Most of us have some experience with our speech being evaluated. It happens for me every Sunday. Not everyone makes a comment about the sermon, but by the number of people who fall asleep or seem wide awake, there is an evaluation of sorts going on. That reminds me of our church in Illinois that was down to only one functioning radio headset for folks with hearing difficulties. One Sunday, Lorene asked Fred if he wanted to use it and he said, “That’s OK, you take it. I think I’ll just sleep this morning.”
At any rate, what we say gets critiqued. Maybe you teach a class or present a paper at a conference. You take a speech class or make a sales presentation or lead a workshop or teach Sunday School. You come up with a persuasive way to ask mom and dad for the car. Most of us have some experience with our speech being evaluated, whether we get formal feedback or not.
Our scripture for today is Jesus’ first sermon recorded in Luke. And those present are not just evaluating the sermon; they are evaluating him. Stories were beginning to circulate about how he was healing people and about what a captivating teacher he was. Jesus was in his hometown synagogue. The custom was for someone in the synagogue to read the scripture for the day and to offer comments on it. On this day, Jesus was asked to read and comment. And everyone was excited to hear what he had to say. These people knew him. They wanted him to do well. They were predisposed to give him a favorable evaluation.
Beyond whatever personal connections folks had, they were genuinely enthused about what Jesus’ success might mean to their community. It wasn’t easy living in Nazareth. There were heathens all around. Phoenicians lived to the west and north, Samaritans to the south, Greeks to the west. Nazareth was far from the good influence of Jerusalem and surrounded by these pagans. It’s no wonder that Nathaniel asked Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Nazareth was not an easy place for a pious Jew to grow up. A religious leader coming from Nazareth could be a great thing for the city.
Jesus opened the scroll of Isaiah and read: “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.”
Then he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. That was the custom – one didn’t stand at the pulpit to speak, one sat. All eyes were on Jesus. There was great anticipation. Everyone was eager to hear what he had to say. And this is what he said: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Not what they expected, exactly – Jesus seemed to be assuming a lot of authority for a rookie preacher – but he sounded great. People commented on how well he spoke, how proud they were. Although there were no doubt some other thoughts behind these kind words for Jesus.
For one thing, there was some question about his scripture reading. He read from Isaiah chapter 61, which was all well and good, but he failed to finish the verse. He mentioned “the day of the Lord’s favor,” but he left out the next part, about “the day of vengeance of our God.” He spoke of good news for the poor, release, recovery, freedom, and God’s favor, but left out vengeance. What was that about? Was Jesus weak on sin?
And even more on the minds of people were subtle questions about whether Jesus had gotten too big for his britches. “Isn’t this Joseph and Mary’s boy?” they asked—and the implication was, how could Joe and Mary’s boy be talking like this? So while Jesus was outwardly well received, there was some latent criticism. And as Jesus continued, the negative response much stronger.
Jesus was aware of the criticisms and questions. But rather than quieting the crowd with a moving, inspirational sermon, Jesus is in the crowd’s face. “No doubt you are going to quote to me the proverb, ‘Doctor, heal yourself,’ and you are going to want me to do in my hometown the things I did in Capernaum. Well, I know that no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”
Like this is going to win over the crowd. But then it gets worse. Jesus reminds the crowd of times when God’s favor is shown not to good Israelites, but to no good foreigners. “Remember when there was a severe famine, and Elijah went not to one of the Hebrew widows, but the poor widow at Zarephath in Sidon, and she was the hero of the story? Or remember when there were many lepers in Israel, but the leper who was healed was Naaman the Syrian?”
What is Jesus thinking? These are people surrounded by Gentiles, and Jesus, one of their own, is talking up foreigners! What’s the use of having a hometown Messiah if it’s not going to benefit the hometown? Jesus was disrespectful -- and what’s more, he was just wrong. Yes, God could on occasion show favor to other nations, but this was their God, not the Phoenicians’, not the Syrians’, not the Samaritans’. Where did Jesus get off?
The crowd became enraged. Jesus had essentially shown himself to be a false prophet by blaspheming the faithful Jews and praising the sinful Gentiles. They chased him to the edge of town and intended to throw him off the cliff there. Luke does not tell us how exactly, but Jesus was able to walk away.
You’ve got to admit: Jesus did get the crowd’s attention. They took notice. But if Jesus wanted to stay in the business long, this was definitely not the way to go about it.
There were good reasons the people in Jesus’ hometown reacted so strongly. First, there was the problem of familiarity. They knew Jesus. This was the kid they had watched grow up, the boy who had worked with his father in the carpenter’s shop. What reason did he have to think he could just come in and tell them the way it was?
If some outside expert had come in with a good PowerPoint presentation, it might have gone over better. But Jesus was one of their own. The problem was that their proximity and familiarity tended to blind them. Having known Jesus for years, they just could not recognize him as a prophet. Certainly not as a messiah.
I wonder if we sometimes have that same problem. Jesus can be too familiar. Too much of a pal, too much “our” guy. Have you ever noticed all the paintings of Jesus that have him as a blue-eyed, blond haired white guy? Have you noticed that we tend to attribute to Jesus good middle-class American values? We can tend to re-make Jesus into our image. Jesus is a friend, yes, a friend who is always with us. But Jesus is not our lackey.
Familiarity was not the only problem. Perhaps a bigger issue was resentment that Jesus had taken God’s favor to others – others whom they didn’t care for. Capernaum, where Jesus had apparently already had success, had a strong non-Jewish population. And his stories about the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian didn’t help at all.
Maybe the worst thing was the fact that Jesus actually believed this stuff. He took it all just a little bit too seriously. He quotes Isaiah, talking about release of the captives and restoring sight to the blind and all that stuff. They liked that – it was a very nice sentiment. But Jesus really, truly, seriously believed this. He really did believe in good news for the poor – even for a poor widow of Zarapeth. He really did believe in healing – even for a Syrian like Namaan. Jesus wasn’t putting a limit on it. And he really did believe that he was called by God to bring about this healing and recovery and release and Good News.
There was a strong reaction because Jesus’ preaching confronted them with truth they did not want to face. They wanted a manageable Messiah. They did not want someone barging in to remind them of a part of their own tradition that they would just as soon forget: that God’s favor extended beyond the confines of Israel. At the root of it all, they were offended by God’s grace, especially toward those of whom they did not approve.
I can’t help but think that there was a good bit of scarcity thinking in the congregation – a sense that there was just so much grace and goodness and blessing to go around, and Jesus was wasting it on outsiders. The people of Nazareth profoundly misunderstood the ways of God. God’s love is not a zero-sum game. The more love and grace and kindness and compassion is shared, the more there is to give away – just like the story Jesus mentions about the widow of Zarephath, who used her last little bit of oil and flour to make bread for the prophet Elijah, and yet the jar of flour and jug of oil never ran out.
The reading from Isaiah and Jesus’ inaugural sermon serves as the thesis statement of Luke’s gospel. This is Jesus’ mission. He is about bringing healing and sight and release and freedom. He is about justice. He is about mercy. And all of this he makes available to everyone.
You know, we can be just like the folks in Jesus’ hometown. We can feel under siege, like the good people of Nazareth: dominated by the powers-that-be, surrounded by bad influences, lax morals, power-mongering corporations, scary politics. We can feel under siege, as though things are out of control. We want God to be on our side. And God is with us. But like the people of Nazareth, we can be offended that God’s grace embraces even those who are different from us.
We want a Messiah we can manage, a savior we can control. What we don’t want is an unpredictable savior who will challenge us and maybe even change us.
It is worth noting that the very first word Jesus utters in the gospel of Luke is “today.” Not yesterday, not someday, but today. He begins not by dwelling on the past or dreaming of the future, he begins right here, right now, today. Today this scripture has come to pass. That is challenging.
There is a big difference between seeing the Bible as beautiful words and lofty thoughts and seeing it as making actual demands on us, calling for action here and now.
In her book The Case For God, Karen Armstrong argues that over the centuries, religion has been much more about what people do than simply what they think. Faith really can’t be understood, she says, unless it is lived. She wrote,
It is no use imagining that you will be able to drive a car if you simply read the manual or study the rules of the road. You cannot learn to dance, paint, or cook by perusing texts or recipes. The rules of a board game sound obscure, unnecessarily complicated, and dull until you start to play, when everything falls into place. There are some things that can be learned only by constant, dedicated practice, but if you persevere, you find that you achieve something that seemed initially impossible.
Jesus challenged his hometown congregation that their faith be about more than reading lofty words. Living out this faith, making it a part of your life, could cause some discomfort.
Today is Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. Dr. King would have turned 88 today. And as we think about his legacy, it seems to me that these verses from Luke chapter 4 pretty well describe his ministry. Good news for the poor, release for the captives, recovery of sight, freedom for the oppressed.
In 1968, Dr. King gave a sermon titled “The Drum Major Instinct.” In it, he spoke of how he would want to be remembered:
Every now and then I guess we all think realistically about that day when we will be victimized with what is life’s final common denominator—that something that we call death. We all think about it. And every now and then I think about my own death and I think about my own funeral… And every now and then I ask myself, “What is it that I would want said?”Jesus came into his hometown synagogue and challenged his hometown congregation. The challenge was to really believe and really act on the words they read and spoke in worship each week. The challenge was to show their faith in their living, through compassion that reached out to those in need, to those who were most vulnerable, to those on the margins.
If any of you are around when I have to meet my day, I don’t want a long funeral. And if you get somebody to deliver the eulogy, tell them not to talk too long. And every now and then I wonder what I want them to say. Tell them not to mention that I have a Nobel Peace Prize—that isn’t important. Tell them not to mention that I have three or four hundred other awards—that’s not important. Tell them not to mention where I went to school.
I’d like somebody to mention that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to give his life serving others. I’d like for somebody to say that day that Martin Luther King, Jr., tried to love somebody. I want you to say that day that I tried to be right on the war question. I want you to be able to say that day that I did try to feed the hungry. And I want you to be able to say that day that I did try in my life to clothe those who were naked. I want you to say on that day that I did try in my life to visit those who were in prison. I want you to say that I tried to love and serve humanity.
Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice. Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter.
I won’t have any money to leave behind. I won’t have the fine and luxurious things of life to leave behind. But I just want to leave a committed life behind. And that’s all I want to say.
We are just getting started in the gospel of Luke. Jesus spends the rest of the gospel living out the mission he read from the scroll of the book of Isaiah that day. As followers of Jesus, the challenge for us is to do the same. Amen.