This week’s lectionary reading is a strange little story detailing the auspicious start of Jesus’ ministry. Driven by the spirit, He returns home to Nazareth to preach in the synagogue. His family, childhood friends, and old neighbors anxiously await the return of the native, whose fame was spreading throughout the region. It seems this local boy finally made good on his promise to become a rabbi.
Jesus enters the synagogue, opens the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, finds his place, and begins to read.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
So far, so good. Jesus adopts Isaiah 61 as his mission statement, proclaiming that He, acting as God’s servant, will bring freedom and restoration to the marginalized. Interestingly enough, Jesus omits reading verse two which references “the day of vengeance of our God”, figuratively taking scissors to the Bible, signifying a dramatic distinction between his merciful announcement of the Kingdom and that of his predecessor John the Baptist. No doubt, his listeners would have noticed his refusal to include the verse in his messianic announcement. Finished with the reading, Jesus sits down as “The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” Then, He offers this famous, one sentence sermon:
“Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
The lectionary does us little favors by dividing this story into two parts, because it’s what Jesus says next that causes everything to go wrong. Jesus tells two stories about two of Israel’s favorite prophets, Elijah and Elisha. The problem is that of all the accounts he could have chosen to tell, Jesus picks two scandalous tales of prophetic ministry done on behalf of and for Gentiles, honoring the dirty, sinful people this hometown crowd despises. Jesus reminds them,
“There were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land; and unto none of them was Elijah sent, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, unto a woman that was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”
Oh snap he didn’t.
To the horror of everyone gathered, Jesus does the unthinkable, he tweaks the message and the meaning of Isaiah’s prophecy by announcing God’s “jubilee of liberation, amnesty, and pardon” to everybody, including Israel’s enemies. Reminding us all in the process that the text is always subordinate to the infallible word made flesh. Filled with self-righteous indignation at his progressive use of Scripture, the crowd turns on Jesus and tries to murder him on the spot! A prophet has no honor with hometown crowds.
And, as much as we’d like to distance ourselves from Jesus’ friends and neighbors, we aren’t so different. Like them, we believe that our righteousness, proper sexual ethic, doctrine, skin color, and privilege constitute our place as God’s chosen people. We believe that Isaiah’s words are our words, written for our deliverance, and our deliverance alone. Israel in fact would have first heard this prophetic song during their Babylonian captivity, and now they hear it afresh as subalterns living under the jack boot of Rome. For centuries, they had waited on the fulfillment of these promises, and today in their very midst Jesus declares that the wait is over, that the Kingdom of God is being fulfilled in their midst. But that kingdom includes the very people that are socially, economically, and politically oppressing them. They were so hell bent on defending God revealed in the text, that they failed to experience the God in flesh standing in their midst. Our modern equivalent would be Jesus preaching at Liberty University, announcing that homosexuals, Muslims, democrats, and communists are entering the kingdom ahead of us. You can understand why they wanted him dead.
Yet, in referencing these stories, Jesus resists the most dangerous idea of all, that God’s love is for some people, and not for all people. Think for a minute about his ministry. He’s always dragging his innocent disciples into regions where the people are spiritually oppressed: he goes to “the other side” to heal Legion, he talks openly with a Samaritan women, he restores the Syrophoenician’s daughter because of her faith, he eats with sinners and tax collectors who have defiled hands, he’s soft on whores, he drinks with drunks, he touches the unclean, and even has the audacity to make women disciples. The entirety of Jesus’ ministry can be read as unadulterated resistance to the conventional religious wisdom that God’s love is only for those who deserve it.
2,000 years later, things aren’t much different. In fact, the church today fears this resistance against rigid orthodoxy almost as much as they are afraid of their own irrelevance. In every religious community there exists those who believe that their mission statement is to protect God from the very people he came to save. When challenged to consider a wider view of God, their orthodoxy becomes even more uncompromising. This inflexible faith causes them to live in fear of ‘the other’, and they see it as their duty to protect God and doctrine, because it is clear that they are no longer capable of protecting themselves. Such fundamentalism “occurs wherever, in the face of the immorality of the present age, the gospel of creative love for the abandoned is replaced by the law of what is supposed to be Christian morality.” As I write this, Franklin Graham just proclaimed on Christian radio that “We have allowed the Enemy to come into our churches. I was talking to some Christians and they were talking about how they invited these gay children to come into their home and to come into the church…We have to be so careful who we let into the churches.” While Graham consistently makes himself an easy target due to his hate speech toward homosexuals and Muslims, he represents a vast majority of American evangelicals who champion the religion of fear.
So, as the Anglican Communion threatens schism over homosexuality, as Wheaton College browbeats a tenured professor, and as conservative evangelicals continue the culture war against progressive Christians and their ‘liberal, secular agenda’, let us be reminded that Jesus himself was rejected by the religious in-crowd for standing in solidarity with outsiders, because only “someone who finds the courage to be different from others can ultimately exist for ‘others’”.
Authentic Christianity requires our own identification with the crucified Christ, to the extent that we understand that in him “God has identified himself with the godless and those abandoned by God”. The more we identify with Christ, the more we are able to identify with others. “Scripture is filled with one person recognizing, welcoming, embracing, and releasing the strength of unfamiliar other.” Therefore our commitment to be a community of inclusion is not based on cultural capitulation or social pressures, but on the “belief that the outstretched arms of Jesus on the cross are a sign of the very love of God reaching out to us all.”
It seems God’s people are always learning the hard way that the thrust toward unity must find a way to include the very people we wish to exclude. Much to our discomfort, God really does work on both sides of the street. And as his followers, we can either be a people that stands with clinched fists in open opposition to those we believe are unworthy, or we can join the Jesus movement, a movement bringing good news to the poor, and release for the captives. As Bishop Michael Curry reminds us, “It may be part of our vocation to help many others to grow in a direction where we can realize and live the love that God has for all of us. And we can one day be a church where all of God’s children are fully welcomed…And so we must claim that high calling…We are part of the Jesus movement, and the cause of God’s love in this world will never stop, and will never be defeated.” Amen, and Amen.