Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Is He Speaking to Us?

This Sunday in the RCL, we read the second-half of Luke's two-sided story of Jesus' visit to his hometown synagogue (Luke 4:21-30). I label it "two-sided" because the same statement of salvation that Jesus declares from Isaiah 61is good news to some and bad news to others. The difference is whether we hear it with arms and hearts wide open or with hands and minds tightly closed.

Although we do not hear it in church this week (and a strong argument can be made for expanding the lesson and reading it anyway), the central passage behind Jesus' encounter with the angry congregation is Isaiah 61:1-2a, in which God's anointed one (i.e. "messiah") declares that God has sent him to bring good news to the poor, comfort to the brokenhearted, liberty to the captives, and freedom to the prisoners, thus declaring the year of the Lord's favor. Initially, the congregation is overjoyed. "What good news!" they said to one another. "This is it! This is what God's people have been waiting for!"

And then the other shoe drops. (Insert the second side of this gospel story here.)

Luke tells us that "all spoke well of [Jesus] and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth." Somehow, though, by the end of this short encounter, the congregation was enraged--angry enough to chase Jesus out of the synagogue, run out of town, and hurl him off a cliff. What happened? How did it all fall apart so quickly?

There's more to say about expectations and Jesus' unraveling of the hometown crowd's understanding of who he was and what God's messiah represented. For now, though, suffice it to say that Jesus' understanding of the good news of Isaiah 61 was radically different from that of the congregation, and the disjuncture was so violent that it almost got him killed.

As if pulling the rug out from underneath the people, Jesus tells two short and upsetting stories. First, he recalls the story of Elijah providing food for the widow at Zarephath even though "there were many [unfed] widows in Israel" at that time. His point? Salvation came to her house even though she was an outsider--a Gentile. Then, he tells the story of Naaman the Syrian, who was healed by Elisha the prophet even though "there were also many [uncleansed] lepers in Israel" at that time. His point? Salvation came to the general of the Gentile army. The message? Yes, the fulfillment of Isaiah 61 is good news, but Jesus shows them that they don't own it. It's bigger than them. It's bigger than us. And they didn't like that. And I don't blame them. I wouldn't like it either.

God's love is easy when it's intended for me and for other people I love. But when it belongs as much to another as it does to me, I am challenged. That's the two-sided nature of this story. When Jesus read from Isaiah 61 and declared, "Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing," he was ushering in a new era of salvation. And, yes, that salvation was for the congregation gathered in the synagogue, but it wasn't just for them. And, as long as they--or any of us--thinks it belongs only to us--it turns out that we never had it in the first place because we didn't understand how salvation works. Here's how I'd summarize it:

The good news of salvation is about you,
but it isn't only about you.
If you think it's only about you,
then it isn't for you after all.

That's good news for those whose arms and hearts are open, but it's terrible news for those whose hands and minds are closed.

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