Today we find ourselves with a puzzle. We have Jesus, obviously an accepted and invited preacher coming back to his own home patch, and more than that, we even hear that he had already been teaching in synagogues in the area, gaining a great reputation as a result. In the introduction to this scene, we find Jesus described as speaking so well and so in tune with what the congregation of the synagogue wanted to hear, that we are told they were amazed at his words of grace – yet in the next minute – apparently in response to a couple of sentences, the congregation is so infuriated at what they are hearing, that 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. How would that be for expressing an opinion at a trial service for a young preacher?!
Luke is a great story teller, but in the interest of honesty I would have to say he is not a particularly accurate historian. Nazareth is a village on a slope – not above a cliff, for there are no cliffs to throw anyone over. Perhaps this was Luke doing theology rather than literal history. There is also something wrong with the first part of today’s story we encountered last week with Jesus reading from the scriptures and coming up with what Luke records him as reading. One strong possibility was that, assuming Luke has conveyed the gist of an actual event, 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 he were actually reading from Isaiah, and I would encourage you to check it out for yourselves, the verses he chose were far from consecutive and in a different order. This is of course not a serious problem for today’s episode and far more interesting is pausing to ask exactly why in Luke’s telling of the story there should be the change in the mood of the crowd, because here there is an underlying issue that is remarkably contemporary when we think of the similarities with our own home settings.
When Jesus started to talk of Elijah and Elisha there at least we might thought him to have been to be on safe ground. After all Elijah, in particular, would have been considered the most significant of all the prophets when it came to foretelling the Messiah. It was not so much Jesus choosing to talk of Elijah and Elisha as his chosen uncomfortable examples.
To understand what happened next to the attitude of the congregation we need to remind ourselves that the Israelites associated their beliefs with a strong sense of a localised 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. Had the congregation members been a little less selective in their memories they might have remembered that it was Elijah who went against popular belief when he took on the prophets of Baal.
Jesus in choosing to highlight this particular Elijah story when Elijah was sent to help a woman but not a Jewish one, would have been recounting a story which was repugnant to a majority, particularly those who had come to believe in a fervent and self interested nationalism supported by a totally partisan God who wanted them to prosper and all their enemies destroyed. Even worse for the listeners was Jesus’ second example. Elisha, Jesus reminded hi s audience, had not cured any of the many lepers in Israel, but instead had healed the commander of the enemy army. The unacceptable notion that God would help an enemy of Israel prosper, particularly while ignoring those he should have been expected to heal, was directly counter to the main current thrust of what many Bible scholars tell us the majority of Jews currently believed at the time and we can well believe that this would infuriate those who believed that they alone were the chosen people.
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. If for example, we heard God used a famous religious leader to cure someone like Idi Amin of AIDS while ignoring the plight of many Westerners with AIDS, would we have taken 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 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 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 acceptable in more modern times, this is simply because as in days of old, such retribution was, and perhaps still is, considered as inevitable against one’s enemies.
It also goes without saying that such behaviour could hardly been further from 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 did not sit well with Jesus’ notion that believers should be seeking to develop attitudes of concern, not just for their own people but for all their 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?
It is always a fair question 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. Even today I can’t imagine someone – even someone like Jesus – getting away with insisting that it is God’s nature to insist we give our enemies a fair deal.
Each nation has its own social history and invariably these histories include periods when belligerent myopia takes over which leaves 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 provides 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. The pacifist Ormond Burton 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 should 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 recognise 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 – and we are then 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 languages. 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. By finding the value in others, since none of us are born with a complete set of developed gifts – I can learn from your gifts – the gifts of others – as I would hope they might learn from mine.
I guess the reason why Luke records Jesus as in effect being run out of town was that he told the truth as he saw it regardless of the personal consequences. If we are to assume that we would have 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.