The Rev. William C. Redfield
Trinity Episcopal Church, Fayetteville, NY
The Fourth Sunday after Epiphany—Year C—February 3, 2013
Jesus’ reputation has preceded him. There have been a number of very complimentary reports circulating about him and his impressive healing ministry. “He has a wisdom and a power that are most unusual,” people have said of him. “There is something about him that makes us wonder if he might not be the one for whom we have been waiting.” And so, by the time he returns to his old haunts of Nazareth, his reputation has preceded him. He is enthusiastically and expectantly welcomed home.
You will remember from last Sunday’s Gospel reading that this is a defining moment in Jesus’ ministry. In his reading the prophecy from Isaiah, he is clearly the fulfillment of this prophecy; he is the one who will bring about a new age of compassion and justice—a time when the blind will see, when all who are oppressed will be set free, and when the captives will be released. We can well imagine how pleased and proud the locals of Nazareth are—for, after all, this is their hometown boy. He is one of their own.
Besides this local pride, there may well have been the additional desire, that, because he was one of their own, they might be able to influence the definition and direction of the coming kingdom and, at the very least, have an inside track on positions of power and decision making within it. Wouldn’t it just be wonderful if his glory might reflect positively on them and for them? That, they may have thought, might really put our little sleepy town of Nazareth on the map!
But notice that so far in Luke’s version of this story, up to this point Jesus’ ministry has been inside the religious tradition and institution of his time and place. Specifically, Jesus has affirmed the tradition of Sabbath; he has held great reverence for Holy Scripture; and he has upheld the sanctity and authority of the Temple.
But he is about to broaden and expand the boundaries of the kingdom. He will stretch his own people and direct them out beyond the confines of themselves and their own. To grasp and accept this shift they will need to think about things in a whole new way. Or more accurately, they will need to understand all of this from a new place inside themselves. But that’s harder than it sounds. You see, to do this they would have to let go of all their assumptions and preconceptions. They would have to move from their small minds—minds that think in terms of division, distinction, and judgment to their larger minds—minds, or hearts, really, that think in terms of wholeness, connection, and unity. Refusing to take that step and without access to their larger heart-minds, however, they just might decide to reject him altogether.
And so, what was so positive and uplifting in last Sunday’s Gospel reading now turns expressly sour in its continuation. But in order to get the full depth and scope of the story, we have to have both parts—the positive in last week’s Gospel reading and now the negative. That’s because the story is not just about the power and glory of Jesus and about the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy; it’s also about our own refusal to change ourselves from the inside in order to understand what Jesus and his Kingdom are all about. It’s about our reluctance or refusal to take that 12 inch journey from our smaller minds to our larger hearts.
In essence, Jesus tells them that no prophet is welcomed home. And this is not just because familiarity breeds contempt, but it is also that a prophet must sometimes tell his own people some things that they don’t really want to hear—specifically that the inside track may not be reserved for them after all and, in order for them to get on board, they may actually have to change. Again, that 12 inch journey…
And so here in the completion of this account, Jesus reminds them of two stories from their tradition—two difficult and troublesome stories of the great prophets of old and how they ended up healing not those who were inside the tradition, but those who were on the outside.
The implication is maddeningly clear to those who are listening. The liberation that is here being proclaimed by Jesus will not only require that they change, but also that is being offered equally for those who are outside the tradition of Israel. Ouch! Their frames of reference must be both deepened and expanded, and the distinctions and judgments of their small minds must be transcended.
For a people who had always believed in her own election and special calling by Yahweh and who had maintained rigid boundaries with her neighbors to preserve her own purity, this is nothing less than a shocking and scandalous outrage. They will soon be intent on running their hometown boy out of town over the edge of a steep cliff. As long as Jesus and his Kingdom do not fit within the parameters of their own comfortable preconceptions, they don’t want anything to do with him or his Kingdom.
The implications of this story touch us, I believe, in different ways and on different levels. They expose our own desires both to be right and to be in control. How often do we see the dynamic of individuals or a group who want to affirm their rightness by making everyone who disagrees with them wrong? We see this on the more fundamentalist side of religions that condemn the other faith traditions that seem to be in opposition to their own. We see that in our political parties as well. Instead of supporting a particular position on an issue, they are simply against what the other party is for.
But beyond that, we as individuals may be a little like the hometown folks of Nazareth in that we try to make Jesus be the kind of messiah we think he should be, rather than the kind of messiah he really is. Humankind, you see, has always been tried to find salvation in a rescuer—someone powerful enough, perhaps divine enough, to be able to haul us out of the mess we have gotten ourselves into. But Jesus is not that kind of messiah, and he has absolutely no intention to fix us or to save us in that way.
We seem to want to receive pardon from our failings and certainty to our questions without having to bear any of the responsibility for what this requires. But Jesus will have none of this. He turns out not to be the kind of messiah who is going to wave his wand and take us out of the messiness of our challenging human condition. He is not going to remove our pain and our suffering. Instead, he affirms that we can find him more deeply at all times—even, or especially, in the pain and the suffering of our human travail.
But rather than be passive victims, he invites us to find our own power by waking up. This requires taking up the journey from the small mind where we can see only by making divisions, comparisons, and judgments to the heart where we can come to see the unity and the connective tissue in all things. It is from this place that we can then truly follow—living a life of surrender and compassion.
So what will we do…? Will we take the Wisdom of this hometown boy to heart or will we run him out of town…? Will we truly open ourselves to change or will we dig our heels in insist that that the Master’s message conform to the assumptions that we already have…? So…how open are we, really…?