Gospel: Luke 4:21-30 21Then [Jesus] began to say to [all in the synagogue in Nazareth,] “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.
Grace to you and peace from God, our Father, and our Lord and savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
First, let me assure you that my title for today is unrelated to any people who happen to go by the name of “Bear”!
My title actually comes directly from what I see happening in today’s Gospel reading.
At the beginning of this reading, it appears as if everything is good. Jesus had read from Isaiah’s prophecy while in the synagogue in the town where he’d been raised, and then he’d told the people who’d known him all his life that this scripture was now fulfilled in their hearing.
If I’d gone to any of my hometowns and tried to say something like that, I’m rather certain I’d have been laughed out of town! At the very least, people would have looked at me like I was crazy, talking to one another about me behind my back, or out of the sides of their mouths, watching carefully, and considering whether they ought to call in some professional help…
When people know this Gospel story, it’s easy to say that’s pretty much what happened to Jesus but that’s rather a rush to judgement, I believe.
In the story, when Jesus says that the Scripture is fulfilled that day in their hearing, the people are still speaking well of him. They are amazed at the gracious words that come from Jesus’ mouth. They claim him as one of their own, citing his relationship to Joseph… but that could go either way, couldn’t it? You could capitalize on a good relationship with a respected patriarch of the community—or, you could be limited by that same relationship.
It was the early forties, and a young man had just graduated from the eighth grade. His father was a farmer, and so the boy was expected to be a farmer, too. The problem was that he didn’t want to be a farmer. He had two older brothers who were already farming. There wasn’t room on his dad’s land for him, and he was sent to a neighbor—a neighbor who would pay his dad for his work. There he was, trapped in community expectations, when he felt a call to other things—not greater things, but other things. Eventually, his father did agree to his request to step away from farm work, to return to school.
So what was happening when the people connected Jesus to Joseph? Were they trying to stand behind him, encouraging him to rise above the community, to fulfill the Scripture he’d read? Or—were they instead pulling him back, telling him to stick around, and practice his graciousness at home—with them?
Of course, we don’t know exactly what the people meant as they spoke well of their home town boy. We know only that they spoke well of him in their amazement.
Then we have Jesus. The story tells us very plainly what Jesus said. I wonder if Jesus wasn’t pushing them a little bit, knowing what they really wanted, but had not yet put into words.
Jesus speaks as if they’ve heard of something Jesus had done in Capernaum, but in this Gospel, we have no idea what he might have done at Capernaum, because the story goes directly from the baptism to the temptations in the wilderness to this story in Nazareth.
What might they have heard? Or was Jesus anticipating the reaction they’d have once they did hear?
And he doesn’t leave it alone. He raises story after story of God’s care for people outside Israel, outside not only their hometown, but the entire nation. In short, it seems that Jesus is leaving no room whatsoever for the people of Nazareth to expect any favoritism from him, right here from the start of his ministry.
I’ve titled this message, “Poking the Bear,” because maybe that’s exactly what Jesus is doing. The warning inherent in the phrase advises that we ought to leave well enough alone, because if we keep poking, if we push too far, there may be dire consequences. A bear—a real bear—is quite likely to kill you.
That’s exactly what almost happened here. The people of Jesus’ hometown became enraged, and they chased him up to the brow of a cliff, where they wanted to throw him off—because Jesus didn’t stop with his statement of fulfilling the Isaiah prophecy. He didn’t stop with them being able to brag about their proximity to Jesus as he grew to adulthood. Jesus poked the bear, and the people of Nazareth responded in rage, ready to kill him.
Of course Jesus was able to evade their wrath, slipping away unharmed.
So, what does this have to do with us today? Do we make a habit of poking the bear, because we have an example that maybe Jesus was doing it at least once?
Do I dare mention politics? I have friends at both extremes—actually I have sisters towards opposite ends of the political spectrum, but I’m relieved that my sisters are not constantly posting things that seem aimed at making the other side angry. I can’t say the same for everyone.
Believe me, there are bears on both ends—and all through the spectrum. And there are people poking at those who disagree with them, either radically or only somewhat, demanding that they change, that they stand up for what is really the right thing… The problems come because people are blind to the wrongs embedded within their own ideas of what is righteous, and they are blind to the righteousness embedded within the things for which their opponents stand. And we keep poking at each other believing somehow that we can cure blindness by poking at people!
It didn’t work when Jesus did it, and we think it’ll work for us? I believe he was trying to prepare them for where his ministry would take him, and they reacted by trying to kill him.
So what can we do? Maybe we can all work to strengthen the good parts of things that are not entirely good, while we work to mitigate the bad within them, without demonizing those who don’t see things the same way we see them. Maybe eventually we’ll all see more clearly, trusting in God’s ability to heal all that is broken, and to forgive us when we try to throw Jesus off a cliff…
God can heal all that is broken. God will forgive in Jesus’ name. Amen