To the Cliff with Jesus! White Fragility, Poverty, and the Syrian Crisis

Luke 4:14-30

When Jesus came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
‘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.’
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’

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All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’

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When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They 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. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

cliff

This is quite the story with its quick, intense turn of events.

Much could be said about it, but one thing is clear:
In this story, Jesus is a P.R. Disaster. 

Doesn’t it seem that way? Jesus appears to be a public relations nightmare. Here he is in his hometown, the place where he spent his young years observing and questioning, learning and playing, working and growing into adulthood. It seems like the perfect opportunity for Jesus to get his people behind him. It seems like the perfect moment to gain a boost of support as he begins his public ministry. But what do we find? A genuine P.R. Disaster.

Can you picture the scene?

People from the small town of Nazareth are gathering together on the Sabbath, a Saturday morning. Perhaps it seems like a routine day. The Sabbath is a special, holy day, but when the people rolled out of their beds that morning, they were not necessarily expecting anything extraordinary.

Yet once they gathered in the synagogue, they certainly had something extraordinary to notice. Present among them was Jesus, – their Jesus – Joseph and Mary’s boy! They’ve recently heard all about his incredible acts in the nearby town of Capernaum, and this is just the beginning. Who knows what will come of this young man? This boy who grew up here – Yes, one of our own! – will do great things for us. Certainly, he will put Nazareth on the map, they think.

With pride in their hearts and smiles on their faces, they’re thrilled when Jesus volunteers to read the scripture and speak before the assembly. They watch him ask for the Isaiah scroll, and he finds a particular passage. They listen intently, except for those moments when they lean over subtly (or not so subtly) to whisper to one another:

“Our boy up there, the carpenter’s son – he made my kitchen table!”
“Yes,” someone else replies. “Isn’t he wonderful?”

They watch Jesus finish the passage and sit, taking the stance of a teacher. “That’s our very own Rabbi!” they think. “What will he have to say today?”

Today.

Perhaps that word is a bit ironic. With all their eyes upon him, Jesus says, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Okay. . .that’s different. What does that mean? Today these things are coming about? Today you are anointed to be the one who brings these things about? Good news to the poor, sight to the blind, release to the captives, freedom for the oppressed, and the year of God’s favor? Yeah, that’s different. . . What else do you have to say, Jesus?

What else do you have to say? I suppose his first line was the beginning of the end — that is, the end of their awe-struck sense of pride.

What follows next is a P.R. Disaster.

Jesus must have sensed their pride and their sense of ownership. To paraphrase, he says, “Surely you will say to me, do the things here that you did in Capernaum. Do them here in your hometown. Well, no prophet is truly welcome in his home town. I mean, think about it. . . The prophet Elijah was living in Israel with no rain at all and a famine more widespread than we can imagine, and where did God send him to receive help? There were many widows all over the land of Israel, but God sent Elijah to a widow at Zaraphath in Sidon. And think about this: When the prophet Elisha lived in the land of Israel, there were more lepers than we can count, but who was cleansed? Naaman. Naaman, the-Syrian.”

Yes, a genuine P.R. Disaster.

If that person from Nazareth had his kitchen table in the synagogue, he would have overturned it right then and there. Quite suddenly, the synagogue was filled with a sense of rage. The air was thick with indignation. And the people acted on it too. They seized Jesus by his arms, escorted him outside the town – “We’ll show you what happens outside the town!” – and they try to hurl him off a cliff. A cliff!

Yes, a genuine P.R. Disaster.

Or an act of faithfulness. . .
Or a posture of inclusion for those beyond the sanctuary.  . .

It’s hard to be certain what Jesus intended in his address at Nazareth, but we can take a challenging message away from this story. Jesus is unownable. He cannot and will not submit to being our possession. He came to serve us, but he did not come to be owned by us. He did not come to serve our agendas.

Instead, Jesus came as a human being – yes, truly, one of our own – so that we would become like him, truly human. He sends us forward to uplift the humanity of others, especially the poor, the captives, and the oppressed. We are called to acts of love and justice alongside all who are suffer. In this passage, Jesus proclaims God’s acceptance of the outsiders.

He will not be deterred from this posture.
He will not be owned by us.
He will not limited to those in power.
He will always share love with the ‘Other.’

Perhaps, if the people from Nazareth couldn’t have Jesus entirely to themselves for their own purposes, no one would. Off the cliff he goes! But thank God, Jesus is unownable. He refuses to be reduced to a possession. He refuses to be owned. He refuses to be controlled or exploited. He will be free – the True Human – who teaches us to follow him, to follow him in service with and for others.

It makes me wonder, if Jesus came in our midst and sat among us in an obvious way, what would we want to hear from him?

If Jesus were to address the racism that plagues our nation in discrimination and the murder of valuable, human lives, would the Church respond with white fragility? “Stop talking about that!” we might cry. Too often, we aren’t even willing to name the realities of racism and white supremacy.

If Jesus were to address the poverty that plagues our nation in discrimination and the loss of valuable, human lives, would the Church respond with apathy? Or anger? “You’re trying to incite a class war!” we might cry. Too often, we aren’t even willing to name the realities of poverty.

If Jesus were to address the Syrian refugee crisis in our world, would the Church respond with rage? “Don’t talk about that. It’s too political!” we might cry if it were named in worship. Too often, we don’t want to ask the most pressing questions about the crises that are harming valuable, human lives in our world.

Or what else? Would we assume that Jesus was here to serve our agendas? Would we fashion Jesus into a stereotype of a conservative Christian? Or would we assume that Jesus was a card carrying liberal? Would we allow ourselves to be challenged by him? Or would we simply box him in so that he can represent who we want him to represent?

Jesus called the people from Nazareth into radical inclusion. They weren’t ultimately gathered together to be a social club, and neither are we. We remember that people valued by God also exist beyond our own communities and comfort zones.

So will we follow Jesus in honoring them?

Renee Roederer

This post is adapted from my recent sermon at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Dearborn Heights, MI.

 

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