Who says you can’t go home again? It’s a Sabbath day soon after Jesus’s baptism and temptation in the wilderness. Filled with the power of the Spirit,”Jesus receives a warm welcome in synagogue after synagogue, extending to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth. An attendant hands Jesus the scroll; and he reads from the prophet Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…. 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, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Jesus rolls up the scroll and hands it back to the attendant. The congregation waits for Jesus to bring the ancient story, the wisdom of the prophets, alive for a new day to help answer their religious, political, and ethical questions of the day. Would he mention the oppression of the Roman empire? What would Jesus say?
He spoke these words: Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Every eye in the synagogue fixed on him. Everyone “bears favorable witness to him.” How does Jesus go from, “All spoke well of him and were amazed” to “all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town and tried to run him off the cliff”? What made the people so reactionary – exclaiming over him one moment, running him out of town, the next?
Jesus was possibly referencing the Year of Jubilee from Leviticus 25. Every 50th year there was to be a “year of the Lord’s favor.” During the Jubilee, land was to be returned to its original owners (or heirs). Imagine what that would mean for indigenous cultures who the government forced off their tribal lands onto less favorable reservations. Land would be available for 49-year lease, not for purchase. Indentured servants—those who were enslaved to pay off debts—were to be released. It was designed to be an economic equalizer to share the wealth.
Jesus also told the people that the blessings of God are inclusive, telling two stories about when two of Israel’s greatest prophets Elijah & Elisha brought God’s restoration and blessing to outsiders/Gentiles – to a Phoenician family and a Syrian military commander. Were they resistant and reactionary to the understanding that God loves other people outside of their predetermined boundaries? What if too many “outsiders” get embraced by this “kingdom of God” Jesus is announcing? When does the prospect of freedom and justice extended to others endanger my own advantage, privilege and power?
Jesus offers hard truths: “You won’t be able to claim God’s blessings for your life unless you claim them for other people at the same time.” God heals in Capernaum, as well as Nazareth. God favors Syria and Palestine as well as Israel… Mexico and El Salvador as well as USA. That’s heresy for some. And you know what we do with heretics? A few years ago there was a Sunday school class before worship entitled “The Heretics Hideaway”. Would these words of God’s favor go over any better today, in a nation polarized over whether billionaires should pay a higher percentage in taxes, whether it’s fair to run a simple background check on those who would purchase a gun; whether we should build a wall or not? I doubt it. Jesus’ message, wherever it is spoken, still makes people reactionary. In every time and place, when threatened with one who tells the truth, people will go to almost any length to silence the messenger.
Diana Butler Bass:
A recent survey from Public Religion Research discovered that the majority of churchgoers in the US express high levels of both nostalgia & anxiety. By strong majorities, religious, white Protestants, without significant difference between theological conservatives or liberals–believe that “our best days are behind us” and that the future of society is bleak. In particular, mainline congregations are caught between valuing the good old days and a deepening sense of desolation that some promised future will never arrive.
“Today” is deeply dangerous spiritual reality–insists that we lay aside our memories & dreams to embrace the moment of now. The past romanticizes the work of our ancestors; the future depends on our descendants to fix everything. “Today” places us in the midst of the sacred drama, reminding us that we are agents in God’s desire for the world. “Today” is the most radical thing Jesus ever said.
What do you mean that the Spirit of the Lord is HERE? Now? Today? That the poor hear good news, that prisoners are being released, the blind see, and the oppressed receive justice? This is the year of Lord’s favor? Have you been watching the news, Jesus? Are you aware of how horrible things are? That there is more inequality than ever, more people in prison unjustly, more illness, more violence and homegrown terrorism than our ancestors ever knew? Are you crazy?
And yet Jesus tells the people, “See the Spirit of God at work, right here. Right now. God is with us. Just as I AM promised Moses at the burning bush, ‘I will be with you.’ This is the sign of God’s covenant. The ever loving, ever liberating, always present God is here with us. Now.” Jesus is asking his friends to see the burning bush of God’s presence, to become more attentive to God’s promise to abide, no matter how awful the present circumstances.
If we can grasp that the active force of love is at work and continues to be at work in the world, our fear can recede a bit, our prejudice melt, our desire to seek revenge lessens, and we can recognize that in the midst–God is with us. May the clarity of grace, mercy, and justice make themselves known to us in deeper ways and cause us to be less reactionary to run others off a cliff.
What if we heard these words of scripture with the word US. The Spirit of the Lord is upon US, because God has anointed US to bring good news to the poor. God has sent US 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.
I rejoice that this congregation is filled with folks who have been touched by the anointing and grace of God. People who reach out to do God’s work in the world. A dozen folks just yesterday serving down My Sister’s Pantry making a difference. Here and now, we are the Body of the Christ, the Anointed. Alive in the Spirit of God, we too will do these things: freeing, comforting, releasing and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor. The time of God’s favor that Isaiah predicted and Jesus announced is still being fulfilled in our hearing, even now, even here, TODAY with the word that propels us to live out a life of service, purpose, and justice,
May our fears and reactionary behavior be transformed into compassion, giving us the power to walk in the way of love God intended. May we look for places where justice is lacking, and the places where efforts are already underway to create more equity. We may never witness the fullness of the Year of Jubilee, but it doesn’t mean we aren’t called continue actively working for it. We can access the ideal, just as the ancients did, by celebrating it, moving toward it, and dreaming of justice.