Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
And Jesus said, “The truth is …” (Luke 4)
The reading from Luke that we’ve just heard is very puzzling, because it’s one of those texts where the mood of a crowd turns on a dime. It reminds me a bit of Palm Sunday, when the crowd meets Jesus coming into Jerusalem with cries of “Hosanna!”, only to turn on him abruptly and shout instead, “Crucify!”
In this case, the scene is the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown. He has read from Isaiah the prophecy that prisoners shall be set free and the hungry fed, and everybody thinks, “Great! That sounds like a plan.” They all speak well of him, the scripture says, and are amazed at his gracious words.
But suddenly Jesus raises the stakes, by saying that “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And what seemed like a nice campaign promise suddenly gets put on the table for real. And where there was broad support only a moment ago, there is suddenly bitter controversy and dissension. (Perhaps that sounds a bit familiar!)
But how does this sudden reversal come about? To answer that, we have to pay particularly close attention to what Jesus says to the crowd, and how they react.
First he mocks the crowd a bit, saying for them what they want to say for themselves: “Do here the same signs you did in Capernaum!” (Healings, exorcisms, that kind of thing.) But then he names the elephant in the room: no prophet is ever accepted in his hometown, and here he is in Nazareth. Too well known, perhaps. Too many memories. Too much water under the bridge.
“But the truth is … “ Jesus continues, signaling that we’re getting to the rub. “The truth is …,” and then he points them to two episodes out of the Hebrew Bible, each involving a prophetic encounters in the lives of an individual (and not a community). This, I think, is the key point.
In the first instance, he names Elijah’s visit to a widow in Zarephath in a time of famine, when she had nothing left for her and her son to eat. But when she shared what little she had with the prophet (thinking that it would be the end and they would all die), miraculously the meal and oil do not run out.
Then as a second instance, Jesus points to a more obscure story, this time about a Syrian (not an Israelite) named Naaman who had leprosy. He was told by a Hebrew servant girl that there was a prophet named Elisha (Elijah’s successor) among her people who could heal him, and so he went to him and sure enough is cured.
In each case—the poor widow and the diseased Syrian—the individual had to step out of the identity given them by the community (pauper or leper), and claim their own freedom by taking responsibility for themselves. It’s the same kind of individual specificity that we heard in the reading from Jeremiah: God was speaking to him, not another, but him. “I appoint you over nations and over kingdoms,” says God.
So back to Luke’s gospel. It records that when the people heard these two stories, “all in the synagogue were filled with rage.” Really? Why on earth should two miracle stories make them so mad?
Now, you may have your own thoughts about how to answer that question, and if so I’d love to hear them. But my thought is that their irritation comes from the fact that by pointing to these two stories, Jesus is suggesting that the people in the crowd are each individually responsible for themselves—that they’ve got to take ownership of who they are and how they shape relationships with God and other people, like the widow and leper, rather than relying on the stigmatizing community to which they belong.
My son once had an American history teacher in high school who was very demanding of his students, insisting that they do the assigned reading before class. If they didn’t, he would simply say to them, “Then you get the F. That’s on you!”
Don’t you hate it when someone says that? “That’s on you.” And yet, you know in the moment that at some level that it is true. We are individually responsible for what we do, and as much as we dislike being called on doing something wrong, the fact remains.
I think that’s what Jesus is doing here: by pointing to the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the leper—two instances when a prophetic encounter was intensively focused on a single person—he is reminding the crowd that they can’t hide behind their numbers to escape the responsibility that each of them has individually for the content of their life. The quality and content of their relationships are their own responsibility, independent of the crowd.
In our own day, there are all sorts of places to hide from such responsibility. There is lots of pressure to be part of an angry crowd—whether of the right or of the left—and to place our identity within that outrage.
But in this episode, Jesus is calling us to take control of our emotions and attitude, and to become participants with him in the original good news shared from Isaiah: the captives shall go free, and the poor shall be filled. To become part, in other words, part of a common spirit of generosity and respect.
Who in your life is captive to an old resentment or wound, whom you could set free? Who is yearning for the fulfillment of a relation of friendship or kinship, whom you could fill? Jesus’ hearers knew these were the demands of relationship that he was asking of them, but for them it was too much to ask and so for it they sought to hurl him from the brink of a hill.
But the fact remains, that the freedom which God grants us to live life as we choose, also entails the responsibility to grant to one another the same dignity we ask for ourselves. Not our anger; not our resentment; not our suspicion; not our defensiveness; not our condescension—but our respect, our generosity, our graciousness, and our commitment to the peaceableness, which it was Jesus’ mission to initiate.
So Jesus, faced with a crowd bitterly opposed to this message of peace, “passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” Let him not pass through us in our own day, but stay and abide with us. Amen.