Monday, January 25, 2010

Pushing Jesus Over a Cliff?

If someone in your family suddenly made it big, maybe they signed an NFL contract or landed a record deal or just won the lottery, you'd expect at least a small portion of their good fortune to overflow to you, wouldn't you? I'm not talking about a distant cousin here. If a sibling or parent or that favorite aunt was suddenly rolling in millions while you continued to toil in your less than lucrative job trying to pay off the mortgage and the car payments and the college loans, you might expect that your suddenly fortunate family member might make at least a little of that debt disappear for you, right?

In Luke 4:21-30, the people of Nazareth are like family members who have just watched one of their kin make it big. This passage is a continuation of the story I preached from two weeks ago. In that passage, Jesus stands up to read from the book of Isaiah in the synagogue at Nazareth, the town where he grew up. These words are about the God-sent, Spirit-anointed, messiah who will proclaim good news to the poor, release to the captives, and freedom to the oppressed and Jesus says that these words have been fulfilled in their hearing. In other words, Jesus is that deliverer that Isaiah was talking about.

We might expect that this is the reason that the people want to push him off a cliff by the end of this story. After all, the Pharisees are constantly questioning Jesus' authority and claims about himself and by the end of the gospel Jesus is put on trial for blasphemy. However, that is not what is going on here at the very beginning of Jesus' ministry. No, at first, the people are thrilled that Jesus has made this claim about himself. That is because Jesus' Jewish audience would have seen themselves as the poor, captive, and oppressed that he was talking about. Every first century Jew knew that those words from the prophet Isaiah were about poor, afflicted Israel that had been enslaved in Egpyt, exiled in Babylon, and was now being oppressed by Rome. Those present in the synagogue would have heard Jesus saying that he had been sent to deliver them. That is why Luke says that "they were amazed at the gracious words that were falling from his lips; and they were saying, 'Is this not Joseph's son?" Translation: "Israel's deliverer is from our own town and from a family we all know? That is good news for Israel but especially good news for us!" Those at the synagogue figured if Jesus was going to be a big time king someday soon then they all stood to benefit from their close connection to him. You can almost hear them saying "We believe in you Jesus! Just remember us when you're a big star!"

Of course, none of this is lost on Jesus. He knows what kind of expectations he has stirred up with these words from Isaiah. He knows that the people of Nazareth will expect favors and kickbacks from him. And, as usual, Jesus refuses to conform to expectations. Instead, Jesus tells two short stories:
I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah's time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian."
In both of these stories, God's prophetic messengers go to Gentiles instead of God's people Israel. Jesus' message is clear. Like Elijah and Elisha before, Jesus' prophetic ministry is not only to Israel but also to the Gentiles. The promise of good news, deliverance, liberation, and freedom is not only for Israel but for all who will respond to Jesus. It is this message, that Jesus is the messiah and deliverer for all people and not just Israel, that so enrages Jesus' audience that they seek to kill him by pushing him over a cliff.

Maybe none of us has tried to shove Jesus off a cliff lately but isn't it easy to make the same mistake that crowd in Nazareth made; to see in Jesus only what he can do for us and to discard him when we see that he will no longer be a benefit to us? In this passage, the Spirit of Jesus is speaking to his Church, saying "I didn't come just for you. I came so that you might learn to live for others."

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