The first preaching and teaching of Jesus in Luke’s gospel is this.
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
When he 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.’ Luke 4:14-21 NRSV
If you have been reading Luke from chapter one until now, these words shouldn’t be a surprise.
Mary has already said this:
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promises he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.
And there are the words of Zechariah, and Simeon, and John the Baptizer with similar sentiments.
The people of the synagogue in Nazareth weren’t surprised either. The story of Israel is a story of God’s faithfulness to the oppressed and downtrodden. In fact, they thought what Jesus said was great. “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” (Luke 4:22)
It’s a wonderful feeling to hear how God is remembering God’s promises to you and your people.
It’s all just great, until Jesus keeps talking.
Jesus reminds them that Elijah was sent to the widow at Zarephath in Sidon, even though there were plenty of widows in Israel needing help. And Elisha cleansed a Syrian of leprosy even though there were lepers in Israel.
Then people got upset. “Filled with rage” the text tells us. They drive Jesus out of town to the top of a hill so they can “hurl him off the cliff”.
It was harder for them to hear that God’s promises extended to others- strangers, foreigners. We modern day Christians are quick to have options about this. God loves everyone! How can they limit God’s care and salvation?
That was though, one of the great struggles of Israel. It’s one of the great debates within the Bible. (Yes, the Bible debates itself) What does God’s choosing of Israel mean? Is it a special blessing only for Israel, or is Israel’s call to extend God’s blessing to others?
And we shouldn’t be quite so quick to speak critically of Israel or the people in the synagogue. We claim that God cares for everyone and then we start carving out exceptions. We can be quick to divide the world into “us” and “them”. Gender identity. Sexual orientation. Race. Immigration status. The list goes on.
We humans seem to be determined to label and to divide. Friend. Foe. Family. Stranger. It’s as if we can’t help ourselves. And yet.
Jesus calls us to a different way.
It’s not any easier for us today than it was in Jesus’ time. A not insignificant portion of my Christian siblings have harsh words and actions for LGBTQ persons, those seeking asylum, and immigrants. Sexism and racism are deeply embedded in much of Christian culture. Those advocating for inclusion are ostracized by some Christian groups. They are told, “You can’t be a Christian and….”.
To be honest I often want to exclude my excluding fellow Christians.
None of us escapes the temptation to divide and ostracize.
Some days it seems we haven’t progressed too far. We would fit right in with the good people in the synagogue in Nazareth. What are we afraid of? There won’t be enough for all of us? God can’t love all of us? That we’ll be left out?
Or are we afraid we will have to give something up? Security. Money. Power.
It’s as if we don’t believe Jesus when he tells us and shows us that there will be enough for all. That love is more important than power. Security comes from God alone.
We believe. Help our unbelief.