Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Home Town Visit Goes Awry - Lectionary Reflection for Epiphany 4C


Luke 4:21-30 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 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?” 23 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.’” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 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; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers[a] in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 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. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
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                Filled with the Holy Spirit Jesus had begun his preaching ministry in Galilee. After touring some of the towns, he went back home to Nazareth. On the Sabbath day he paid a visit to the local synagogue, where we would assume he would be known. When he arrived the leaders, having heard of his fame as a preacher, asked him to read the scripture for the day and offer a few words. Everything seemed to be going well, at least at first. Even his proclamation of the Year of Jubilee and his announcement that he was its fulfillment hadn’t caused too many ripples (not as many as I might have expected). The people were amazed at how eloquent he was. Yes, they were amazed that this hometown boy was so accomplished a teacher. Who knew that Joseph’s son would turn out like this?  Then again, if we go back in time to Jesus’ adolescent years, Luke suggests that “Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor” (Luke 2:52). Had anything changed in the intervening years to have changed the view of the people?


                Time has a way of coloring our perspectives on things. A decade is a long time. Perhaps Jesus had been away. Even Luke, who is the most informative about Jesus’ years between birth and baptism, doesn’t say anything about where Jesus had been prior to his ordination at the Jordan. We like to speculate. Was he a laborer, a carpenter, or a religious seeker? At least a few people suggest that he had been living under the tutelage of John the Baptist. In any case the people seemed relatively happy with Jesus’ message. That is, until he decided to stir the pot.

                Could it be that Jesus saw through the warmth of the welcome to something less welcoming?  At first the people were excited to hear this young man who was the talk of the region. They were proud to say that he was one of their own. But it would seem, in Luke’s mind at least, that Jesus knew that the warmth would not last. All of a sudden, from out in left field, Jesus starts giving the congregation a tongue lashing. Where did this come from? Mark and Matthew suggest that the people in Nazareth demanded signs, but Luke gives no evidence of this. So why the angry display on Jesus’ part? Why did he stir the pot? Luke doesn't say.

What Jesus does here is begin laying out what the people of his hometown will say of him. He also tells them that they’re no different than previous generations who wrongly treat the prophets whom God sends to them.  Even if they’ve not demanded signs yet, they will. Indeed, they will say to him: “Do here the things we have heard you did in Capernaum.” The fact is, he told them: “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” People in the hometown are liable to be more critical than those outside might be. They might be more expectant that they will receive the benefits of having a hometown hero. If Jesus didn’t perform then they would reject him. He was, you might say, in a lose-lose situation. He wanted to be upfront about this from the very beginning.

                I’m wondering whether there’s something else going on underneath this almost petulant display. Could it be that Jesus had experienced some kind of rejection earlier in life? It’s true that Luke suggests that he grew up well received by the people, but had he felt the need to leave home? Was there something in this statement about Jesus being Joseph’s son that is revealing a tension? Or, could it be that something occurs in between the statement of appreciation and Jesus’ apparent outburst? Could there have been a demand for Jesus to perform some miracles, a demand that Luke neglects to mention? In cases like this, we really want to read between the lines!  

                The references to Elijah and Elisha would fit with Luke’s overall vision of the gospel moving from Judaism into the Gentile world. Luke’s audience was likely composed of Gentile Christians. It seems to represent the growing tension between Jewish and Gentile Christian communities. In the book of Acts, Luke tells us that when Paul encounters resistance in the synagogues he moved to Gentile communities (Acts 13:44-47). In this particular case Jesus tells the home crowd that their resistance to the Gospel allows for the Gospel to go elsewhere, to places that are more receptive to the message of Jubilee.    To illustrate his point, Jesus mentions two specific instances. The first example is that of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath. Why did Elijah go to this foreign woman to seek refuge? Weren’t there any widows in Israel who could minister to him (but of course that’s the point; he was persona non grata in Israel). So Elijah sought refuge in the land of the enemy, bringing blessing to a Gentile.  The second is like unto it—Naaman the Syrian general came to Elisha to seek healing from his leprosy. Why did this leper experience cleansing when the lepers of Israel did not?  And the people got angry, really angry, so angry they wanted to kill Jesus.

As we listen to this encounter, and Jesus’ provocative sermon, do we hear something familiar? Do we hear in the exchange that is occurring now? Is there an ethnocentrism present that causes us to close our hearts and our borders to those in need? I’m thinking of the refugees from Syria and surrounding countries that our country seems unwilling to embrace?

When Jesus brings up the two stories of the widow and the general, the crowd gets riled up. They feel insulted. They want to be respected. So they turn on him. Where just a few minutes earlier everyone was admiring the hometown boy made good, now they were so enraged that they wanted to throw him off the cliff. Fortunately, that didn’t happen. The time of his demise was not yet at hand. So he simply walked through the crowd and continued on, never to return home again.

                What do we make of this scene? How do we who are called to preach handle it? When you look more closely, Jesus seems to have caused the problem facing him. The people might have murmured a bit about his declaration of the year of Jubilee, at least those with something to lose, but this is different. This is an intentional provocation. He had attacked their sincerity and questioned their motives.

                What then should we take from this exchange? I’m wondering how well we receive criticism? I’m thinking about the mantra I heard growing up: “America, love it or leave it.” The message communicated to us was that true patriotism is an unquestioning one. America is great. To question its greatness or its holiness is unpatriotic. It even borders on treason. We hear politicians today declaring that America has nothing to apologize for and that a leader who apologizes is a weak leader. We’re number one, and no one, especially no one from within should question that status!   We hear the same thoughts emerging within the Christian community. We’re the true religion. Every other religion is demented or evil. We must defend our honor in every way we can. If you challenge it, especially if our version of Christianity is a mixture of Christianity and Americanism we will get angry!  


                What started out so well ended with Jesus turning away from the cliff and walking through the crowd. He didn’t resist them. He acted nonviolently. But it appears that his ministry would lie elsewhere—in more fertile ground. So ends part two of this two part message!    

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