Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They 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. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
He got up in the morning just a bit before daybreak, as he did every morning, and as he wiped the sleep from his eyes he gently jostled his wife from her sleep, too. They stretched and groaned their way into consciousness and got up, quickly getting ready for the day. Then she went to wake up their two children and get them started on their morning rotation in the bathroom, showering, brushing their teeth, getting dressed, while she moved out to the kitchen to get them all breakfast. He’d gone out to feed and care for the animals. While he was doing that, he noticed one of a dozen little jobs on his honey-do list that needed taken care of, and he did it. He knew that technically, he wasn’t supposed to do it this particular day, since it was the Sabbath, a day of rest, but he figured it would only take a minute and wasn’t that much work anyway. Once he was done, he went back inside and joined the rest of them for breakfast.
And it was a nice breakfast, too – this was the only day of the week they had time for a good, full breakfast all together as a family, and they enjoyed the time together even though the kids argued about whether one of them had gotten more eggs than the other, and the woman sometimes wondered why this day of rest always ended up meaning more work for her.
The man told the children that in church that morning, they were going to hear a guest preacher, someone he and their mother had grown up with, right there in their little hometown. He told them that when they were little boys, they’d done everything together – playing ball, stomping grapes in their bare feet together at the village wine press, attending synagogue together, sitting there laughing at the old man who fell asleep every week, paying tic-tac-toe and drawing pictures in the margins of their bulletins as the sermon droned on. There was even this one time where the two of them had – well, maybe best not tell that particular story, not now anyway, the man thought, as he noticed his wife looking over the top of her glasses at him from across the table. Well, in any case, he said, now everyone was talking about what a great preacher he is, and that maybe he’d even performed a few miracles, too (even though he suspected that was a bit of exaggeration, but he didn’t say so) – and now, he’d come back to his home synagogue, and he was going to preach today.
The man and his family sat there in the synagogue in their usual place, and when Jesus started in, everyone was paying close attention. He preached that now, this time, this place, was the beginning of God’s good favor for all of them who were suffering – all of them there who were poor, which was most of them, and suffering from physical ailments, which was a lot of them, and the captive and oppressed, which was all of them, under the thumb of the Roman occupiers. And here he was putting them all on notice of God’s good news for them; that God’s favor was about to be poured out upon all of them.
The man sat there amazed by it all. Where did he learn to speak like this? How did he learn to give people this kind of hope, this kind of inspiration? It was with a good deal of pride, and also a small bit of cynicism, that the man thought to himself that wherever he’d learned it, he had the entire crowd in the palm of his hand in that moment.
And then it happened. Jesus reached that point that occurs in so many sermons – maybe call it the “prophetic pivot” – that point that’s struck fear in the hearts of probably every preacher in history except Jesus, where they have to move from the part of the message that offers their listeners comfort, and makes them feel good; to the part that challenges them, when the preacher has to tell them something they don’t want to hear, something that discomforts and maybe even angers them.
The man felt that discomfort as he sat there. He heard his old friend refer to the old expression “Physician, heal yourself.” They’d heard that all their lives, and it made sense. Caring for others was all well and good, but your first priority has to be yourself and your kind. Charity begins at home. Galilee First. Don’t talk about helping others somewhere else when there’s still one homeless person living on the streets of Nazareth. And you certainly don’t owe your sworn enemy any care or consideration; when it came to that it was eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth territory. That common sense had been instilled in them practically since birth. It filled many of the stories in the scriptures that they’d learned together. They were exceptional. They were God’s favorite, God’s chosen over all other people. But now Jesus was telling them that this was wrong. That this good news of God’s wasn’t meant only for them, but for others, too. He heard Jesus remind them of stories from the scriptures where God’s favor was bestowed on a poor widow and her son in the foreign city of Sidon. The man wasn’t a big fan of Sidon. It was a big business center and a major seaport, and his brother lost his job at the local pottery factory when it closed and moved to Sidon because of better business conditions there. Still, he thought that at least in that story, God blessed the widow and her son because she was kind to the prophet Elijah, one of us. Wasn’t that the point of the story? Apparently not, since Jesus pushed the point even further, reminding them all of when God favored not just any foreigner, but Naaman, a general in the army of their arch enemy, Syria – their biggest threat. In that story, Naaman certainly didn’t do anything kind to any of their people; in fact, the only way he knew to seek out the prophet Elisha to help him with his physical ailment was through a slave girl that he’d taken captive during a war with his people. And yet, God still healed him.
His old friend was even saying that not only weren’t they the only people God loved, but that God would judge them unfavorably if they thought they were. It was all very confusing.
Well, this prophetic pivot was just a bridge too far for Jesus’ listeners this morning. The people there that morning all shook their heads, angry, asking themselves “Is he serious? Are we supposed to accept this nonsense?!!” His message broke with tradition, and even countered some scripture. It crossed a line, and the crowd didn’t just throw him out of the pulpit, or even just out of the synagogue, but they ran him completely out of town and chased him up a hill to try to throw him over it. The man followed the crowd outside to see what was going to happen. He quietly kept his thoughts to himself, but he was relieved to see that his old friend managed to escape and make it safely out of the mob. But as he walked home with his family that morning, he kept tossing these thoughts around in his mind. He knew about those parts of scripture that called his people God’s chosen, but he also knew about those other parts where God blessed others, outsiders, too. The contradiction had always been right there in front of them, but it was glossed over, but Jesus put a sharp point on it today. Jesus was saying that at least now, God’s favor, God’s good news, was for all people. And as people of God, they were all to show love, compassion, and justice to all others – regardless of borders or boundaries; people from different cultures, different religions, different philosophies. Even people considered dangerous.
The man wondered if this was really a time when God’s boundaries were expanding – or maybe, God never had any boundaries to begin with, and they all just had to realize that they’d been missing the point all along. So we’re supposed to love foreigners from Sidon who hurt our economy, and even people from Syria, who are a constant threat to our security. And if that’s the case today, he thought, who might we be told we have to love and accept next week? Two years from now? Two hundred years, two thousand years from now? Where will it all end? Love, compassion, and justice are all well and good, but don’t we end up having to draw a line somewhere?
He was still thinking about that as he crawled into bed that evening, and kissed his wife goodnight, and fell asleep, ready to get up the next morning and do it all over again.
Thanks be to God.