Sports teams like playing for the hometown crowd because they are the people who are your loyalist fans. They stick with you through thick and thin (unless your a Red Sox pitcher and doing that whole chicken and beer thing). They know all about you, which is both good and bad. They may expect you to be better than you are or to show them some favors if you have them available.
Jesus is back in Nazareth for the first time since his ministry began. You would think that going into the synagogue on the Sabbath to pray wouldn’t be such a difficult thing, but alas it was. Here’s my thoughts on Jesus and that hometown reception and what it might mean for us too.
Epiphany 4C — Luke 4:21-30
The lectionary committee—the people who picked the lessons that we read each week—didn’t do us any favors today with our gospel. Last week we read the first part of a gospel passage from Luke, where Jesus had just returned to his hometown of Nazareth and gone to the synagogue to worship. You may remember that he read from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, “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.” I say all of that to remind you of where we are, because the lectionary plops us right in the middle of the story, where Jesus says, “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
But did you catch what happened next? We think that the people got mad at him, and called him names, but they didn’t. If you look closely at the text, Luke tells us that they are amazed at his gracious words. The home town crowd is in awe of him. But Jesus pushes on them a bit. “Surely you’ll say, ‘Doctor, heal yourself,’ and ‘Do here in your home town what you did in Capernaum.’” Jesus predicts what they will say, how they will respond to him. They might like his gracious words, but Jesus suspects that they’re really in it for what they can get from him in terms of miracles or favors. “We love our home town hero, so let’s see some of those healings!”
Are they just overly proud of Jesus’ success, and hope to see some of the benefits since they knew him first? “This is Joseph’s son! We know him! Maybe we have the inside track to God! Yippee!”
But Jesus tells them quite specifically that he doesn’t play favorites. He does this by reminding them of these two stories from Israel’s past about Elijah and Elisha. While the people in Nazareth probably knew the stories cold, let me refresh your memory a bit.
First Elijah. There was a drought in the land of Israel because King Ahab followed Baal, the idol worshipped by his wife Jezebel, and they encouraged the people of Israel to worship Baal too. Baal was the god of rain, fertility and agriculture, so the way for the living God to prove that Baal was not as powerful as God was to cause there to be a drought in the land, so that’s what happened.
During this time Elijah fled for his life because Jezebel wanted to kill him. While hiding, he ran out of food. The word of the Lord came to him, telling him to go to to Zaraphath in Sidon, that is, to Gentile territory. Elijah learned that God had commanded a widow to help feed him. So he headed out. And when we arrived, he found a widow gathering sticks. He asks her for water, which she agrees to bring to him, and then bread. She replies, “I don’t have any bread—only a handful of flour in a jar and a little olive oil in a jug. I am gathering these few sticks to take home and make a meal for myself and my son, that we may eat it—and die.”
Elijah tells her that if she brings him some bread that she and her son will not die. Instead, God will work a miracle and the flour and oil will not run out until the Lord sends rain on the land. So she brings him the bread, and then she and her son and Elijah eat from that jar of flour and that jug of oil for many days, just as the Lord had told her. And she was a Gentile woman cared for by the God of Israel.
The other story, the one about Naaman the leper, begins with this general in the Syrian Army looking for a cure for his leprosy. He learns from his wife’s servant girl that there is a prophet of the God of Israel might be able to heal him. Naaman requests permission from his king to go to the king of Israel and ask for this healing. After getting the okay, Naaman travels with a large entourage and wagon full of gifts for payment. He finds his way to the prophet Elisha’s house, but Elisha doesn’t even bother to come out of his home to meet Naaman, sending out his servant instead.
Naaman is told by that servant to go wash 7 times in the Jordan River, and then he would be healed. And while this is an easy task, he gets annoyed because Elisha himself didn’t come out and because the Jordan is a muddy river and it’s in Israel. One of his hired hands tells him that he’s being foolish, so he comes to his senses, goes and washes and is cleansed. Because of the miracle, Naaman chooses from that day forward to worship the Living God, even asking Elisha for pardon ahead of time because he will have to go to the temple of the Syrian god Rimmon and bow before the altar there. Elisha pardons him, and he heads back home.
That’s a long way around for Jesus to make a point, but he feels that he needs to say this because he’s not going to play favorites. In fact, he lays out clearly that his mission is to the ones forgotten by society, the ones imprisoned, and the blind and the poor and the oppressed. And while he could have found some supporting evidence in Israel’s history of a prophet helping the least among the people of Israel, he goes for these two interactions with foreigners. And not only that, but Jesus uses Naaman as an example, a man who will continue to go to another god’s temple because of his position in the Syrian empire. Jesus is sent to proclaim good news to ones like that and not just to the home town crowd.
So when they hear this, Jesus’ friends and neighbors there in Nazareth, they lose their heads and go into a blind rage. They get up and drive him out of the synagogue and force him to the brow of a hill so they could hurl him off the cliff. They lost their heads simply because he wasn’t going to play favorites and because he wanted to bring the good news to all people.
For those of us who are regulars at church, Jesus is our hometown hero. We’re the ones who’ve known him the longest, and expect him to act on our behalf. We are faithful, aren’t we? Doesn’t that count for something? Surely that must mean an extra blessing or two coming our way, right?
In Disney’s retelling of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the gypsy woman Esmeralda while eluding capture under false pretenses, finds herself in the cathedral and declares sanctuary. Being in that holy place, she sings this heartfelt song to God.
I don’t know if You can hear me
Or if You’re even there
I don’t know if You would listen
To a gypsie’s prayer
Yes, I know I’m just an outcast
I shouldn’t speak to you
Still I see Your face and wonder…
Were You once an outcast too?
God help the outcasts
Hungry from birth
Show them the mercy
They don’t find on earth
God help my people
We look to You still
God help the outcasts
Or nobody will
I ask for wealth
I ask for fame
I ask for glory to shine on my name
I ask for love I can possess
I ask for God and His angels to bless me
I ask for nothing
I can get by
But I know so many
Less lucky than I
Please help my people
The poor and downtrod
I thought we all were
The children of God
God help the outcasts
Children of God
It’s so much easier to believe that God will play favorites, that there will be some sort of special attention we’ll receive if we stay at this Christianity thing long enough. And so when God seems to bless someone else, especially someone who doesn’t look like they have a relationship with God, we have tendency to get envious. Esmeralda is right, we all are the children of God, and Jesus came for all of us to experience life, and especially those who are not experiencing much of life at all. The poor and the captives and the blind and the oppressed. The ones so often forgotten in our world, Jesus comes to proclaim to them too that it is the year of the Lord’s favor.
Not that we shouldn’t hear that message as well. But I think most of us should begin at a place of recognizing how Jesus has already come and worked in our lives. We have an opportunity to begin at a place of gratitude, at acknowledging the ways in which we are no longer captive or blind or oppressed. And then we can take part in the joy that can come when we share that good news on behalf of Christ with others, with the ones who are destitute and on the fringes of society because they have been forgotten by the world. We must remind them—and we must remember ourselves—that none of us has been forgotten by God, and the only reason that none of us is God’s favorite is simply because all of us are. Amen.