St. Giles’ Episcopal Church
February 3, 2019 – 4 Epiphany
The Rev. Dr. Susan Kraus
To understand what actually happened in the passage from Luke’s Gospel that we just heard, we need some background information. This passage is a continuation of last week’s Gospel lesson. Jesus had been baptized by John and then been led by the Spirit into the wilderness where he had spent forty days fasting and being tempted by the devil. At the end of the forty days he left the wilderness and traveled to Galilee to preach and teach. In Nazareth, his hometown, he attended the synagogue. The synagogue services – unlike services in the Temple in Jerusalem – were relatively informal. They consisted of prayers, reading of Scripture, comments on Scripture, and the collection of alms for the poor. All male Jews were permitted to read and comment on Scripture.
Luke tells us that very early in Jesus’ public ministry he attended the synagogue in Nazareth and read these words from 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.” His reading must have been impressive. Luke writes, “The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”
Jesus stood in the synagogue and read about the message God entrusted to God’s anointed one. He virtually said that he was God’s anointed one, the Christ, the Messiah. And at first the people receive this news well. They express a strikingly positive regard for Jesus – “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” Jesus had announced the good news that he was God’s anointed one who would liberate and heal and bring blessings to God’s people. The Jews assembled in the synagogue assumed these blessings were for the Jews.
But Jesus challenged this assumption, using examples from the Hebrew Bible. The people assembled in the synagogue that day would have been familiar with his references, though we are probably not. Briefly, they are these. First Jesus spoke of one of the greatest prophets in Jewish history, Elijah. In the 9th century BCE Elijah was away from Israel, in Sidon in the north. He was in exile because his life was in danger from Ahab, the king of Israel. While he was in exile, God directed Elijah to heal the son of a widow, a non-Jew. As Jesus says to the people in the synagogue, there were many widows in Israel to whom God might have sent Elijah. But God sent Elijah to a foreigner to work this miracle. Jesus then refers to another Hebrew prophet, Elisha, a great healer. Elisha healed Naaman, a general in the Syrian army, of leprosy. As Jesus said, “There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” Once again, God sent the Israelite Elisha to a foreigner to work a miracle.
Jesus uses the Hebrew Bible to make his point that God’s blessings extend beyond the Jewish people. This is what infuriated the people in the synagogue in Nazareth. Their positive regard turned to violent rage. “When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.”
Here at the beginning of the Gospel Luke makes important points about Jesus. Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one of God, who will fulfill the promises of God to God’s people. And the promises of God are for all people, not only the Jewish people. In Jesus’ ministry these two points will be made clear over and over again. Jesus the healer will heal Jews and non-Jews, even the slave of the Roman centurion, an agent of the foreign oppression of the Jewish people. Jesus will bring the good news of salvation to good people and to “bad” characters – tax collectors and sinners. Jesus will use the truth about God found in the Hebrew Bible to challenge the Jewish religious leaders about their behavior and their attitudes to others. And Jesus will be rejected for this; his message will incite violence.
So, how can we relate to this Gospel story? We are all glad personally to hear the good news of God’s love for us, aren’t we? And we are glad to know that God loves the people we love, too. So far, so good. But what about our enemies? Think about this. Make it personal. Have you had enemies in your life? Someone who has done what is wrong and harmed you, blocked your way, thrown your life off course? Has someone acted with malice against you? What happens if you imagine that God loves that person as much as God loves you? What happens if you imagine that Jesus seeks out that person to offer him or her the chance for repentance and salvation, all with the limitless love of God? What about groups of people we regard as enemies, for one reason or another? Think about Jesus’ teaching that we are to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us. Are you getting out of your comfort zone with the “good news” yet? I am. If our hearts are not yet full of God’s compassion and love, we are likely to resent Jesus’ message of God’s love for all people because we think that some people should be outside the circle of God’s love. We may understand the reaction of the people in the synagogue in Nazareth that day long ago.
I recently read a book called “Tears of the Giraffe” written by Alexander McCall Smith in the year 2000. This is the second novel in the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series, a lovely series of books set in Botswana, Southern Africa. The books are wise and thought-provoking regarding issues of morality. This is a quote from that book:
“Then there was Mr. Mandela. Everybody knew about Mr. Mandela and how he had forgiven those who had imprisoned him. They had taken away years and years of his life simply because he wanted justice. They had set him to work in a quarry and his eyes had been permanently damaged by the rock dust. But at last, when he had walked out of the prison on that breathless, luminous day, he had said nothing about revenge or even retribution. He had said that there were more important things to do than to complain about the past, and in time he had shown that he meant this by hundreds of acts of kindness towards those who had treated him so badly. That was the real African way, the tradition that was closest to the heart of Africa. We are all children of Africa, and none of us is better or more important than the other. This is what Africa could say to the world: it could remind it what it is to be human.”
As I read this, I changed the last few sentences in my mind to this: “That was the real Christian way, the tradition that was closest to the heart of Christ. We are all children of God, and none of us is better or more important than the other. This is what the church could say to the world: it could remind it what it is to be human.”
There are places in our hearts – each of us knows where they are – where we need the grace and light of Christ to lead us from anger, resentment, and hatred to compassion. May our love for Jesus guide us to greater love for others, those we love and those we don’t love. This is the transformation to which we are called, the transformation that the Holy Spirit will lead us to, step by step, if we will join our wills to the will of God. In Jesus’ name. Amen.