I am indebted to theologian Kate Huey for her commentary on this text. Kate’s reflection, ‘Prophet on the Edge’, can be found at http://www.ucc.org/worship/samuel/january-31-2010.html.
Somebody once said to me – no doubt by way of making me feel better about myself – that at any given moment there are about a dozen people in the world who think you’re absolutely awful. Your motives are questionable, what you think is blindingly obvious they don’t see, and whatever you do, you get them offside. At the same time, there’s about a dozen people in the world who think you’re wonderful, wise and witty, compassionate and that you can do no wrong. The truly good news, my friend suggested, is that just about everybody else doesn’t really think about you all that much. Which is quite good really because it means we can all just get on with things, and eventually manage to live down both the worst and the best of what we do. The other part of my friend’s theory was that what makes people switch from barracking to booing at a moment’s notice is not you at all, but their own expectations which are unrealistic to start with.
Leaving aside that my friend was clearly world-worn and cynical, something like this seems to be happening to Jesus when he goes back to his old home town of Nazareth. Remember while I was away you left the gospel last week on a cliff-hanger. Jesus has come back home – not only is he all grown-up now but he has somehow mysteriously changed, he’s spent time in the desert with John the Baptist, he’s begun to acquire a reputation as a wisdom teacher and a worker of miracles. Jesus takes his seat in the synagogue and, as all adult Jewish men were expected to be able to do from time to time, begins to teach from the scriptures. He reads from the prophet Isaiah, or, to be more precise, he carefully selects some verses from the prophet Isaiah and then he says, with considerable audacity, ‘all this has come true, right now, right here’.
That’s where you left it last week, right where, if this was made for TV, the theme music would come in to leave you hanging for dramatic effect. No doubt Jesus' sermon was a bit longer than that, but we’ve got the gist of it. He hasn’t come into town with something new, with something that contradicts or replaces the Torah, but with a message that invokes the ancient promises of the Torah, the promise of liberation that his people have remembered and nurtured for centuries, during all the years of exile, through the years of living under the Persian emperor, the Greek and now the Roman invaders. Not only that, but Jesus comes from Nazareth, a country bumpkin town in the middle of the rural backwater of Galilee. Remember Nathaniel’s comment about Nazareth – what good can possibly come from there? This is a place at the back end of nowhere, a place that with the tenacity of the dirt-poor in every century and every place has hung on to the hope that the God who created and who loves all things will remember them, that the time will come when God would make all things right. The expectations, in other words, as my cynical friend would observe, are about as high as they can possibly get.
And this morning’s reading begins on the warm fuzzy note it ended with last week. You know, another friend once told me, beware when too many people like your sermons. It means you can’t be doing it right. You can’t actually preach the gospel without getting up people’s noses, your job isn’t to make people comfortable but to encourage – in the literal sense of that French loan-word that means, to enlarge your hearers’ hearts. Not always a comfortable process. The people of Nazareth like what they are hearing, because it is obviously about them. This is Joseph’s boy, after all. He’s been away to miracle school, he knows his Bible like anything, did you hear about the miraculous healings he did down the road at Capernaum and now he’s going to put us on the map? We like hearing about God’s priority for the poor in spirit, God's plan for the restoration of the oppressed – we like it when we can tell ourselves, that’s us. Work all day in the hot sun for barely enough to put food on the table at the end of it, that’s us. Just as many blind and lame here, just as many old and sick here as in Capernaum, more probably, that's us. Not only under the thumb of the world superpower, though to tell the truth we actually don't see the Romans much up in Galilee, they haven't even bothered to appoint a military governor, just set up one of Herod the Great's nasty offspring as a local agent, not only don't the Romans even want to know about us the Judeans think we're all illiterate peasants, so liberation for the oppressed? - that's us. Charity begins at home, mate.
I guess that's my take on it, at any rate. Other commentators find some other reasons why it all starts to go a bit sour. We do for example get cynical and cranky when somebody starts promising stuff you know they can't possibly deliver. Perhaps, one Bible commentator suggests, the people of Nazareth don't want to hear Jesus' message because it's all too wildly hopeful. The improbable promise of freedom – freedom from oppression, from infant mortality and the debilitating diseases of ageing, freedom from hand-to-mouth subsistence farming, freedom from political oppression, better to shut this troublemaker up than fill our heads with those sort of dreams. Another commentator, the wonderful Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggeman, thinks the problem is Jesus' use of the words, 'the year of the Lord's favour'. It's a code, it stands for the year of the Jubilee outlined in the book of Leviticus, the once every 50 years restoration when all debts are cancelled, when bonded slaves are set free and ancestral lands revert back to their ancient owners. Jubilee runs against the grain not only of capitalism but of every instinct of rich and poor alike to get ahead, put something by for themselves. The idea behind the Old Testament idea of Jubilee is of course that everything belongs to God, that economic justice and the eradication of cycles of poverty is God's core business – have you ever wondered why the Bible is chock-a-block full of teaching about money and no matter how hard some Christians look only has a few obscure verses about sex? – it's because deep economic inequality diminishes all of us, deep poverty and unremitting human misery existing alongside great wealth is both an affront to God and a barrier to the building of the sort of relationships that lead to human flourishing. And says Brueggeman, just maybe the Nazareth-ites didn't mind the idea that they themselves might be liberated but start to smell a rat when it seems it might cost them something. We 21st century Christians don't like it much, either. The year of the Lord's favour, the way the Old Testament talks about it, means big changes in our human priorities, big changes in how we live.
But at the beginning of today's reading Jesus' home crowd are right behind him. According to Luke's version of events it's Jesus himself who smells a rat – there's something about the adulation and the approval that Jesus doesn't like. Because it's focussed firmly on what Jesus can do for them, and so he quite deliberately dampens their enthusiasm. No, he tells them, you don't get it yet. God's promises aren't a safety-net, they're a challenge. The year of God's favour isn't you winning the lottery, it's you learning to live with compassion. And he tells them some Bible stories they'd rather not know about. The great prophet Elijah – who did he help in the great drought? Well, actually it was an outsider, somebody you maybe think shouldn't have been eligible. Who did Elisha cure of leprosy? Another outsider, even worse, the enemy commander Naaman. Proper prophets don't let you get away with thinking you're more special to God than anyone else. The message of hope exposes our own anxiety and our own insecurity. Like the Nazareth-ites we get defensive, we refuse to even try to see the new vision for our lives that Jesus is trying to show us, because we are afraid to risk what we have for what might be.
Of course it’s a model for ministry – Jesus’ ministry and also our own. The good folk of Nazareth flip in a split second from adulation to condemnation, from thinking Jesus is awesome to knowing he’s just plain awful. We know we have it in us as well to act like that when we find our perspectives being challenged. But actually we know that as Jesus is pushed out of town and up the hill we know that’s where we are meant to be also, out on the edge, on a path that might get us into trouble but that leads us towards an expansive, generous, justice-seeking vision of the world we live in.
I wonder what would it look like for Jesus' first sermon and the reading from Isaiah to be fulfilled this day, in our midst? How might it lift us up from self-preoccupation to compassionate care for others? How might it inspire us, for example, not only to give more than we first intended to help the suffering people of Haiti but to commit ourselves to finding out why the people of this tiny country are so impoverished and so helpless, why it is that natural disasters always strike with more devastating effect in regions that are economically underdeveloped? How might today’s reading help us to understand better our own relationship with the people of Haiti, and the possibilities for working in partnership with them?
No doubt many of you have already given generously to various appeals for the immediate relief of this devastated country. I would like to urge you today to give some more through Anglican agencies working through the Diocese of the Dominican Republic, to commit ourselves to a more personal involvement and over coming weeks and months to follow through in assisting with medium and long-term restoration of communities and individual lives. In the immediate context of our own lives, whether Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in our own midst is up to us.