And it was going so well.
Jesus had returned to his home village, to the people who knew him when he was an adorable child, and maybe a not-so-adorable adolescent. He read out a prophecy from Isaiah, not one of the harsh ones that make listeners squirm, but good news for the poor, the broken-hearted, the oppressed. He even said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
But he didn’t leave well enough alone. He had to add, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own country.” Translate that as, “You don’t do me honor,” which is quite an insult for that time and place. And then he informs them that all the ministry they’ve been hearing about is for others as well, for people who are not like them.
And that’s when they look to throw him off the cliff.
Clearly, his sermon was fine, but it was something he said at the church door afterward that got his listeners angry.
The word of God is not always something we want to hear. It may make us sad, angry, frustrated, or worse – it may incite a level of repulsion that makes us want to run Jesus, or at least His messenger, off a cliff. But what exactly was it Jesus said?
He reminded them of two Bible stories, narratives that would have been deeply familiar to his audience. He reminds them in a time of drastic famine, the prophet Elijah did not bring endless supplies to all poor widows in Israel, of whom there were many, but only to the widow of Zarephath – who lived in Sidon. Which was outside of their region. He reinforces the story by reminding them about Naaman the Leper, whose Jewish servant persuaded him to be cleansed of his leprosy. And Elisha the prophet cleansed him. But Jesus adds that there were many lepers in Israel. And that Naaman was from Syria.
That means that when Jesus said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” those gracious words that everyone liked, the follow-up at the church door was something about God and the Kingdom of God that they were less prepared to hear, something that did not increase their comfort levels.
He seems to do that rather too often for our comfort levels. A lot of the words in red in the Bible say things that cause us to squirm. We’re happy to receive God’s grace – but forbearance and compassion, empathy and love and mercy can’t possibly be directed to refugees or people receiving SNAP benefits or the Hindus up the road.
For those at the door of the synagogue that Sabbath, Jesus is reminding them that God does not hate the Romans and wish them dead, even as the Romans systematically oppress them. This ties back to last week’s message, because today’s Gospel reading is the continuation of last week’s. Letting the oppressed go free – the good news – does not mean causing pain to the oppressors. Bringing good news to the poor –does not mean bringing bad news to the wealthy.
How does that change the way that you and I respond to the good news that Jesus brings to you and to me? As the Gospel according to Facebook says, “Equal rights for others does not mean fewer rights for us. It’s not pie.” But just as Jesus’ reminder that God’s mercy and grace are for everyone made his listeners uncomfortable, this passage tends to make us uncomfortable.
And that’s good!
Any time our most closely cherished convictions feel threatened, there is a real chance that God is inviting us to grow, which is always painful. We’ve been through some change in the last year as the people of God at St. Michael’s.
Bottom of Form
And through it all, as a congregation, you tend to respond well to invitations to grow. Even if you sometimes wish your pastor were a little less enthusiastic, you are willing to try new things and take on new responsibilities, even when it takes you out of your comfort zone. You know if you ever wondered if you were doing what God is calling you to do, one way to check it is to take note of how uncomfortable the notion is making you feel. Jesus does not call us to do easy things. If it is easy it will take care of itself. It is the hard things, the difficult things, the volatile things, the unpopular things that Jesus will call upon us to take the lead in. And most likely it will require more of us: more of our time, more of our money, more of our attention, and more of our energy. And it will be our willingness to walk toward the challenge, not away from it, that makes all the difference.
So that even when we hear that in the words of Jesus that makes us roll our eyes and groan, or even want to throw him off a cliff, it’s worth realizing that it’s making us grow in Christ. And that’s what we need from him. That, in fact, is the good news to our poor hearts, the binding for we who are broken, the key that allows the oppressed to go free.