Year C, Epiphany4
February 3rd, 2013
By Thomas L. Truby
What Made Them So Mad?
Have you ever wondered why the people in Jesus’ home town, the people he knew best and who saw him grow into manhood got so mad? One minute the text says, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth” and in the next we find them driving him out of town by way of a cliff they hoped to throw him off of. And this was more than a fiscal cliff, they wanted him dead. How do we account for such a radical change in their behavior? This is one of the questions I want us to explore. The other is “why is the gospel rejected?” If it is such good news why don’t people embrace it right and left?”
This week’s lectionary begins where Jesus has just read this excerpt from the prophet Isaiah and sits down. Sitting down is the teaching position in Synagogues and everyone leans forward anticipating what he will say.
How will he interpret the passage he has just read? Being one of their own they know how he was raised. They know who he is “for” and who he is “against”. They know who he “loves” and who he “hates”. They know who is “included” and who is “excluded” when you are from Nazareth. They all share a world view and it’s unthinkable that Jesus might question these truths so evident to them all.
As they listen to the words of their sacred text they interpret them without realizing they are doing so. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” We are the poor. God knows we are in a terrible mess and its because of the Roman government that taxes us to death. And “release of captives,” yes, we are captive to an exploitive system that makes it impossible to get ahead. And as to blindness, we don’t quite know how that fits but it probably has to do with Messiah doing miracles to heal those who can’t see. And we certainly want the oppressed to go free because the oppressed are us and the year of the Lord’s favor will be the year when Messiah comes and leads us in a insurrection against those Roman occupiers (“bastards” is more likely the language they used).
Yes, these words from Isaiah are wonderful words. Let’s hear what Jesus will add to them. But the place in the text where he stopped reading is a bit strange. I wonder what that’s about. He really didn’t finish the passage but he is about to speak so let’s listen up. “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.”
Put yourself in Jesus’ place. Everyone is looking at you and you know what they want to hear. You grew up with them and you know exactly what they expect you to say. You also know that what you have to say is quite different and they won’t like it. What do you do? It is a moment of temptation. Do you go forward, maintain your integrity and permanently alter your relationship with the very people who participated in forming you or do you “chicken out” and say what they want to hear.
I picture Jesus taking a deep breath, knowing he is about to cross to a place from which there is no returning and saying, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Their first response could not be more positive. They think Jesus confirms all their cherished values. Its music to their ears and the text says, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” They are impressed with the words from the mouth of “Joseph’s son”—notice the diminutive and dismissive quality to that. But Jesus hasn’t really spoken yet. He has only read the text from Isaiah. Their good feeling is based on what they think he will say but he hasn’t said anything yet.
Just as Jesus didn’t finish reading the text from Isaiah as they expected so he now begins interpreting from a place they do not anticipate. He begins, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’” Are you surprised at where he starts? I am.
This miracle worker now come home seems to be saying he is unable to cure himself? Why does he start there? It’s a bit disconcerting. I sense an irony here but I am not sure how it works. Jesus is too deep for me.
Jesus goes on. “And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” Do for us what we heard you did for them. After all, unlike Capernaum, we are your own people. You are part of us. You are an expression, a symptom, an extension of us. We share an identity forged out of our agreement on who is “friend” and who is “enemy”, who is “in” and who is “out,” who is “us” and who is “them”.
Jesus knows they see him as an insider to their world but as an insider he has nothing to offer them. As an insider he cannot cure them for it is their division of the world into “inside” and “outside” that has them in bondage. This is their blindness, the thing that makes them poor. This is the prison within which they are held, the oppression they cannot escape. It will take good news and the proclamation of the Year of the Lord’s favor to loose them and then only after the resurrection. Jesus must make himself an outsider for them to have any chance at seeing the source of their blindness.
With his “listen up” introduction in the form of “Truly I tell you,” he explains that no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. Social rejection is part of what makes a prophet a prophet. While it is true a prophet’s message may cause them to be rejected, it is also true that they have a word to say because they have already been rejected. The prophet has been on the wrong side of “group think” and that gives them the ability to know things that other people can’t know.
At this point Jesus tells them two stories from their Bible. In the first story he points out how God did not send Elijah to help all the widows in Israel suffering from famine except for one widow at Zarephath in Sidon. Zarephath in Sidon isn’t even one of their own communities, it’s a gentile village and therefore inhabited by their enemies. God helped someone outside their idea of who should be helped. God rescued someone who wasn’t even on their list of recognizable people. It would be like God, through Elijah, going to an illegal alien and helping them when there were thousands of legal citizens in trouble everywhere. Could it be that God loved all people and not just them? Is it possible that God loved their enemies? Could it be their identity, based on exclusion, was not shared by the God in whose name they excluded? The hairs on the back of their neck began to rise.
In the second story Jesus tells them there where many lepers in Israel at the time of Elisha and none of them where cleansed except Naaman the Syrian. Naaman was a famous non-Jewish leader; an outsider to their tribe. It appears that God’s prophets, maybe even Jesus, go to everyone not just insiders. Could it be that God’s love is so wide it reaches even those who are not Christian? Maybe there is no “inside” and “outside”. As Brian McLaren writes in his book entitled, Everything Must Change, in a section entitled “Not a Tame Prophet”:
His scope of liberation will be, as with the prophets of old, far broader than simply the members of his own religion and nation. Even outsiders, even Gentiles will be included in the scope of Jesus’ good news.
Now the people of Nazareth began understanding why Jesus did not complete the reading from Isaiah. He stopped before he finished the text and ended in the middle of a verse without reading the phrase, “and the day of vengeance of our God.” Had he read the whole text he would have finished with, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God,” but hedidn’t read the whole thing.
Where he stopped reading has to do with Jesus’ way of interpreting scripture. Jesus does not believe in a God of vengeance and therefore leaves off that part. Jesus believes that’s the part Isaiah got wrong. That’s our violent human story, not God’s. Jesus came to show us God’s story and it is a story about love, non-violence and forgiveness.
Like all the prophets Isaiah still saw God as violent. But Jesus believes such violence is a projection of our human violence and has nothing to do with God.
The people of Jesus’ hometown correctly think Jesus is taking away their right to revenge. In a sense he appears to be depriving them of what they live for. The very sense of themselves as a group grew out of their shared hope in seeing their enemies humiliated and suffering, with vengeance visited upon them. The idea that God might love our enemies and have no need to seek revenge is too much to take. They act to reject Jesus.
Could this be why Jesus’ gospel is rejected by both the church and the world? Could this be why the good news of God’s love sometimes makes us mad? We want God to love us but hate our enemies. What if he really loves us all? What if that is the essential message of Jesus? If that’s true, we may have to rethink everything.
“When they heard this, all 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.” They don’t want to give up their violence. When he names their desire for revenge they respond by immediately attempting to do to him what they felt he was depriving them of doing to others.
“But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” In a magnificent foreshadowing of the cross and resurrection he passes through them. It is still early in his ministry and he will need more witnesses to his life before he yields his life to our violence. He will need more witnesses because we are the ones who carry on his mission after he has rejoined his Father. We continue his ministry of radial inclusiveness, disciplined non-retaliation and intentional, human-focused mission. Amen.