Feb 3, 2013
Holy Spirit, open our eyes that we may recognize Jesus in the words we hear.
Direct our steps that we may approach Jesus as that solid rock which makes a true foundation, and not as the rock of scandal that would cause us to stumble. Amen.
Tonight’s gospel reading is strange. But if you’re anything like me, you may not have noticed just how strange it is. Indeed, when I read through this passage last week, for the first time in some months, my gaze passed right through this scene, the way Jesus passes through this crowd, moving right along, not having to wrestle with the messy parts, not having to grapple with those aspects that want seize you—the reader—like the crowd seizes Jesus.
It’s easy, when you’ve been hearing and reading these stories your entire life, to focus on Jesus’ reading of Isaiah from the scroll, which we heard last week, announcing his messianic mission. And then to move along next to the long series of healings and miracles that Jesus goes on to perform in the following chapters, as Luke’s narrative presses ever on toward Jerusalem.
If you’re like me, then tonight’s gospel reading has become one of those passages whose strangeness becomes almost entirely effaced by your sheer familiarity with the text.
But pause here with me, try to hear it afresh, and allow its strangeness to take hold.
Try a thought experiment. Imagine, for a moment, that it’s twenty years in the future. You come to Sunday worship at CHMF, and discover, in the bulletin, that the preacher is a young man who grew up in our congregation. He had moved away some time ago, has not been back in years, and has largely lost contact with his family and our entire congregation.
But you are aware that he’s rapidly gained a formidable reputation as an outstanding preacher; he’s been preaching at churches throughout the region, and, you now discover, he’s slated to preach here tonight.
He takes his place behind the pulpit, and proceeds to preach with such dazzling eloquence, with such a profound understanding of the word, that it makes anything else you have ever heard in your entire life, whether in a sermon, a book, or a poem, seem pedestrian, foolish even, in comparison with this man’s words.
You suddenly feel as though the scriptures hold a depth of mystery you’d never before comprehended. And you want to hear more.
You listen intently until finally he finishes, takes his seat, and the time of discernment begins. After a few minutes of conversation, someone says, jokingly:
And to think you’re Joe’s son! We watched you grow up. Your parents and your siblings have lived with us, worked with us, and worshipped with us for years. Where did you come from?
There are a few awkward chuckles at this, but also some groans of disappointment.
And at that point, things begin to get cloudy. When you try to recount that evening later on, neither you, nor anyone else can quite remember what happened next. How it was that things turned out so badly.
But a few things stick out distinctly. This preacher—the one who had been raised and nurtured in this congregation—seemed to turn on his own people. He became hostile and combative. He made unexpected and accusatory comparisons of himself to folks like Martin Luther King, and Malcolm X, to those prophets in our country who had been rejected and betrayed by the very ones to whom they’d been called to minister.
And again no one could quite remember how it happened, but the congregation violently pulled this preacher from his seat. Everyone left the meeting house, dragging him in the way only a mob can do, down Raleigh Road, to the overpass above Highway 54, intending to hurl him down into traffic below, to his certain death.
There, amidst the anger and confusion, this man somehow slipped away and escaped, leaving everyone more confused, and angrier than before, as the utter depravity of what had just happened began to set in.
Now, I can’t imagine our congregation turning into an angry mob like this, dragging our preacher away to throw him to a violent and bloody death. And I certainly hope that won’t be the case tonight.
Indeed, the very thought is absurd. But then again, I would wager that none of those present at Jesus’ sermon would ever have expected to be part of such a mob. And this is precisely what makes this passage so strange. It’s simply hard for us to picture.
Luke does not tell us exactly what went wrong here, nor at which moment the exchange between Jesus and the congregation at Nazareth became so violently combative. You wonder if his parents or siblings were there, and if so, how they reacted. Or whether Jesus’ childhood playmates, or friends from the yeshiva, were amongst those who tried to throw him from the cliff. But the evangelist is brief in his description, sparse, minimalistic.
What he does tell us is that immediately following his sermon on Isaiah, the people praise Jesus. All spoke well of him (4:22). And they marvel at the “words of grace” that come from his mouth.
Then, only moments later, they drive him out of the synagogue, drag him to a cliff, intending to kill him then and there.
Luke leaves much of this unremarked upon, and perhaps we’d be wise to respect that silence. But at the risk of unseemly speculation, let me suggest that there are at least two likely scenarios that may be at play here. There may be others, of course, but these two seem the most imaginable to me.
One possibility is that the congregation—or at least some among them—intends the remark about Joseph disrespectfully. As an insult. Someone scoffs at Jesus, and his suggestion that he is a prophet, even the messiah, and this infects others who begin to scoff. Isn’t this Joseph’s son? They ask. How can this be a prophet? This is someone who comes from their town, their congregation. They’ve watched him grow up.
They’ve seen his flaws, the ordinariness of his life so far. For this congregation, their familiarity has bred—if not quite contempt—then at least confident and mistaken assumptions about who this man is. Jesus suggests that they want to quote the proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself” to him, in a mocking way, much as the crowd at Calvary will mock him as he dies on the cross. Telling him to save himself if he can.
But there’s a second possibility. Perhaps the crowd isn’t mocking Jesus, by pointing out his identity as Joseph’s son. Rather, this may be a point of solidarity they’re drawing with him. You are Joseph’s son. Don’t forget where you came from; don’t forget where your loyalties lie.
They delight in Jesus’ sermon because they see themselves on Jesus’ side, and expect good things to come their way from Jesus’ proclamation. He’s going to bring the kingdom of God, and, as his friends, family, and neighbors, they will be special beneficiaries of this. They’re ready to share in the benefits that might accrue to the prophet’s hometown (and are annoyed that he’s already done great things in Capernaum, the next town over).
The people of Nazareth had heard Jesus’ declaration of the fulfillment of God’s promises as a guarantee of God’s blessings on them. But Jesus affirmed a fulfillment that was not for Israel alone. Rather, the poor would hear good news, and the rich would hear woes. Those who had faith would be blessed, while others would hear judgment.
Rather, Jesus draws their attention to Elijah and Elisha. Instead of proclaiming what the authorities wanted to hear, these prophets spoke what God had called them to say, which is often opposed to the interests of the authorities, and in conflict with the expectations of the ordinary people. The people hear that the messianic era is at hand; they rejoice at this; but when they hear that it won’t entail what they expect, they become angry.
Elijah ministered to a Gentile widow; and Elisha healed an officer of the army of Syria, which had oppressed Israel, much as Rome, the occupying power, is oppressing Israel now. What sort of Messiah ministers to the oppressors, rather than driving them out with force?
Thus, the offense comes precisely when Jesus explains more clearly what his prophetic message, his messianic kingdom, looks like. It’s not simply to benefit the people of Nazareth. Nor is it an automatic blessing. Rather, there is a particular direction and shape to his program. And to benefit from the program means to be among those he mentions here: the poor.; the prisoners; the blind; the oppressed; aliens and foreigners.
Now, of course these two scenarios are mutually exclusive. Either the reference to Joseph is intended to mock Jesus, or it’s meant to remind Jesus that he’s one of them; that he owes them special consideration, as his own. Only this identification of themselves with Jesus’ program comes entirely on the terms that they themselves impose upon Jesus. They suppose that they can control Jesus.
Both scenarios, however, have at their heart to do with the assumptions that the congregation makes about Jesus. These assumptions then inform the way that they respond to him, and to his message.
They’ve misrecognized Jesus, and when confronted with their own act of misrecognition, they are filled with such desperate hatred that they want nothing less than to kill him immediately. They turn, in a single moment, from praising him to rejecting him and finally trying to lynch him. And this proves, in a clear and immediate sense, though not without a hint of irony, the truth of Jesus’ words. Not only do they quite obviously fail to honor him as a prophet, but in fact they try to murder him.
For, as is the case throughout Luke’s gospel, the way a person sees Jesus, necessarily determines the way that person responds to Jesus. And whichever of the scenarios I just sketched better fits the story—in either case, Luke has presented us a clear situation where the congregation misrecognizes Jesus, and in so doing, they reject precisely the one they thought they were waiting for.
One way to read the gospel of Luke as a whole is to see it as the story of this man Jesus, whose very identity is always in question, who eludes all attempts to understand who he is and what he’s about. He’s someone who’s never quite as he appears.
Indeed, one of the first to recognize Jesus in Luke’s account is the old priest, Simeon, who has waited his entire life to behold Jesus. And he says in chapter two:
This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, to be a sign that will be opposed, so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed, and a sword will pierce your own soul too.
And the gospel is filled with people who misperceive him, who see without quite understanding what they see; who listen to his words without quite comprehending what they hear.
And yet—and here is the crux of the entire story, the challenge of the gospel itself—for how one sees Jesus, the way one perceives him, matters tremendously. It matters more than anything else you that will confront you in your entire life. For, as Simeon said, he is a sword that will pierce your soul.”
The question Jesus will later pose to his disciples: Who do people say that I am? is one that confronts all those who encounter him, not only those within Luke’s narrative, but also those of us who encounter him now, in the hearing of the gospel.
The obvious question we want to ask is this: how do we properly recognize Jesus? How do we keep from being like those in Nazareth?
But this, I think, is a dangerous question. After all, if the problem is rooted in misperceiving Jesus. And if misperception is rooted in mistaken expectations about who Jesus is, and what Jesus is supposed to do, then to ask this question might be precisely to compound the problem! The very question itself may invite these assumptions.
What can we say? How can we remain open to seeing Jesus without our own preformed assumptions that would determine who he is and what his program is about, assumptions that make Jesus comfortable, non-threatening, and easy to deal with?
One obviously wrong move is to make Jesus too familiar, to make his sayings too easy, and his claims on our life too facile. To think—like the congregation at Nazareth—that he exists to benefit us. To think that he’ll take our side without it costing us anything. This is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously called “cheap grace.” For our familiarity with Jesus can make it impossible to recognize him when he comes to us as a stranger, naked, or in prison, or as a beggar asking for change in the median of a highway.
But our familiarity with Jesus is comfortable. It’s makes us comfortable to know who he is, and to have him on our side, fitting our expectations. And so we resist Jesus when he appears to us in threatening ways, because we do not want our lives to be disrupted.
So if we are to see him as he presents himself to us, we must be open to being surprised by Jesus. To being genuinely threatened by Jesus. To see him as dangerous. To see him as perhaps not on our side, but as coming against us, opposing our plans, even siding with our enemies.
The question is whether we are even willing to see Jesus like that.
Deliver us, o Lord,
from our pious presumptions
and our comfortable complacency.