Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C
Luke 4:21-32 - link to NRSV text
In the Lucan set of beautitudes and woes, Jesus says, “woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets” (Luke 6:26).
Maybe that's why Jesus didn't leave well enough alone when “all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth” in this passage. Every now and then, I find that a position of leadership I'm in puts me in a position where I have to tell someone something I know they really don't want to hear. I think Jesus was in that position in what he had to say in last week's gospel (if you missed the blog entry on that one, you might want to look it over for context for this one). In last week's gospel, Jesus asks the congregation in that Nazareth synagogue to accept that the “day of vengeance of our God” that Isaiah 61:2 proclaims, a day which a conquered people in an occupied country must have longed for, was nowhere in sight. And in doing what he does with that reading -- editing to jump back and forth between Isaiah 61 and Isaiah 47 and eliminate the “day of vengeance” while preserving the parallelisms of the passage -- Jesus also asks his hometown congregation to accept his authority to reinterpret so radically.
At the beginning of this week's gospel, it looks like Jesus has pulled it off. All speak well of him. And then Jesus starts speaking again (and I can imagine his followers letting out a Homer Simpson-style “doh!” in the background when they see that starting to happen -- here comes trouble!). Jesus issues a final one-two punch, and pushes the hometown crowd from cheers to murderous rage. Jesus cites Elijah and Elisha as his predecessors -- a bolshy enough move -- and then points out that in times of Israel's great need during their ministries, these prophets of Israel were sent to heal Gentiles.
I wish I could reproduce here a meditation I wrote for the book Get Up Off Your Knees on the U2 song “Until the End of the World,” because I did some reflection there along this theme: how is it that a crowd can go so quickly from cheering to throwing stones? What turns friends and followers to betrayers?
I've been working lately with this as a definition for sin: sin is treating something as being worth less than it really is. In this case, the crowd is given an incredible gift -- an encounter with the vision of Israel being a blessing to the nations, a fulfillment in the here and now of God's promise to Abraham. It's not just Good News -- it's the best news. It's the vision of the prophets enfleshed in the present, and it's God's work. It's not what we had hoped for, but it's better.
How often do we treat a good gift, a gift from God, as if it were worthless because it's not what we expected? How often does what we think we want blind us to what we need? How often do we push away someone who could speak God's word to us because we think s/he has nothing to teach us? When we fail to listen for the unlikely prophet, we run the risk of pushing away someone who could help to set us free. Personally, I need every word the prophets can give me, so I pray daily for the grace to listen deeply.