Sunday Sermonettes: Luke 4:21-30

Sunday Sermonettes: In which I attempt to not completely waste my seminary education and reflect on a text from this week’s liturgy.

21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.

23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”

24 “Truly I tell you,” he continued, “prophets are not accepted in their hometowns. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon.27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy[a] in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”

28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. 30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.

(Text available at Bible Gateway here.)

The sharp shift in sentiment here is jarring: “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. . . . All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town . . . in order to throw him off the cliff.

It’s not immediately clear to the casual reader what’s quite cheesed everyone right off.

But I think the answer to the question is incredibly important to understanding Luke, perhaps the gospel itself.

Jesus doesn’t really cultivate everyone’s good feelings toward him. In the way the text is constructed, he challenges those sentiments immediately (“Surely you will quote this proverb to me.”) He’ll do this throughout Luke (to comedic effect in at least one place . . .)

But at what particular point is he challenging them? Why stick your thumb in the eye of people who like you? Before I get to that I do want to make what I think is an important point.

[Pulls out soapbox, dusts it slightly, steps up, grasps coat lapel in left hand, wags right finger dramatically:]

Jesus doesn’t get aggressive with people in a general way over general things. Too often today I hear people attempting to ape Christ’s “prophetic tone.” But it always seems to come out as a generalized, spiritualized aggression usually over the most controversial notions (the existence of hell, the uniqueness of Christ, etc.) themselves generalized and distilled out of their specific context as if such aggression were the point in and of itself. The cumulative effect of this is that modern Christians come across as hacked off (in a weird, defensive, siege mentality sort of way) over general notions and propositions which seem to simply demand some kind of “faith beyond reason” or commitment to faith even if it isn’t “cool” (and it’s hip to be square amIright?!). In the bigger picture though, this produces what has been called quite rightly an “empty politic.” It also derails any genuine knowledge creation and cultivates an apologetic stance which can never really do more than maintain already “known” boundaries.

[Steps down, puts soapbox away.]

So what did Jesus say exactly to hack of his new fans? Jesus’s ministry persistently challenges people to think about what it means to be “the people of God,” to be defined as such. For second temple Jews this was largely shaped by ethnicity and a distinct set of practices known as “the Law.”

Maintaining this identity wasn’t like being a part of the rotary. Or even a modern political party. There was something desperate and rebellious and tenuous about it. Living as a subjugated people beneath Roman imperialism, identity was a messy, violent thing to secure. And there were a number of groups attempting to carve out a mode of being in the midst of this mess. The Sadducees sought to make their peace with Rome, preserving a modicum of wealth and power. The Essenes had fled to the desert and decided they would just go there and be pure ’til fire rained from heaven. There were the terroristic zealots willing to bring about violent confrontations. The Pharisees were the complicated bunch attempting to live between all these groups, maintaining ritual purity while staying present with the Temple. The people, the generalized population, lived in the midst of this, eking out a living, surviving, and moving between these groups. They listened to them, debated their relative merits, followed one, then the other.

But the maintenance and affirmation of the boundaries of their identity as the People of God was the uncontested pursuit.

And Jesus confronts it: “there were many widows in Israel . . .Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. . . . there were many in Israel with leprosy . . .  yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.” The point being: “salvation had come outside the boundaries of ‘our’ people . . .” (implication: “and so it will again”)

What boundaries do we seek to maintain? Whose salvation would anger us were Jesus to assert it? Race/ethnicity is still a salient boundary. The sheer unwillingness to accept the current President’s Christian faith in many corners is an example of this kind of thinking. Obviously political boundaries persist. Gender still causes quite a rift. Sexuality creates a sharp boundary whose limits many rigorously police.

If full participation in the People of God has come to these, do we rejoice? Or try to fling the messenger over a cliff?

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