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Visions from The Catacombs, Week Before January 31, 2016

Luke 4:21-30

21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” 24And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They 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. 30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

What I am Learning:

I heard Imam Mohammad Asi of the Islamic Center in Washington DC speak in Renton in January. He said that one of the greatest challenges facing the human race is "exclusive groups." He went on to challenge Muslims in at the event in this way:

When a Muslim is afraid to speak to a Christian or a Jew about faith it is not because he or she is firm in their faith. It is because they have not done the work to incorporate their faith into their mind, body and life. Muslims who are solid in their faith can respect the gifts of other faiths.

He went on to challenge Christians and Jews in the same way.

In this passage today, Jesus follows up with the reading of the text from Isaiah that we read last week with some stories that challenged his own people. To us these stories may sound a bit cryptic. To first century Palestinians Jews, however, invoking these stories in this way was "fighting words." Is Jesus being a jerk, here? Is he picking a fight for no reason?

After they said good things of him, some of them said, "Is this not Joseph's son?"

This is also code language.

Every person in the Mediterranean world had a status above some, and below others. One's status was determined largely by the status of your parents, your family and your tribe. You could go up a few notches. You could go down many notches in your life. But the die was cast at your birth.

When they asked whose son he was, they were saying that Jesus, as Joseph's son, did not have the status to speak and to be heard in such a public space as the synagogue. He did not have the status to be a prophet. Therefore they did not need to listen to him.

This system of status, almost like a caste system, kept them from listening to truth spoken by people on the margins or on the bottom of the scale of status.

Luke's whole story is about God speaking precisely through those at the bottom of the social status scale.

Jesus's understanding of their response is that they had a lack of faith, or trust in the God of Israel. They would need proof, to see with their own eyes. They would need to see Jesus as perfect in their view, before they could listen to him at all.

Then he uses two powerful stories from the Hebrew Scripture. They are about the prophet Elijah and Elisha. Elijah was understood to come to prepare the way for the Messiah.

The first is about the famine that took place during Elijah and Elisha's time. Jesus said that many were impacted by this famine, but Elijah only came to the widow at Zeraphath - once there the oil and flour did not run out and they survived the famine.

A woman who had no husband would be considered to have no status. She would be called a prostitute - even if she did not have sex for money (most did not). Jesus is saying that in this case, God sent the most respected prophet to stay with a person of no status. While status mattered to the people of Nazareth, it did not matter to God. Jesus suggested that it is faithfulness (trust) in God that is essential and that the status system needed to be destroyed.

The second story is about the healing of Naaman the Syrian. Naaman was an enemy leader who was encouraged by his slave to ask Elishah (Elijah's sucessor) to heal him. Elishah does just this.  Jesus is saying that God's love and healing is not just for the People of Israel, but for everyone.

The people of Nazareth understood all of this quite easily. They responded with rage. They sought to throw Jesus off a cliff and get rid of this low-life imposter.

Jesus chose not to die on that hill and escaped by going through the middle of them. He didn't run or avoid them. He walked right through the town turned mob.

In this passage Jesus challenged the system of status that kept people at the margins of society from being able to tell their truth. Ironically, this system oppressed the very people of Nazareth, as they were a very poor town.

In this passage Jesus challenged the exclusivist notions of the People of Israel. They thought God's love was for them alone, instead of calling them to express God's love through them.

Jesus challenges our notions of status and our need for exclusive access to God's love and acceptance today.

How often do we say or think that the poor are lazy and stupid and so don't deserve a voice? How often do we say or think that new immigrants to this country are here to take our jobs and so they should go home or continue to live with second-class citizenship? How often do we understand religion as a competition, saying that either Christians or Muslims, Jews or Buddhists, atheists or agnostics have something valuable to offer?

Too often!

To us, Jesus says tells stories of God accepting the hospitality of the lowest of the low and of God's healing and love being for everyone.

Even us.

That means we are free to love our neighbor, and even have deep and challenging conversation with them. God's love has found us in Christ and God's love extends to everyone.

Again, even us.