I wonder what would have happened if the people of Nazareth had actually thrown Jesus off that cliff. Would an angel have appeared to make sure he didn’t get hurt? Or would history have been changed because of the loss of this God-given gift to humankind?
The immediate, violent reaction against Jesus in his home congregation is hard to understand. For one thing it reveals how provocative and challenging, even threatening, Jesus was – a far cry from “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” as he was promoted during the Victorian era. In many Gospel passages, he seems to be more of a radical, activist figure. Is he a prophet? Is he a rabbi? Is he a mystic of some sort? Or is he a revolutionary figure like Gandhi – or maybe Che Guevara? He is definitely hard to categorize, and it took the church several hundred years to decide on the correct terminology.
But people typically don’t react with such violence unless they have been seriously threatened or provoked. So what did Jesus do, exactly, to provoke this?
He told two simple stories – inspiring stories about people in great need being helped and cured. One story was about the great prophet Elijah helping a Sidonian woman who was starving to death, and the other story was about the prophet Elisha healing Naaman, a Syrian, the leader of an enemy army, of the disease of leprosy. The stories are both from the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew scriptures, it is clear from the scriptures that this was God at work, and yet the people were disturbed by his interpretation, because Jesus was making the point that the people being helped were not Jewish.
In his sermon to the people at the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus had very consciously and deliberately grounded his sense of mission in the Jewish prophets and the great promises of Isaiah, declaring himself to be a Jew first and foremost. And yet, that did not seem to satisfy the people of the synagogue, because they realized that even though Jesus rooted himself in Judaism, he did not confine himself to Judaism alone.
At that time, they were not prepared to hear such a generous and expansive interpretation. They wanted to hear stories about how God destroys the infidel and rescues the oppressed, because they saw themselves as oppressed by the foreign occupation of the Roman Empire, with all its onerous taxes and threats. They wanted to hear stories suggesting that God should get busy smiting foreigners, rather than saving them. So to be reminded of a time when God’s Jewish prophets cared generously about people of other nations and faiths, was received as an insult, a provocation.
When Jesus made the connection between himself and the messianic prophecies, the people should have been prepared to hear something of universal scope. Jesus was trying to remind them that their tradition taught them to think in bigger, more universal terms. He was trying to encourage them not to become small and petty, even though the times were challenging.
As God says through Jeremiah: “I appointed you a prophet to the nations … I appoint you over nations and kingdoms.”
Jesus’ interpretation of the text threatened their sense of the exclusiveness of the Jewish people, their sense of themselves as the chosen, that is, the only ones God is really concerned about in this world. It also threatened their justification for playing small, and for not really rising to the challenge to transform the world.
One of the main points made in today’s Gospel is how easily we can ignore the summons of God, even when it is plainly written in our sacred scriptures, even when God is speaking directly to us. As author Marianne Williamson suggests, who are you not to shine? “Your playing small does not serve the world.”
This is part of the dynamic in the readings from Jeremiah and 1 Corinthians 13 today as well: how to respond to that summons toward maturity – the call to a greater way.
Jeremiah responds to that call by saying “I’m only a boy.” And the answer is: Never say “I am only ….” to God because God knows what we are about better than we know ourselves. God knows our capacities and potential. It’s just a pity that we often allow the criticism and negativity of others to keep us small – keep us from realizing the greatness and true purpose that may be in us. Never say “I am only . . . .” because, in essence, that is an insult to the God who made you.
Bad as it is to say “I am only . . .”it is even worse to say “You are only . . . .” – to tell someone else that they don’t amount to anything — which is what the people of Nazareth do to Jesus. “You’re only the son of a carpenter – who do you think you are, telling us what we should do?”
It serves as a reminder to us that the job of the church is to teach people how important and valuable they actually are, especially when they are in situations which de-value or diminish them. The Church must affirm people in the love of God – convince them that they must never under-estimate the importance of their living to their God-given potential.
Sometimes people disappear from the life of the church, thinking they are only an insignificant member and won’t be missed. But using Paul’s analogy of the church as a body, which body part do you think you would be prepared to live without? Even if you lost a baby toe, you would feel it and you would notice it. And even if you thought of yourself as “just a baby toe,” some seemingly insignificant part, maybe you’re wrong, maybe you’re actually more like an arm or an eye or a brain or a heart. Do you think the body would be better off without you then? Never say “I am only ….” when it comes to the realm of God.
Luke’s Gospel reveals that Jesus, in his preaching, in his interpretation of the text, was revealing something about God that was so challenging to the people of that synagogue, in his home town, that they immediately were enraged to the point of insane violence. And we must realize that this is the deliberate focus of the Gospel writer. Luke sees the universal perspective in the ancient writings and his whole Gospel conveys the major theme of how God is reaching out beyond Judaism to the wider world – to all people rather than the chosen few.
From the very beginning of Luke’s Gospel, in which the elder Simeon sings a song of thanksgiving at the coming of the Messiah, and says that this child will be a light to the Gentiles, Luke’s Gospel follows Isaiah in proclaiming that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God,” and reveals God’s concern for the wider world more than any of the other Gospels. So Luke quotes Jesus as saying: “When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid. But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” Luke has Samaritans (who were generally despised by Jews) as the unlikely heroes of Jesus’ stories, and his emphasis on Jesus’ sympathy for those beyond the pale is striking. (See Luke 10: 24—37; Luke 14: 12—14; 18: 19—14.)
Jesus obviously said many different things, but this is the dimension of things that Luke heard him saying and chose to focus on – this sense of God’s love for all humankind, even the poorest and most unlikely. In Luke’s vision, the people you would be most likely to detest turn out to be the people of God in the way Luke.
The message to the people of Israel is: don’t be small; don’t deny your destiny. Be generous, be magnanimous, be charitable, be open-minded, be great! Be the light that the world needs.
So it is that Luke teaches us to expect that God will move and call us in surprising directions, pushing us beyond what we thought we were and into something new – something different – something greater.
The people in the synagogue represent those people and influences in our lives that try to keep us small and familiar, who do not want us to outgrow them or grow up.
It is sadly typical that we do not expect the familiar to speak to us of God, and so we distance God, we make God something exotic and foreign, putting God away in places like “heaven” and refusing to believe God is living and active. It is Luke’s Gospel that Jesus says, “The Kingdom of God is within you.” To the people at the synagogue, Jesus reveals that God is right in their midst and pushes them to move out of a parochial and fear-based view of the world and embrace instead a much larger, more universal vision.
The luminous, amazing figure of Christ is there in their synagogue and as long as he says things that they pretty much agree with, they nod and smile and tell each other how great he is. The moment he tries to shift their understanding, the moment he tries to enlighten them somewhat they are offended and begin saying “Who does he think he is! He’s just the son of the carpenter!” They try to bring him back down to size. These are people who were around Jesus as he grew up, and often, the people closest to you have the hardest time letting you grow up into the fullness of the person you are meant to be. They keep remembering you as a child, and so they keep you small, especially if they are too afraid to grow up and engage the real world themselves.
It is difficult to see that light in others when you can’t see it in yourself.
The people in the synagogue are no different than people of many other religions who ignore their own scriptures because they do not like the challenges or the message that God loves everyone equally – that there are no favourites. Especially at times when we feel oppressed or when things are difficult in any way, we want religion to make us special, to give us an advantage, to make us feel better than someone else. We don’t want to be reminded of our ongoing call to charity and universal goodwill. And so it is that religion separates and divides when its real purpose is to reconcile and unite. Yet it is precisely at dark and difficult times we most need faith to shine; it is precisely at such times that we need to be reminded of those who had the courage to reach past the walls and the boundaries to reveal God’s sovereignty and grace.
The Gospel shows how Jesus confronted the Jews about their loss of vision and perspective, but the message in Luke is meant for those who would choose to be followers of Christ. To respond to the call of Jesus means that we become willing to see the world as God sees it; to hear as God does the cries of the poor and the excluded; and to love the world as God does.
So it is that, at a dark time of year, and maybe at a dark time in your life, and maybe even at a dark time in history, we are reminded of our call to be the light of the world (see Matthew 5:14).
And so it is that St Paul says to the community at Corinth, struggling against trivial and selfish interpretations of Baptism and Eucharist and life in community: “Love does not insist on its own way.”
And so it is that Jesus tells stories of great compassion, of how the great spiritual leaders of Israel, even in the midst of very challenging times, were willing to be bearers and signs of God’s love to a broken and imperfect world.
The Reverend Grant Rodgers+
RCL-appointed readings for Epiphany 4:
Jeremiah 1:4-10 Now the word of the LORD came to me saying, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord GOD! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.”
But the LORD said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a boy’; for you shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you, Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.” Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, “Now I have put my words in your mouth. See, today I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.”
Psalm 71:1-6 In you, O LORD, I take refuge; let me never be put to shame. In your righteousness deliver me and rescue me; incline your ear to me and save me. Be to me a rock of refuge, a strong fortress, to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress. Rescue me, O my God, from the hand of the wicked, from the grasp of the unjust and cruel. For you, O Lord, are my hope, my trust, O LORD, from my youth. Upon you I have leaned from my birth; it was you who took me from my mother’s womb. My praise is continually of you.
1 Corinthians 13:1-13 If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 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. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
Luke 4:21-30 Then he began to say to them, “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.