Jesus Picks a Fight
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; February 3, 2019
4th Sunday after Epiphany
1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30
Jesus returns home for a visit and ends up in the synagogue where he gets a chance to share his mission statement—so to speak—through the words of 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.” All eyes are fixed upon Jesus. The people speak well of him and are amazed. They seem proud of their hometown boy made good until Jesus says something so horrible and so true, it cuts to the bone. Then, in a flash, the mood changes, and it’s “Throw him over the cliff!”
So, what happened? Let’s try to put it in perspective. Imagine our very own Zachary grows up and feels the call to be a minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Following his undergraduate work at UGA, he attends Princeton Seminary and excels in everything. (Of course, he does, he is Zach, after all!) Time passes and he’s called to pastor a big church in Atlanta. But one Sunday when he’s in town visiting his parents, we are honored to have him preach from this very pulpit.
In preparation, we advertise near and far—emails go out, posts appear on the church Facebook page and on Instagram, an article is printed in the church newsletter and The Valdosta Daily Times. When the day arrives, the church is packed. And at the appropriate time in worship, Zachary approaches the pulpit, dressed in his robe and stole. He stands before us, reads Scripture and then begins his sermon—a word from God for the people of God.
Everyone is smiling—beaming really—because this is Scott and Kerri’s boy. We’ve known him since he was a baby. We are so proud—until he gets all fired up and begins pointing fingers. He broadcasts for everyone to hear how we have failed as a church. He uncovers our prejudices and lets us know, in no uncertain terms, how we have tried to contain God’s love for ourselves. We’ve made God in our own image, defined God by our standards. But whether we like it or not, God’s love is bigger than our minds can comprehend. God’s love isn’t just for us or for people we like—people who make us comfortable—God’s love is for everyone.
Now be honest, how would we respond? How about something like, “That little whippersnapper—just who does he think he is? We knew him when he was just a little boy practicing his cup stacking routine in the Fellowship Hall, and running through the church with his big brother, Jaxson. What he said might have had some truth to it—but who cares about the truth!”
Jesus reads from Isaiah, sits down and begins to speak and the people remark, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” While there are scholars who propose the question is derogatory in nature, that is not necessarily the case. Instead, it may have been a compliment uttered with a sense of pride. Especially since we are informed that the people speak well of him. Others have suggested that the people are aggravated because Jesus has not performed miracles for them—but that is not likely since they have not asked for anything, yet.
Ultimately, it is as if we have walked into the middle of a story and we are left trying to make sense of it all. Much is unclear. But one thing is crystal clear—Jesus is the one who changes the tone in the synagogue. As one commentator notes, “The congregation is filled with rage only after Jesus gives them a tongue-lashing out of left field [and] who could blame them?”[i] If Jesus really does return home and pick a fight with his own people, surely, he has good reason. But what in the world might it be?
Well, here is a wild and crazy thought: Could this be a continuation of the temptation narrative, which occurs earlier in the same chapter of Luke? You recall how Jesus is in the wilderness fasting and being tempted by Satan for 40 days. Verse 13 reads, “When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.” Could now—now when everyone is praising Jesus and adoring him—could this be one such time? People LOVE him and all Jesus has to do is preach warm messages, heal folks, and multiply a couple of fish sandwiches. “Oh Jesus, be careful. Don’t rattle any cages. Don’t make folks mad. Don’t be a prophet because you know what happens to prophets!” So, if Jesus is facing the temptation to accept people’s praise and maintain the status quo—he excels once again—for he will not succumb. Jesus will not be adored on the people’s terms. Instead, he takes up his mantle as a preacher and prophet to speak a truth that is so difficult, there is not enough sugar in the world to make his medicine go down smoothly.
The two examples Jesus uses in his tongue-lashing concern miracles that happened to Gentiles, but we dare not interpret his overall message as one of Gentile versus Jew. Rather, Jesus’ message is about the marginalized—those whom the Israelites would ignore even though that is never what God intended. Recall God’s words to Abraham, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”[ii]
Truly, God’s love is beyond our imaginings and God seems to have a special love for the poor, the downcast, and the outsider. Could it be that what Jesus is doing here is setting the record straight? Because if Israel can’t accept that God’s love is for all people, how can they accept the mission of God’s Son?
Jesus does not leave heaven’s glory to come to the earth to make people comfortable. Jesus comes to speak the truth. In his hometown, the response is quick and sure. The people are enraged that one of their own has the audacity to suggest that they will not be “the vessels for the unfolding of God’s new narrative.”[iii] How ironic, now, Jesus the insider, becomes Jesus the outsider. But that won’t stop Jesus. He will not be tempted to water down his message to garner praise and adoration. Instead, Jesus points his own people toward the light. Could it be that he is trying to startle them into accepting the love he has come to offer? Through his surprising behavior, is Jesus really saying something like, “I am not for you alone. I am for all people. But you want a Savior who will guarantee you are healed, you have no drought, and there will be endless bread on your table. That may be what you want, but what you need is something more. What you need is faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love—the kind of love for which I will die.”
In Anne Lamott’s book, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, she claims she does not know much about God and prayer but over the last 25 years, she has realized that keeping it simple is best. In the “Wow!” chapter, she writes:
Sometimes—oh, just once in a blue moon—I resist being receptive to God’s generosity, because I am busy with a project and trying to manipulate Him or Her into helping me with it…But God is not a banker or a bean counter. God gives us even more which is so subversive. God just gives, to us, to you and me. I mean, look at us! Yikes.
God keeps giving, forgiving and inviting us back. My friend Tom says this is a scandal and that God has no common sense. God doesn’t say, “I have had it this time. You have taken this course four times and you flunked again. What a joke.” We get to keep starting over. Lives change, sometimes quickly, but usually slowly…If we stay where we are, where we’re stuck, where we’re comfortable and safe, we die there. We become like mushrooms, living in the dark…if you want to know only what you already know, you’re dying. You’re saying: Leave me alone; I don’t mind this rathole. It’s warm and dry. Really, it’s fine.
When nothing new can get in, that’s death…But new is scary, and new can be disappointing, and confusing—we had all this figured out, and now we don’t.[iv]
The people of Nazareth think they have it all figured out. They think they know Jesus. But what turns out to be truer is this: Jesus knows them! And Jesus knows us! We have come to this place to worship a God who will not be boxed in, confined to our temples, synagogues, churches, or stories. God will rattle our cages and shake us up. And God still calls us to care for and love those marginalized by the world: the migrant worker, the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill. Because if we speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but have not love, we are like a noisy gong or a clanging symbol—faith, hope, and love abide—these three—and the greatest of these is love. Amen.
[i] Peter Eaton, Feasting on the Word, 311.
[ii] Genesis 12:1-2
[iii] Feasting, 310
[iv] Anne Lamott, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essentials Prayers, 85-86.
*Cover Art “Scroll of Isaiah from Qumran,” from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=54196 [retrieved January 9, 2019]. Original source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/korephotos/2472547083/.