Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
Nazareth was a small town struggling through lean times. People were eager to see Jesus. The synagogue was packed. ‘All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.’ (Luke 4:22a) “Is not this Joseph’s son? (Luke 4:22b), they asked.
Among friends and kinsfolk Jesus launched his mission. “I have come to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of jubilee” (Luke 4:18-19). Jubilee came once every 50 years. It was a tradition when debts were forgiven, and land reverted to its original owner.
Modern Christians are startled to realize Jesus’ mission statement doesn’t say anything about getting to heaven. These are revolutionary words for oppressed people. They are the words of a liberator. These words focus on today, and not some future day. Today, God comes to unlock, release, heal, and proclaim. Today, the kingdom of God is at hand and within reach (Mark 1:15). Jesus’ mission is focused on the here and now—not the great bye-and-bye.
Hometown listeners were startled too, but for different reasons. “The eyeballs of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” (Luke 4:20b). I wonder, was Jesus tempted at all by the lure of fame? He could be great. Jesus, who has just been able to resist Satan’s temptations, now, faced another in real time, akin to the spectacular show of jumping off the pinnacle of the Temple and surviving. But Jesus did not merely want to be wanted. Instead, if his kinsfolk wanted in on his new franchise they must begin to stand with people on the outside of life, the wrong side of the tracks, the other side of the border (Luke 4:21-30). Jesus challenged them to switch sides. Did they stand only for the people of Nazareth, or with people in need, including even their enemies?
Their hostility in reply would seem predictable (more on that next Sunday when we read the rest of the story). Yet it would be hard for us to understate the outrage Jesus provoked. Being a local boy from the hill country of ancient Palestine carried important social obligations, including unquestioned preference and priority for one’s own. It’s how the people of Nazareth survived. They eked out a subsistence living by sharing resources. Loyalty to insiders brought security, opportunity, and authority. In this system, social standing was as good as gold. It could be spent like shekels or Roman coins. The people of Nazareth thought they were insiders with Jesus. His fame, power, and standing reflected their own. They lived by a ‘Nazareth First’ mentality—but Jesus called them to share their gifts and everything else with the poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed.
Both ancient and modern readers of today’s gospel are startled by the realization: The captives Jesus is intent upon freeing include all of us. Jesus unrolled the scroll of Isaiah to announce his intention to unlock hearts and minds captive to the idea that peace comes through domination, legalized violence, and/or the elimination of enemies. This drive to dominance is killing us along with the planet yet we still cling to it today. Instead, Jesus’ mission, as Mary sang in the Magnificat, involves God bringing down the powerful (Luke 1:52-53) and lifting up the lowly. (Luke 4:18). The Roman Empire used the cross to punish rebels and instill fear into submission: Jesus will use a cross to expose the cruelty and injustice of those in power and instill hope and confidence in the oppressed. (Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change, pp. 123-24) The cross will proclaim forgiveness rather than condemnation. The cross will reveal that our short lives find their true home grafted into the undying life and love of God.
It has been nearly two thousand years since Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah in his hometown synagogue. Yet we are still slow to comprehend and even slower to embrace the good news Jesus announced that day. John Lennon famously suggested that maybe it’s time to cash in our chips and, “Imagine . . . no religion.” To the extent that religion is behind so much hostility and small mindedness I can see why so many are seeming to align themselves with that point of view. If only the church lived the gospel more, then we might become religious again they say. I don’t know. Judging from the response of Jesus’ friends and family and ultimately, from his arrest and crucifixion, why would we expect the world to flock to our doors? Yet, that is not to say we should give up. As anthropologist Margaret Meade famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Jesus unrolled the scroll and opened our hearts, hands, eyes, and minds to a possible impossibility. The way of the cross is a possible impossibility for us through faith in Christ Jesus. “This possible impossibility is, I think, what Jesus meant when he claimed that the kingdom or commonwealth of God was at hand. It was not out of reach, impossible; nor was it in hand, already attained. It was simultaneously in reach and not yet seized, a gift already fully given, and not yet fully received, opened, and enjoyed. Jesus embodied this truth to the edges of Judaism and beyond, and the apostles spread it “to the uttermost parts of the earth”: God’s commonwealth was a table where the Pharisees and prostitutes were equally welcome, the chief priests and the Samaritans, the Sadducees and the Roman centurions, the poor homeless leper and the rich young leader, Onesimus the slave and Philemon the slave master, Gentile and Jew, male and female, one and all. A new religion called Christianity (that conflicted term, of course, didn’t exist yet) wasn’t the point; the kingdom or commonwealth of God was the point … for Jesus, for Paul, and for all the apostles.” (Brian McLaren, “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?”, pp. 250-52)
You will open the door and step inside the commonwealth of God. You will find your seat at the Great Banquet. You become part of the possible impossibility of Jesus’ mission as you take a step toward someone who others have left out. When you refuse to dismiss or to label others as unimportant or less than; when you refuse to give in to despair but choose instead to be hopeful; when you let yourself in for feeling uncomfortable, or awkward, or embarrassed, then, at that very moment, you have entered the kingdom of God. This has power not only to change ourselves but also to change the world. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. We are made to live together because of the interrelated structure of reality.”
A good prayer for this day might be Prayer of the Farm Workers’ Struggle, written by Cesar Chavez, UFW Founder (1927-1993):
Show me the suffering of the most miserable;
so I will know my people’s plight.
Free me to pray with others;
for you are present in every person.
Help me to take responsibility for my own life;
so that I can be free at last.
Grant me the courage to struggle for justice;
for in such struggle there is true life.
Give me honesty and patience;
so that I can organize our community.
Bring forth song and celebration;
so that the Spirit will be alive among us.
Let the Spirit flourish and grow;
so that we will never tire of the struggle.
Let us remember those who have died for justice;
for they have given us life.
Help us to love even those who hate us;
so we can change the world. Amen.