Sunday, 4 February 2007 (4th Sunday after Epiphany C, Revised Common Lectionary)
Copyright (C) 2006 by Abigail Ann Young
Today's gospel is the conclusion of Luke's version of what happened when Jesus visited Nazareth, his hometown, to preach. Three of the gospels record something about this event, which clearly made an impression on the early Christian community, probably because it was such a disappointment. In the familiar confines of his boyhood home, surrounded by those who have known him from his childhood, Jesus does few, if any, deeds of power. Matthew and Mark are merely concerned to explain this shocking event, this apparent failure, by putting responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the townspeople -- their lack of faith made it impossible for Jesus to do any miracles among them, however much they wanted to see the sort of deeds that had made him famous in places like Capernaum. Luke, characteristically, has done his research and can tell us more about what happened in Nazareth. In the first part of the story, as we heard last Sunday, he tells us that Jesus arrived home and was invited to the synagogue, where he read from Isaiah --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 then sat down to give his homily on the reading. What we have here is a part of that homily, and the extremely negative reaction to it in the town -- they run him out on a rail, even trying to throw him down a hillside.
What was all the fuss about? In all three versions of the story, Jesus quotes the proverb about a prophet being without honour in his home, but here we find out some of the rest of what he said. He reminds his listeners that Elijah might have taken shelter during a famine with any of the many widows in Israel at that time, but instead the Lord sent him to a Phoenician widow in the territory of Sidon, so that a Gentile and an enemy received the aid that the prophet's presence brought in that time of need. And Elisha might have cleansed many lepers in Israel in his days, but instead the Lord sent Namaan the Syrian, commander of the Aramean army, to him for cleansing, and once again it is a Gentile and an enemy that is helped. Jesus and Luke leave the hearers to draw the conclusion: if Jesus has not demonstrated the great deeds of which Isaiah speaks here, then perhaps it is the Lord's will that Nazareth, and even Israel itself, be passed over for others, even for Gentiles and enemies, to hear the year of the Lord's favour proclaimed.
This is unsettling stuff, and not what the congregation expected to hear from a hometown boy made good. It is no wonder they were angry and annoyed, although the violence of their action seems a bit extreme. The same thing that gets so deeply under the skin of the congregation at Nazareth is, of course, what makes this an appropriate reading in this season of Epiphany, when we celebrate the revelation of Jesus as Messiah to Gentiles like us. But this is not what I want to focus on this morning, important though it is. Instead I want us to pay attention to something very unusual that Jesus does here. Clearly the 'word on the street' is that Jesus is a prophet, and he accepts that in this passage. But Jesus does not very often accept other people's assessments of who or what he is without challenge or modification -- think of how he redefines what it means to be Messiah with Isaiah's vision of the suffering servant when he is hailed as such or his negative reaction to being called 'good' by someone who has a question for him. But here he seems to accept without qualification the role of prophet, and that raises the question of what it means to be a prophet, a question to which our reading from Jeremiah provides part of the answer.
Jeremiah is clearly not happy at the thought of being a prophet to the nations and tries to decline the honour on the grounds he is too young. In fact, Jeremiah had a hard time of it even for a prophet -- little that he had to say was welcome to the authorities and at one point he ended up imprisoned in a disused cistern. When Jerusalem fell to invaders and much of its population was transported into exile, well-meaning admirers refused to listen to Jeremiah's insistence that he should stay behind with those Jerusalemites and Judaeans not considered important enough for arrest and transportation. Instead he was carried off to safety with a company of refugees fleeing to Egypt and never saw the Holy Land again. So from a human point of view he would have been better off had he been able to decline the Lord's call to be a prophet.
If we think about prophets at all, we tend to think of a prophet as someone like Jeremiah who tells us the things we don't want to hear -- a bearer of unwelcome reminders and inconvenient truths. Certainly those are the figures in our own times that we refer to as prophets. But this was not always the case. The Israelite prophets, from Elijah and Elisha to the very last prophet, John the Baptist, often had such unwelcome tidings, but even Jeremiah brought messages of hope and reassurance to a people in need. No, what sets apart Bible prophets is not the content of their message but its source: they are men and women chosen by God to speak his word. Recall how, in this reading Jeremiah tells us, 'Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth; and the LORD said to me, "Now I have put my words in your mouth."' Or how often a passage in the prophetic books begins by telling us that the word of the Lord came to the prophet.
This word of the Lord could be addressed to the whole people of God, or to a part of the community, like the rulers or the priesthood, or the common people. Sometimes it was addressed to the nations as well, because one of the unique things about Yahweh was that Yahweh claimed (and demonstrated through the prophets) sovereign authority not only over Yahweh's own people but over all the nations, that is, over all people. This is what leads Isaiah and Jesus himself to extend Yahweh's kingdom beyond the boundaries, so that it embraces all who come, in Isaiah's image, to worship on Yahweh's Holy Mountain. But in all this, the one who brings God's word to any of God's people is the prophet.
So it doesn't seem unusual that people, recognising something special in Jesus and his relationship to God, might have thought of him as a prophet. Indeed one of the prophecies that the early Christians applied to Jesus and his coming was a prophecy by Moses, that God would raise up a prophet like him for the people from among the people. There is a real fittingness to calling someone a prophet who does not just bear the Lord's word to his people, but is the Lord's Word for his people, and indeed for the world. God had after all called Jeremiah to be a prophet not merely for Israel but for all the nations, and Jesus reminds his old friends and neighbours in Nazareth in today's gospel that God's purpose in their day may involve moving beyond them to embrace the outcast and the Gentile.
Perhaps the real question is not what it means to be a prophet like Jeremiah, or what mission Jesus may have been trying to explain to the people of Nazareth, but why. Why does God choose men and women to be prophets for his people and his world? Why does God's Son, the Divine Word, come among us as a figure so like a prophet? And why do people like Jeremiah and Isaiah choose to accept their fate, their calling to become prophets? I think that the question is crucial, but the answer is simple and it lies at the core of the meaning of Epiphany: love. God's love for creation, for the world and the people that God has made, shows itself in many ways, but especially in God's care for us in calling us into relationship with one another and with him through the prophets and especially through Jesus his son. This is the love that Paul talks about in his letter to the Corinthians, the love that is patient and kind and rejoices in the truth, the love that bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. It's the love that defines the otherwise mysterious divine life of the Trinity, the glue that binds together Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and the love that Paul calls us to show in in our lives. Our capacity for this love exceeds even our capacity for faith and hope and without it what we have is nothing.
Why does the hometown congregation in Nazareth get so upset when Jesus implies that God may be sending him beyond the bounds, to bring the good news of the kingdom to the Gentiles? It looks as though it is because they lack that love of which the apostle speaks. And we must be careful, when the church seeks to go beyond the bounds and bring the outsiders in, that we respond with that love, instead of with anger or hurt. God's love is not measured or finite -- love given to the outcast and sinner, or to the newcomer and stranger, means no less love for those of us that are on the inside already. But if God were not always at work on both sides of the church walls, we wouldn't be here now! Let us pray to God to share in his love and show it forth to the world around us, not only in Epiphany but all year long.