that we just heard, last week’s Gospel reading, Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he 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.”
The people loved this part. As the hometown boy spoke; every eye was fixed on him. “All spoke well of him and they were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” – like butter, as they say. Then, Jesus, knowing that what he had to say next might not be so well received – prepared the people (and maybe himself) by noting that no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. Jesus follows this well-known saying by reminding the people of truths that they already knew. He sketched in their minds the story from their own scriptures of the prophet Elijah and his understudy Elisha. Elijah, who was sent by God to a widow who lived in Sidon, to a foreigner, when there were many widows among the children of Israel who were in need. And then Jesus reminds them of Elisha, who rather than heal the many lepers in Israel, chose to heal Namaan, a Syrian soldier.
This is where the crowd started getting irritated. In fact they were filled with rage.
It began to sink in that when Jesus talked about the good news that he had been anointed to bring to the poor, that maybe the good news wasn’t just meant for them. It suddenly dawned on these people that Jesus was asking something of them. He was asking that they reach out beyond their nationalistic borders, reach out beyond meeting the needs of themselves and their kin, and be a part of sharing good news with others.
And that’s where it got political. It was all well and good when Jesus quoted the prophets of old and spoke in general terms about the Spirit of the Lord being upon them and bringing good news to the poor and sight to the blind. It wasn’t so much that Jesus could get no respect because he was a prophet in his hometown. Jesus got in trouble, because he brought the prophecy home. Jesus got in trouble when he started speaking in specifics. The people didn’t like it when he suggested that God cared as much about the well-being of the Syrian soldier or the widow from Sidon as God cared about the residents of Jerusalem. Jesus pointed out that God cared about the foreigner being fed and the alien being healed every bit as much as God cared about the Israelites. You see this was a touchy topic in Nazareth. This wasn’t Jerusalem. Nazareth was a scruffy little border town where cultures often mingled and sometimes clashed. The people clung to their cultural identity. Today we might call them nationalists.
To the people of Nazareth, what Jesus had to say about the foreigner, started sounding political. My favorite definition of politics is the classic quote of Harold Lasswell, who said, “Politics is who gets what, when, and how.” If that is so, then Jesus cared about politics. Because Jesus cared deeply about who gets what, when, and how. It would be hard to find a contemporary political issue that Jesus wouldn’t have cared about. Immigration, health reform, the state of the economy, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And Jesus’ political pronouncements would probably have gotten him chased out of town today as quickly as he was 2000 years ago. Probably because we still don’t want to hear that we don’t come first and that God cares as much about the well being of others as God cares about us.
You may have already heard me mention Robert Wright’s remarkable book, The Evolution of God. It is an exploration of the nature and history of God within the three great Abrahamic religions. It is Wright’s thesis that we and God are on an evolutionary path together, changing, moving away from a narrow seeking after what is good only for ourselves and our kin, and toward a sense of oneness with all creation. Jesus was almost hurled off a cliff because he preached that message to people who weren’t ready to receive it. Clearly, revelation is a two-way street. It’s not really revelation until the listener is willing to hear the truth that is being revealed.
And yet, even when Jesus was being most pointed, most harsh, in his attempt to direct his people toward the truths contained within their own scripture, truths that they really didn’t want to hear, Jesus was being his most compassionate. Jesus pointing out to his listeners that God loved the widow of Sidon as much as he loved the countless widows of Israel and bringing to their attention that God wanted to heal the Syrian leader Naaman, as much as he wanted to heal any Israelite. God may have chosen the Israelites for a special purpose, but they had no monopoly on God’s love.
Jesus was urging his listeners to reach out beyond the narrow boundaries of race and class and culture and recognize that they are called to love as God loves – abundantly and without nationalistic restraint.
Yet, as difficult as this message was to accept, this message of judgment revealed Jesus at his most compassionate. Jesus understood that learning to love those who are outside our tribe accomplishes multiple purposes. The fruit of compassion for others is not limited to the good that is done for them. Feeding the hungry, freeing the unjustly imprisoned, providing gainful employment, attending to the needs of those outside our family, enriches the lives of others and makes the world a better place. But also - and here is where Jesus was showing his truest love and compassion for his listeners in the synagogue in Nazareth - when we reach out beyond ourselves to extend help those who are most different from us, it is we who are really fed, it is we who are freed from bondage. It is you and I who become most gainfully employed, by finally finding our highest calling. And it is when we turn away from preoccupation with ourselves and begin to regard the well being of others as a worthy consideration – that we move toward happiness.
Earlier we read from Paul’s first letter to the people of Corinth - that most beautiful passage about the nature and value of love. The Apostle Paul taught that love is patient and kind and that it bears and endures and never ends. “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.” In speaking prophetically, in asking his people to move beyond a place where they felt comfortable, Jesus was actually revealing his most compassionate and loving side. Because Jesus could see what remained a mystery for most. He understood, on a soul level, that by loving others, we are showing kindness to ourselves, and that we are all, every created being, wrapped in the loving arms of God.
Hillel the Elder, the first century Jewish sage and scholar said, in words that Christ may have heard and could have also spoken,
If I am not for myself who will be for me.
Yet, if I am for myself only, what am I?
And if not now, when?