Today’s gospel seems to present a puzzle. Luke portrays Jesus as an accepted and invited young preacher coming back to his own home patch. From Luke we can guess Jesus had already been teaching in synagogues in the area, otherwise why else would he be handed a scroll and be invited to read and expound on the text.
Luke has Jesus described as speaking so well and so in-tune with what the congregation of the synagogue wanted to hear, they were amazed at his words of grace. Yet in the next minute – apparently in response to a couple of sentences, (about non-Jews being blessed) – the congregation is so infuriated at what they are hearing, they not only want him to stop – they actually pull him away from the teaching place – manhandle him to the edge of a cliff and try to throw him over the edge. Hey, how would that be today for conveying assessment of a trial service for a young preacher?!
Luke is a great storyteller. Did you notice he is not such a good historian or geographer? Nazareth is a village on a slope – not above a cliff, and there are no handy cliffs to throw anyone over. Perhaps this was Luke doing theology rather than literal history.
Can I also confess there is a puzzle about the first part of today’s story (which we encountered last week) with Jesus recorded as reading from the scriptures yet coming up with what Luke records him as reading. If Luke has it right, perhaps Jesus like many of his time, was not strictly literate and may simply have been quoting from memory.
If as in last week’s lectionary passage Jesus was actually reading from Isaiah, and I would encourage you to check it out for yourselves, the verses Luke claimed Jesus chose were far from consecutive and definitely in a different order. This is of course not a serious problem for today’s episode and far more interesting is pausing to ask why his audience hates being reminded of some non-Jews being seen as those true to the Prophet’s teaching. Is that different from our generation showing intolerance for followers of different faiths?
You would think that Jesus would be on safe ground talking of Elijah and Elisha. I suspect Elijah, in particular, would have been considered significant when it came to foretelling the Messiah. On the other hand, the examples Jesus chose, seem calculated to rile his audience.
To understand the swing in the attitude of Jesus’ congregation we need to remind ourselves that the Israelites associated their beliefs with a strong sense of a localized God who had guided their history as the chosen people. And further, that all their history was bound up with a popular notion that God traditionally took their side against the troublesome enemies who surrounded them on every side. We can imagine such people approving of the story of Elijah killing the priests of Baal.
But no! What do we see here? Jesus chose to highlight this particular Elijah story when Elijah was sent to help a woman who was not a Jewish woman. Are we surprised that such a story would be repugnant to a majority, particularly those who had come to believe in a totally partisan God who wanted them to prosper and have their enemies destroyed.
Even worse for the listeners, would have been Jesus’ second example starring Elisha. Jesus reminded his audience Elisha had not cured any of the many lepers in Israel, but instead had healed the commander of the enemy army. Dare I suggest those who choose the readings for the lectionary tend to down-play the awkward readings that don’t fit with current mainstream beliefs.
If we attempt to bring the Elisha story up to date in a modern context, perhaps we ought follow Tom Wright’s commentary and imagine Jesus standing before us telling us about God curing someone like Adolph Hitler. Or to bring it right up to now, if we heard God was using a famous religious leader to cure someone like a current leader of ISIS (perhaps even) curing him of AIDS while ignoring the plight of many Western Christians with AIDS, would we be taking this as good news?
There was of course a deep and pervasive underlying problem which is almost universal in its expression and which Jesus seemed to be attempting to address. The Jewish faith, like many other faiths had developed for a community surrounded by enemies. That they should then have perceived their understanding of God as being partisan and exclusively interested in their own well-being and care should not surprise us. Unfortunately as any student of the Psalms would tell you, one of the consequences to developing a self-belief of being a chosen people was a belligerent attitude to people who belonged to tribes of traditional enemies.
When we read at the end of Psalm 137: – “O daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us – he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks” we should hear in these words a sad reflection of the human condition. Just as fire-bombing Dresden, dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, dropping white phosphorous on Iraqi citizens in 1981, and causing very many infant deaths in Iraq by imposing sanctions, was regarded as regrettable but necessary in more modern times. Even today many seem to accept such retribution as inevitable against one’s enemies.
But make no mistake, retribution is incompatible with Jesus’ typical teaching for showing compassion for a wide range of people and forgiving one’s enemies.
Unfortunately, the collective self-belief in exclusivity for the favoured few would not have accepted Jesus’ notion that believers should be seeking to develop attitudes of concern, particularly with their difficult neighbours. By reminding the people that the sort of Love he was teaching applied to those outside the Jewish faith Jesus was challenging a deeply held tradition. Should we be surprised that this indirect way of telling people they were wrong, was unpopular with his congregation?
Bluntly, is it fair to ask ourselves if we have really progressed since Jesus’ day. Are we for example now comfortable with the notion of treating those of other faiths and other cultures with equal consideration as our own, or do we feel our exclusivity and sense of rightness gives us something of an edge? I wonder for example if anyone here has heard the expression “I’m not a racist, but……?”
Growing up in post Second World War Christchurch I was very familiar with the expressed distrust of the “Japs” and the “Krauts”. Next it was the Commies and the Red Peril, and these days it is Islamic extremists. I don’t hear many Christians insisting it is God’s nature to invite us to give our enemies a fair deal.
Each nation has its own social history and invariably these histories include periods when belligerent myopia edges out embarrassing memories for those who claim to be living by the principles of their faith. The treatment of pacifists and the treatment of foreign nationals in times of national stress provide a barometer test of what happens in practice when the war clouds gather. In the First World War New Zealand pacifists were treated abominably for little more than decrying what modern historians now tell us was international stupidity.
I think also of Archbishop Liston for being tried for sedition on the grounds that he drew public attention to shameful behaviour of British troops in Ireland. In my own local church there is the story of a young man being arrested for giving a speech about pacifism outside our Church on a Saturday afternoon during the Second World War. Or what about the pacifist Ormond Burton who lost his job as a Methodist minister in World War 2? We may not share his view of pacifism, but in terms of allowing him to speak his conscience we can at least ask if we would have allowed him his voice?
Unfortunately, despite optimistic and self-flattering terms used to describe our own circumstances like:” multi-cultural” and “inclusive”, there is limited evidence that these are deserved terms of self-description. Even in liberal New Zealand, Church union founders on the inability of different yet related forms of Christianity to recognize the denominational claims of close cousins. Anglicans are reluctant to accept the ordination of Methodists as giving authority for administering the sacraments in their churches while Catholics and Anglicans view the authority structures of one another’s churches as incompatible.
In today’s drama, Jesus is confronting his audience (and us) with the notion that we can find value in… the other – the foreigner. If we stop to think about it, the certainty that we have already arrived at the true faith, is an unfortunate way of cutting ourselves off from further development.
This notion of separating ourselves into exclusive camps is doubly unfortunate when we think of what we might learn from one another if we were to become more interdependent. Perhaps reading Archbishop Desmond Tutu would be helpful for those who find themselves in positions of Church leadership.
In his book “God has a Dream” Archbishop Tutu reminds us we do not come into the world fully formed – we are shaped by what we learn from interactions with others. This makes us highly dependent on our interdependence, which Tutu introduces with the word Ubuntu from the Nguni language. If we don’t realise this interdependence and cut ourselves off from all groups we don’t understand, we are in effect stunting our growth as persons.
Does our faith have to offer anything to the people of the world or to learn from others? if we don’t want to talk to 1.5 billion Muslims? Tutu argues that we should accept shortcomings in others, since none of us are born with a complete set of developed gifts. I must learn from your gifts and the gifts of others if I want you to learn from mine.
I guess the reason why Luke records Jesus as in effect being run out of town was that Jesus was prepared to tell truth as he saw it regardless of the personal consequences. We go on to learn he totally identified with the message. If we are to assume that we would give Jesus a fairer hearing, then at the very least let’s be honest about how we currently deal with those who are telling us truths we do not wish to hear. The real test of our sincerity in claiming we support Jesus for speaking unpopular truths – is to ask if we are prepared to speak out in the same way.