Primary Text (4th Sunday after Epiphany, Year C): Luke 4:21-30
I remember preaching on this text from Luke once as a young-ish priest. I was visiting my parents in Melbourne and working on my homily. My Dad asked me what the gospel was for the coming Sunday. “It’s that one where Jesus ticks off everybody in the synagogue,” I said. “Oh,” he said, and then without any hesitation, my brother piped up, “So is that what you’re going to do, huh?” “Maybe, just for you!” I responded in a cheeky little tone. “I don’t know. I don’t want to. That’s never my intention but I do need to be true to the challenge of the narrative. But I also want to be compassionate and understanding, and maybe show a little mercy and forgiveness.”
So, let’s you and me today start with the puzzle of these ten verses. Notice verse 22, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” Wow! I would certainly be humbled if all spoke that well of us clergy as we proclaimed the Word. The Greek word used there for “amazed,” ethaumazon, bears the impression of “marveling at;” it was a visible and visceral response to Jesus’ charitos (his “charity” or “grace”). But then, just six verses later (six verses, fewer than one hundred words in the Greek text), the whole synagogue “was furious” – literally, “they were filled all full with rage.”
So, the question is: What’s behind the rage?
WHAT SET THEM OFF
What set them off? Remember, Jesus is now in Nazareth, among the people with whom he grew up. They know Jesus; they know his family. They’re his neighbors, presumably his friends, his church people as my mom used to call them. The ones who showed up at the synagogue that day were the ones with whom Jesus worshiped, prayed, and studied scriptures. And now they want to thrust Jesus out of the city and “hurl him off the cliff.” Why? What did Jesus do? What did Jesus say? What was so upsetting? What’s behind the rage?
I used to think the fury or rage arose because Jesus said he was bringing good news to the poor and sight to the blind, because he let captives go free, and chose to stand on the side of the oppressed. I used to think that it was actually because Jesus came to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. I mean, that is all pretty heavy stuff! We heard that part of the narrative last week as we witnessed Jesus proclaim the Isaiah prophecy and declared it fulfilled in their hearing. Today’s narrative continues that story from last week; but, here’s the thing: None of that stuff about the poor, the blind, the captive, the oppressed, or even the year of the Lord’s favor would have been or should have been a surprise to the people in the synagogue, and it shouldn’t quite frankly be a surprise to us either.
The whole of the older testament (Yes! The WHOLE of it!) – from the creation myths to the legends of the matriarchs and patriarchs, from Moses and the law to each and every prophetic voice – is very clear: God sides with the poor, the oppressed, the enslaved, the marginalized, and the alien. Hear the writer of Deuteronomy,
“God loves the stranger, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”Deut. 10:18-19
Ezekiel names the sin of Sodom,
“They [the people] had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”.Ezekiel 16:49
And God asks through Isaiah:
“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them?”Isaiah 58:6-7
The narrative of the older testament is absolutely clear where God stands, and the people in the synagogue that day would have known it. This wasn’t something new. Jesus wasn’t telling them anything they had not already heard. In fact, “all spoke well of him and marveled at the charity coming from his mouth.”
THEY LIKED WHAT JESUS WAS SAYING UNTIL THEY DIDN’T
Indeed, the people in the synagogue “spoke well” of Jesus and marveled at his “gracious words.” Yes, the people in the synagogue that day liked what Jesus was saying, until they didn’t. They liked what Jesus was saying until Jesus reminded them that Elijah passed over all the hungry widows of Israel to feed a widow of Zarephath, a non-Israelite, an outsider, and a stranger. They liked what Jesus was saying until Jesus reminded them that Elisha passed over the lepers of Israel and instead healed Namaan the Syrian, a foreign leper, outside the covenant. They like what Jesus was saying that day until they recognized that Jesus was passing over them, his hometown people:
“Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”Luke 4:23
“Charity begins at home,” the proverb goes; but, Jesus is passing them by. And I think that is what the people are thinking and Jesus names it.
So here is my little bit of midrash, my little bit of interpretative commentary on why the people in the synagogue that day were furious, what they were actually raging against. You see, I think that they were looking for some hometown privilege! I think they saw themselves as special just because Nazareth is where Jesus grew up, and they get really mad when Jesus won’t engage their presumed privilege. They are being passed over and that enrages them!
But the question remains: Why are they being passed over? And here is my little bit of midrash: They are passed over NOT out of punishment or rejection; they are passed over because they refuse to do the work of recognizing, naming and claiming their own brokenness! They simply expect blessing, healing, and insight because of their privileged status as hometown friends! The rage about being passed over but it’s their own fault.
And here, as a little bit more midrash, I can’t help but wonder if we might not sometimes act like the hometown crowd in the synagogue that day. Do we see ourselves as Jesus’ favorites? Don’t we assume some privileged status when it comes to Jesus, expecting Jesus to always choose our nation, our party, our side, our church? Frankly, this leaves us in danger of being passed over because when we assume our privilege we fail to recognize our own brokenness and our hurt. And then we rage! We rage to avoid, to disguise, and to compensate for what hurts us. We rage to avoid the emptiness and hunger within and when our privilege is threatened. We rage so we do not have to face ourselves but behind our rage is brokenness, and who here doesn’t know what that’s like?
I was thinking, though the narratives don’t really tell, us, what if the real difference between the widow of Zarephath and the other hungry widows in Israel was that the widow in Zarephath recognized her brokenness? What if the real difference between Naaman the Syrian and all the other lepers in Israel is that Naaman named his brokenness? What if the only thing between us and being passed over is recognizing and naming our brokenness?
Moreover, and I think that this is important, what if we could name and claim such brokenness not only for ourselves but for each other and for the world? I don’t know what would happen. It could change the way we see ourselves and each other because regardless of who we are or where we are from, regardless of what we believe about God, country, or politics, regardless of our presumed privilege, if there is one thing that unites us: We are all broken and we all hurt sometimes.
Hear the voice of Kenyan-born, Somali-British poet Warsan Shire who has named the tragic truth, our universal hurt, in her poem “what they did yesterday afternoon.” She writes,
they set my aunts house on fire
i cried the way women on tv do
folding at the middle
like a five pound note.
i called the boy who use to love me
tried to ‘okay’ my voice
i said hello
he said warsan, what’s wrong, what’s happened?
i’ve been praying,
and these are what my prayers look like;
i come from two countries
one is thirsty
the other is on fire
both need water.
later that night
i held an atlas in my lap
ran my fingers across the whole world
where does it hurt?