Love and Love Derailed
1-31-16 Homily 4th week ordinary time year c: Jeremiah 1: 4-19, Ps. 71:1-17, 1Cor 12: 31-13:4, Luke 4: 18-30
I have heard “A prophet is not accepted in his own country” applied to lot of trivial situations (mostly meaning: you won’t believe me just because you know me). But I have never really understood why the people of Nazareth were angry enough to kill Jesus, and why they turned against him so suddenly.
Rule # 1 for making sense of Bible passages: read what comes before and after the passage. Luke chapters 1-3 tell us of the birth of Jesus and his Baptism. Chapter 4, where we read today, immediately takes Jesus from his Baptism to his temptation in the desert, which we will hear more about on the 1st Sunday of Lent. Then, Jesus returns from the desert, “in the power of the Spirit”, according to Luke, and begins his ministry. He was a big hit – “news spread of him throughout the whole region”, and “he was praised by all.” It is strikingly like Pentecost.
Jesus was Mr. Hash Tag of the moment. We find him standing in the synagogue in Nazareth, the old home town, and reading from Isaiah. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tiding to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.” Then he announces, “Today this is fulfilled in your hearing.” What is he saying? What can I compare it to?
It was like… having the BIG winning lottery ticket. The people of Nazareth had won! After waiting hundreds of years, generations, for the Messiah, suddenly the bright lights are turned on, and the big check with all the zeros comes out. What are the prizes? Good news, liberty, recovery of sight/ insight, freedom – all theirs. Fear could be driven out by hope; it was a moment of monumental change.
But people have a curious way of resisting even the most astoundingly good news. It only took seconds for someone to resist. “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?” No, no, it isn’t! It’s the Son of God! Luke takes great trouble to repeatedly make this clear. Everything Jesus says leads us to this, and whatever he does, proves it.
But in that place and in that time, a son inherited and carried on his father’s work, his place in the community, and his honor. That role determined a person’s worth. To step outside of that role was not only shocking, but shameful. It is hard for us to think this way, but that’s how it was in Nazareth 2,000 years ago. The speaker has suggested that Jesus breached his family’s honor by doing something different than Joseph and by leaving the community. Of course, Jesus was indeed doing exactly his Father’s work. The speaker was blind that. The people’s anger is born in and fueled by this lack of insight and false accusation.
They would have said it was love – love for God (as they understood God), love for their religion, and love for their community. Religion can inspire love so powerful that it can be expressed through hateful actions without conscious intention. As we know, strong religious identify often is aligned with strong hostility toward non-believers.
So the test begins: “Jesus, we want you to do here in Nazareth the things that we heard were done elsewhere.” In the other towns, Jesus had healed people. They had heard about the miracles; surely he would do that and even greater things here at home.
When Jesus heard the demand for miracles, he knew those expectations came from doubt, and pride, not belief. They were in effect asking to be bribed; their acceptance of his teaching would cost him. He reminds them that Elijah and Elisha were not sent by God to feed or heal the people of Israel, but Gentiles from Syria (of all places, they thought!). This feels like a terrible slap in the face to the townspeople. The people of Nazareth had confused love with some sort of payback. Love is not control but a path to obedience and reverence.
No, they haven’t grasped who Jesus is; but they jump at judging him to be insane, or worse, blasphemous. Their rules have been broken, they feel robbed of their right to benefit from Jesus, their pride is hurt, and they manage to blame it all on Jesus and justify their own bad behavior by their religion. It is a neat package for excusing hatred and the desire to commit murder, both of which are clearly against the religion they claim to follow. Jesus’ response to the recent temptations in the desert now makes sense. It takes that level of trust in God to face the people who you think would believe what you say and recognize who you are – but instead you get hate and death threats.
It should also begin to sound familiar. This is the type of reasoning that is used today to justify wars and terrorism and discrimination and watching refugee children drown in the Aegean Sea. This is not just a story from a long ago in a place far away. It happens now, here, in our cities and streets. As distressing as it is, religion, if allowed, can move people from being “amazed at the gracious words of Jesus” to becoming a murderous mob.
Recently, I heard an interview where a researcher had carefully reviewed public opinion polls since the year 2000. There were no significant increases of public sentiment against Muslims after 9-11 or other terrorist attacks. The increases were all during election years when political candidates used fear to attract voters. Jesus brought Hope to replace fear, but fear can be used to appeal to our doubts, our pride, and our greed. But we will never find Hope hiding behind a wall or a fence. Hope comes from the Spirit, and good news, liberty, love, healing, wisdom, and freedom come from God through the amazing and gracious words of God’s Son. Luke, our Gospel writer, is begging us to listen to and accept these words of Hope which he so carefully recorded, that we would understand their truth, and live lives not filled with fear, but full of Hope and Love.