When we read this passage at Bible sudy on Thursday, there was a startled silence at the end and then someone said, I’ve heard first part of story, about Jesus reading in the synagogue, but I've never heard that last part about the crowd almost throwing him off a cliff!
How many people here remember hearing that part before?I'd like to go through the story with you, and by time we're done, you may have a better sense of why the crowd became so angry. The story begins with Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returning from his 40 days of prayer in the wilderness to his home region of Galilee. There he began to teach and soon there was quite a buzz about him. After the buzz has been building for awhile, Jesus decides to go back to his hometown, Nazareth. He goes on the Sabbath, their holy day, when people gather for worship at the synagogue, very similar to we gather in church on Sunday in our culture. In the Jewish tradition, any Jewish male present at the synagogue on the Sabbath can read from the scriptures and comment on the readings. They didn’t have set readings at the time of Jesus, a reader could make his own choice.
So Jesus takes advantage of this custom and of his “star” status, and offers to read. The Bible doesn’t tell us that Jesus chose Isaiah himself, but knowing the custom at the time, it's likely that he did. We know for sure from the story that he chose that particular passage himself.
You can imagine the hush in the synagogue as he prepares to read. This is their local boy made good! They’re so proud. What words of wisdom is he going to share with them?
Then Jesus reads those beautiful words from Isaiah: the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, he has anointed me to bring good new to the poor, he has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Choosing this passage only heightens the sense of expectation in the room. This passage from Isaiah is known as a messianic passage, it's like a Messiah job description. For 300 years the Jewish people had been building up an image of what the Messiah, the one sent by God, would look like, would sound like. This passage was considered to be one of the main descriptors.
So when Jesus chooses to read it, knowing that he is already viewed as the local boy made good, it heightens that sense of expectation, that he’s the one they’ve been waiting for. Then he feeds into it even more by saying,“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”No wonder the crowd is amazed and thrilled. “Isn’t this Joseph’s boy?” One of ours, about to become the Messiah!
When we read through story too quickly, we can miss the fact that initially the crowd were thrilled with Jesus and what he said. They were not offended by the idea of him claiming these words for himself, not in the least. Initially they thought it was great.
Things don’t start to fall apart until Jesus continues talking.
Because Jesus goes on to basically insult them, or at least that’s how it seems to them. Despite their warm resp, Jesus says to them that no prophet is accepted in his hometown. He goes on to talk about how previous prophets, like Elijah and Elisha brought God’s help to people outside of Israel rather than helping their own people, implying that he too isn’t really here for his own people.
We have to remember that although in theory Jews at that time were supposed to be kind to strangers, in reality they were very closed off to non-Jews, so it would have felt insulting to be reminded of these times when God chose non-Jews over Jews, and not just any non-Jews, but two who were truly on fringes of society, a widow and a leper.
Why does Jesus provoke the crowd like that? Why not bask in their adoration for little while? After all, they liked his choice of scripture, didn’t they? Well, yes and no. They liked it because of its connections to the Messiah, but they weren’t really paying attention to the words themselves. If they had, they might have gotten upset a little faster.
The words from Isaiah are incredibly challenging, if you really look at them: bring good news to the poor? Don’t forget that Jesus is quoting the Old Testament and it was always very practical about these things. Bringing good news to the poor means doing something so they won’t be poor anymore. It involves some sacrifice and work.
Proclaim release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, let the oppressed go free- again they're all very practical things. Captives didn’t refer to people in jail, it referred to slaves, people who were captives of war and injustice. Letting oppressed go free meant treating all people fairly and with justice.
And the year of the Lord’s favor? It didn’t mean a year whenn God was extra nice, it was also known as a Jubilee yearr, meant to be a year when debts were forgiven, slaves were freedand land was returned to its original owners. It had never actually happened, but it was an amazing ideal.
So all the things Jesus mentioned were far from reality and would involve a fair amount of sacrifice to be made reality. Yet all the crowd sees and hears is, local boy makes good, he’s the Messiah! So Jesus has to push them, make them see that he means business, he is here to challenge them, change them.
That’s why he gives those examples of Isaiah’s words pushed to their extreme, a non-Jewish widow is chosen over Jewish ones, a non-Jewish leper is helped before faithful, healthy Jews.That’s when things to start to sink in with the crowd. As Biblical scholar Gay Byron says, “they could now see that the message of Jesus was not simply a seal of approval, but rather a message that threatened to dismantle the status quo and the boundaries of their religion and their lives.” That’s when they get mad. They don’t want to change themselves, they want someone else to change other people.
I think we do that a lot to Jesus, even today. We like the seemingly easier parts of his message, but we pull away when it starts to get harder. For example, we all agree that love your neighbor is great advice, but we back away when asked to love a neighbor who is different, or annoying or whose values offend us.
We see the same thing when modern day prophets challenge us to follow Jesus’ harder teachings. This week was Martin Luther King day in the US. I found a very good article about how America loves to praise Ling, but ignores his message. Author Peniel Joseph says, “King defined the "beloved community" as a place not only free of injustice, but a society that actively promotes an ethic of love, justice, and humanity in its legal, political, and civic life, as well as its religious, spiritual, and moral spheres.”
King’s beloved community sounds a lot like Jesus' kingdom of God, doesn’t it? That's not surprising given that King was man of faith. And like Jesus, Martin Luther King believed this vision could become reality.
The article goes on to say, “King balanced a scathing indictment against war, racism, poverty, and materialism with a defiant political optimism rooted in his faith that millions of Americans could mobilize a nonviolent army of the dispossessed, capable of fundamentally transforming the political and economic status quo.”
That’s essentially what Jesus was working towards, creating a committed, spirit filled group of people of faith who could work together towards transforming the world around them. We call it church, or at least it’s what we aspire to as church.
But just as many Americans praise King, but prefer to ignore his call to address poverty, economic inequality and rampant materialism, so many Christians prefer to ignore Jesus’ call to transform the world into a place of true justice and compassion.
Just like Jesus’ audience at that synagogue in Nazareth, it's much easier to bask in the glow of the local boy made good with his message of love, than it is to actually put his words into action. As spiritual writer and activist Richard Rohr says, “Even today many Christians keep Jesus on a seeming pedestal, worshiping a caricature on a cross or a bumper-sticker slogan while avoiding what Jesus said and did.”
There is hope though. The article on King ends with:“The issues of racism, poverty, voter suppression, housing inequality, unemployment, violence, and war that plagued King's era remain. However, the key difference between then and now is the evolution of the civil rights struggle from one dominated by a singular voice to a contemporary landscape featuring multiple leaders who, in the best tradition of King, are stirring national debate over the meaning of freedom, democracy, justice, and citizenship.”
I think that’s an incredibly hopeful statement. It's so easy to get discouraged, especially with the state of the world right now, but that quote reminds us that there is hope. The concepts of love, justice, equality and compassion have grown beyond single voices of leaders like Jesus in his time and Martin Luther King 50 years ago to encompass people of many faiths, many backgrounds.
The same is true of Christianity. We have the choice, we have the ability, to take Jesus’ singular voice and turn it into a chorus, or as Amos puts it in the Old Testament, into a mighty river, that has the power to transform us and the world.
Remember the reading for today begins with, “filled with the Spirit” – for Jesus everything begins and ends with the Spirit. That is what empowers us and guides us, what helps us go beyond ourselves to meet the needs of the larger world.
May we be a church of spirit filled people, ready to follow Jesus in order to transform ourselves and our world.