EPH4C16 – 01.31.16
Last week our gospel lesson was the first recorded act of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospel of Luke, our gospel for this lectionary year. He returned to his hometown of Nazareth and went to the synagogue on the Sabbath for worship, as was his custom. We can infer that he had already been accepted as a rabbi, or teacher, before he left because he quite naturally read from scripture and taught a sermon. He chose this reading from 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.” He began his sermon by explaining the reading and saying “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
All was going pretty well up until that point. Luke tells us the people “spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” But the statement that on that day the scripture was to be fulfilled – that, he was the long awaited Messiah who would free them from their oppression – was too much. He was, after all, a hometown boy, the son of Joseph, the local builder. As if that shocking statement wasn’t enough, he went on to tell them that prophets are never accepted in their hometown. And he further enraged them by using examples from Hebrew scripture of people who were not Jewish, but Gentiles, who had been the recipients of the Lord’s favor because they accepted the words of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. According to Luke, who is the only one to tell this story with all these details, the people were so angry they drove him out of the synagogue and tried to throw him off the cliff. In some mysterious way he was able to elude them and continue with his ministry.
Why did Luke include this rather shocking story in his gospel narrative? This is not a normal reaction to the hometown child coming back and preaching a great sermon. If we send a son or daughter off to seminary, we are going to be thrilled when they return. Throwing them off the balcony just doesn’t seem like a likely scenario! It seems that prophets have a long history of being rejected by the people to whom they were sent by God. Prophets are not in the business of predicting the future. Their job is to confront, not to predict. When they do talk about the future, it is to provide the future implications of current actions. What happens now affects the future. In our first reading the prophet Jeremiah reveals the circumstances of his call by God and indicates that he was warned that the word of God which he was to convey would not be readily accepted. In the middle of the Book of Jeremiah, after years of prophesying, he became despondent, forgetting those initial words that God spoke to him. By the end of his career, he understood the implications of his faithful service as God’s prophet.
Prophets are often connected with situations where God’s favor is given to “outsiders” rather than to the chosen people to whom they are speaking. Just as the people of Nazareth did not appreciate being reminded that outsiders – the widow of Zarephath in Sidon and later, Naaman, the Syrian, were the recipients of God’s favor – so have people in more recent times often ignored or, more ominously, called for the silencing of prophetic voices.
Abraham Lincoln was murdered because of his role in ending slavery in the United States, a country which was supposedly founded on the principle of freedom for all, yet allowed people to be held in bondage and forced into slave labor against their will. Mahatma Gandhi, a Hindu who often cited the teaching of Jesus, was ruthlessly murdered by people who did not like his message that demanded freedom and justice for the people of India. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor, worked with the German resistance to try and defeat Hitler and the Third Reich. He would attend religious conferences outside of German and while there secretly meet with leaders of various governments, including Great Britain and the United States, trying to convince them to support the resistance effort. But the government ignored his warnings about the genocide of the Jewish population and insisted on labeling all Germans as complicit in Hitler’s government. Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed because he insisted on proclaiming a message of equality for all people regardless of race.
I could cite many more such prophetic voices that were silenced because they insisted on compassion and justice for the “other,” people identified by their audiences as outsiders, people who they felt did not deserve to have the same rights and privileges as them and were not as deserving of God’s favor as they themselves were. No matter the time or place in human history, there are always those who are marginalized or downright rejected, and there are always courageous and prophetic voices who speak out for them, even though they are often brutally silenced.
With the benefit of hindsight, we see that such prophets are now celebrated for their wisdom and courage, and those who opposed them are either forgotten or reviled. Lincoln, Gandhi, Bonhoeffer and King are heroes. The only reason we even speak of those they opposed is to point them out as perpetrators of evil and to hope that we have learned how not to act from their example.
Ultimately, of course, Jesus was brutally silenced by those who opposed him and his message of God’s compassion, mercy and justice. Yet two thousand years later he is at the very heart of the faith that is professed by millions of people around the world. But the question remains relevant – do we listen to his words, or do we allow ourselves to be taken in by the words of false prophets who would demonize groups of people as outsiders? It is a sad and frightening truth that slave owners, British colonialists, many Nazis and those who downplayed the threat of Hitler, as well as many of those who opposed civil rights in America identified themselves as Christians.
Our second reading from 1 Corinthians serves as a counterpoint to our other readings. Even though this reading is often chosen for weddings, St. Paul is not speaking of romantic love, he is speaking of agape love, the unconditional love God has for us and which we should have for others. Although not a bad choice for people who are about to share a lifetime together, his words have far greater implications. The apostle reminds us that eventually prophecies, mysteries and knowledge will come to an end, and what will remain is the ultimate gift of God’s grace, unconditional love. We can debate and argue and exclude the other from compassion and justice as much as we want, but the ultimate question will be – did we practice God’s unconditional love in service towards all, or did we ignore and exclude them, perhaps even persecute them.
St. Paul says, “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.” Will the revelation of God’s truth and love come as a surprise, or will we have at least glimpsed it and tried to abide by it during our lifetime? Amen.