The Gospel text this week brings us to the feet of Jesus as he is seated in the synagogue of his hometown of Nazareth, ready to expound on a text from Isaiah 61 about hopeful change and the reversal of fortune. It’s Jesus’ first official public sermon and the hometown crowd is spellbound in anticipation. Jesus reads the famous text.
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.
He proceeds to sit down, open his mouth and preach an eight word sermon followed by a first century version of a mic drop:
“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
The crowd is elated! Certainly this Good News is meant for them; they must be the “poor” referenced in Isaiah 61!
There’s only one problem. The eager congregants have completely misunderstood the radical nature of scandalous grace that the fulfillment of scripture will soon make evident.
Taking a deep breath, Jesus knows his proclamation will transform the cheering multitude in front of him into a mob of murderers behind him. He points to two stories that his audience would have known well. But the examples of God’s mercy in those stories is more of an indictment than an affirmation.
….many widows were in Israel in the days of Elijah’s time…but to none of them was Elijah sent except to Zarephath, to a woman who was a widow.
….and many lepers were in Israel in the time of Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.
All of a sudden the confused parishioners have to contend with “Good News” that slashes through the commonly accepted line of demarcation between “insiders” and “outsiders.” Out of all scripture, why would Jesus paraphrase stories where an outcast and a foreigner were somehow “in” the Lord’s favor? More importantly, if the outsider was actually “in,” where did that leave the “insider?”
“So all those in the synagogue, when they heard these things, were filled with wrath, and rose up to thrust him out of the city.”
As Jesus exposed the “in” and “out” thinking of his audience, their joy turned into rage. He proposed a tectonic shift in the boundaries of the geography of grace…and they didn’t like how the perceived borderlines had drastically expanded.
This becomes a theme throughout Luke’s Gospel. Almost 20 chapters after Nazareth, around the cross, we encounter four outsiders and one religious insider: Simone of Cyrene (Cultural Outsider), a thief on a cross next to Jesus (Moral Outsider), a centurion (Racial Outsider) and some women (Social Outsiders). Then, for good measure, we meet one enlightened religious insider (Joseph of Arimathea). The truth, of course, is that not all “outsiders” embrace the cross any more than all “insiders” reject it. But the 4:1 ratio is noteworthy nonetheless.
The life and ministry of Jesus repeatedly reveals that outcasts and outsiders often know the cross in ways that insiders don’t; they more readily recognize their stories at the thorny intersection of life and death. Religious insiders, on the other hand, often stumble at the cross. It’s hard for us to see the reality of our own complicity in the violence of the crucifixion…which was, after all, the killing of the most outside of outsiders.
So, you might be asking yourself, for those of us who might be considered insiders, is the Good News actually Bad News? Not at all!! As a global network of training hubs, we have often tried to unpack the implications of a quote from Archbishop William Temple that says, “The church is the only cooperative society in the world that exists for the benefit of its non-members.”
When we learn to see the big “C” Church, not as a building that contains God and his people, but instead as a community of the forgiven moving into the world to meet God at work, we erase the lines that divide us—the lines that have held us back from walking alongside Jesus and answering our vocation to the full humanity for which he created us.
The alternative? We become like the congregation in Nazareth that is so committed to blindly preserving the status quo that Jesus has to go around us to accomplish his work. Nothing could be more tragic. Jesus would have to pass through our midst, and we might not even know it.
But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.