Written by Kathryn Matthews
Sunday, January 24
Third Sunday after Epiphany
Good News, Good Ways/Changing the Landscape
In you, O Lord our God, we find our joy, for through your law and your prophets you formed a people in mercy and freedom, in justice and righteousness. Pour your Spirit on us today, that we who are Christ's body may bear the good news of your ancient promises to all who seek you. Amen.
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
"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 he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
All Readings For This Sunday
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
1. What is the deep hope that we share as people of faith?
2. How do you think your community would have responded to Jesus' hometown visit?
3. What do you "take to be the heart of the gospel"?
4. What is the gospel's "certain attitude toward possessions"?
5. How might Jubilee "work" today?
Reflection by Kate Matthews
Jesus has come home to Nazareth, to his own congregation, the one that has watched him grow up, the place where "everyone knows his name." So far, in Luke's Gospel, we haven't heard about Jesus healing sick people, multiplying loaves and fishes, casting out demons, or bringing anyone back from the dead. However, according to N.T. Wright, Jesus has been preparing for this moment, like a brilliant musician practicing or an athlete in training: he's been praying, studying, and passing a grueling test out there in the wilderness.
While Luke describes Jesus as "filled with the power of the Spirit" (v.14), all we've heard so far is that he's been teaching in some out-of-town synagogues, and "a report about him spread through all the surrounding country" so that he "was praised by everyone" (4:14-15). But it turns out, as we learn in verse 23, that Jesus has been performing works of wonder out there, in places like Capernaum. Maybe it was stories about those deeds that drew the crowd and built up their anticipation, more than the power of his preaching: Jesus, it seems, was a sensation, and people were eager to see what he would do, not just to hearing what he would say.
"Small town" hardly begins to describe Nazareth, since the entire village consisted of a few hundred folks, and the setting in this scene may not have been an actual building but a "gathering" of faithful Jewish people. Kim Beckmann turns to the work of John Dominic Crossan and Jonathan L. Reed to draw this picture of Nazareth and the Judaism in which Jesus was raised to be both faithful and observant. In fact, Jesus' inaugural address to his hometown, in which he lays down the main themes of his entire ministry, is in elegant and powerful continuity with his Jewish prophetic ancestors: "Jesus," Beckmann writes, "sings Isaiah's song of good news for the poor, in the key of his mother Mary of Nazareth." This is the Gospel of Luke, after all, and Mary's song, the Magnificat, back in chapter one, still rings in our ears and in our hearts.
A very special moment in the story
Every text is important in its own way, but this one is special. Perhaps we intuitively grasp its significance, after listening to inaugural addresses of public leaders: what is said here today will be the plan for the days ahead. The heart of Jesus' message and mission, the big picture, is in this short sermon containing a few verses from the book of the prophet Isaiah but significantly omitting Isaiah's line about "the day of vengeance of our God." N.T. Wright suggests that this omission would have offended those first-century Jews who understandably hungered for God's vengeance on a whole host of enemies and oppressors--a wholly human longing, it seems. So it wasn't his eloquence, Wright says, that "astonished" them but his "'speaking about God's grace--grace for everybody, including the nations--instead of grace for Israel and fierce judgment for everyone else.'" Wright knows that Jesus remembers Israel's call in the book of Isaiah "to be the light of the nations," and Isaiah's vision of a Messiah who "has not come to inflict punishment on the nations, but to bring God's love and mercy to them." Next week, we'll spend more time on the crowd's reaction, in the verses that follow this week's reading, but Wright finds reason for their violent response in today's passage.
Craig Evans explains that the Jewish people at the time of Jesus spoke Aramaic, so an explanation had to follow the reading of the Hebrew Scripture, much as we today follow the Scripture reading with a sermon. At first it seems that Jesus' sermon is just one line, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing," but the text says, "Then he began to say to them" (v. 21). If they were indeed "amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth" (v. 22), perhaps that line was only the beginning of the sermon, and we aren't given the rest of it, but surely he never strayed from speaking about opening the eyes of the blind and bringing good news to the poor and oppressed.
A people hungry for good news
Richard Swanson senses how Jesus' words must have moved the hearts and re-ignited the ancient hope of the poorest and the powerless among his people; he explains, for example, the "why" of Jubilee, the practice--or at least the vision of the practice; it was the dream of God, after all--of restoring, every fifty years or so, land and possessions to people who had lost them. This restoration may offend our capitalist notions of private ownership (no to "redistribution of wealth!"), but Swanson claims that forgiving debt and giving back land was not only needed but right. He recalls that the Jewish people wandered a long time before making their way into the Promised Land, where they understood that the land wasn't theirs but God's. They lived as guests, as "stewards" of God's land. Jubilee responds to the way we humans get things all out of whack, and before you know it, somebody has way too much, and others not nearly enough. Jubilee is God's way of restoring, Swanson writes, "the original balance and connectedness" among the people.
While scholars debate whether Jubilee was ever actually practiced, it still served as a vision of what Swanson calls "the right-side-uping of the creation" by God that the people faithfully anticipated. Jesus doesn't return home to preach a new message that offends ancient traditions, like a trouble-making radical enamored of "current thinking" that he learned out there, in the wider world--quite the opposite, in fact: "Jesus has just rung a bell that echoes back to the first entry into the land," Swanson writes. "Old hopes are often domesticated hopes, at least for people young enough to have been forced back on the oldest, more durable hopes. What if in this scene Jesus learns something about this old passage, these old hopes, by watching the faces of the old ones in the gathered congregation?" How wonderful to imagine that Jesus himself, in reading the Word aloud, has his own epiphany about his mission and ministry.
There's more than one kind of blindness
Was Jesus "just" a good rabbi, someone whose sermons moved people, at least for the moment, or was he much more than that? Renita Weems observes that Jesus saw himself as "God's agent of promised salvation," a salvation that is often described as, and facilitated by, "opening the eyes of the blind" or "restoring sight to the blind." But there are stories of such healing on two levels: sometimes Jesus actually made a physically blind person see, but other times he had the much more difficult task of getting the spiritually blind to open their eyes to the truth. Just as regaining physical sight changes the whole life of a person, so opening our eyes to the truth of the gospel transforms all of us who "have eyes to see," and, we might add, "ears to hear." (What is that old proverb? "There are none so blind as those who will not see....")
According to Marcus Borg, Jesus' speech, while it comes from the tradition of his people, must have clashed with what Borg calls the "social world" of Jesus, the culture and the holiness code that surrounded him, the social and religious understandings that said that those poor people, those blind people, those debtors, and a host of other folks just didn't measure up to the purity that marked the insiders and kept the outsiders, well, outside. At first, everyone admired Jesus' gracious words, and then it occurred to somebody to "consider the source"--and suddenly familiarity started to breed contempt, and someone asked, "Hey...wait a minute, isn't this just Joseph's son? How can he sound so smart, and how can we take him seriously?"
God's economy in our own social world
Perhaps it's too easy to read this text and assume that we would have reacted differently than the crowd did that day, gathered around Jesus on the Sabbath. On our Sabbath, we go to church and often hear a similar message, and then, when we leave our houses of worship, we slip right back into our own social world and its values. For example, have we closed our hearts and minds to the challenging reality that, as Beverly Gaventa so gently says, the "gospel demands a certain attitude about possessions"? Ann Svennungsen observes that Jubilee not only benefitted the poor but also presented "a hope, a challenge to all private ownership rights, and an affirmation that God owns the land and that God's economy supercedes human economies." Those strong words fly in the face of our own culture's deeply held values: "God's economy" may sound good at first, but what will it require of us? And yet, it's also true that we may feel trapped in a system that, more and more, seems to be producing wealth for a few and poverty for too many, so this challenge may indeed present a hope as well.
What's a church, what's a follower of Jesus, to do? We might feel that we have lost our way from the course Jesus set in this inaugural address. As Christians, we're not just studying history, the biography of someone who lived a long time ago. We're reading our own biography, our own operating instructions, our flight plan, our "Mapquest directions" for life. The timing of this text coincides with the inaugural address by a political leader at the beginning of another term. Jesus' own inaugural address is about the politics of compassion, and he tells us to "Be compassionate as God your Father/Mother is compassionate." That's the better translation of Luke 6:36, Borg says, not "be merciful," but "be compassionate." In an age of excessive individualism, Borg notes that we would rather talk about "a thousand points of light," each one of us doing our thing to better the world, rather than the community re-shaping itself, re-ordering its priorities, changing the system and transforming our relationships, whatever it takes, to meet the needs of all of God's children and to extend a compassionate response to the suffering of the world. Mercy, Borg says, suggests one person bending down to someone in need, but compassion means feeling right alongside them. Not from above, but from right alongside.
Could we say the same thing?
How does the church follow those operating instructions, that path of discipleship? As Robert M. Brearley puts it, "we have buildings, budgets, staff, and members, but do we have the power of the Holy Spirit?" Could we walk into church on Sunday and proclaim, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me"? Several writers have interesting responses. First, Ernest Hess speaks of our current interest in clarifying our purpose in life, illustrated by Rick Warren's best-seller, "The Purpose-Driven Life." Hess finds it "surprising and troubling" that Warren doesn't include this passage from Luke in the many passages from the Bible in his book. "Apparently," writes Hess, "this succinct and powerful statement of Jesus' own purpose is not considered relevant for informing a Christian's 'purpose-driven life.'" And Carol Lakey Hess offers this little story from Luke as a "plumb line of Jesus' teaching" that can "measure our work," not focusing on "righteousness" so much as seeking those in need and responding as Jesus would; she speaks of "[w]hatever we take to be the heart of the gospel" that "will be the central shaping force in our life of faith."
What is the heart of the gospel?
Indeed, our churches have spent so much energy and time in arguing over that which is not at the heart of the gospel, or that which goes against its core message, that we have squandered resources, both physical and spiritual, for preaching and living the gospel itself. It's not only justice that matters, or inclusion; it's spiritual healing and wholeness, opening the eyes of the spiritually blind (including our own), not salvation in the sense of getting to heaven or persuading others to accept our beliefs. Svennungsen describes the challenge to balance "justification and...justice" in our ministry: "The sight Jesus brings is meant for those made blind for lack of vitamin A and for those blind to the love and grace of God." What a challenging thought for churches holding annual meetings during this time of year, an excellent moment in the life of the church to re-examine our ministries and the way we do them, and discern where we are next to that "plumb line of Jesus' teaching"!
A last word, from Barbara Brown Taylor, draws our attention for a moment to Luke, the writer of this Gospel, who tradition says was a doctor of medicine. Taylor helps us to be inspired by Luke's example of a life transformed: "I like to think that Luke never resigned his job as a healer. He just changed medicines." Instead of physical remedies for the body, Luke "told stories with power to mend broken lives and revive faint hearts." This is our call, too, as "evangelists" who preach the good news, and speak the words of new life: "People talk, and lives change. People talk, and other people are made whole." The Spirit of the Lord is upon us, too, and we too are anointed to bring good news to the world that God loves so well.
A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles), with an additional reflection on 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, is at www.ucc.org/worship/samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection
Maggie Kuhn, founder of the Gray Panthers, 20th century
"Speak your mind, even if your voice shakes."
Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
"This time, like all times, is a very good one if we but know what to do with it."
James Baldwin, 20th century (about the March on Washington 1963)
"That day, for a moment, it almost seemed that we stood on a height, and could see our inheritance; perhaps we could make the kingdom real, perhaps the beloved community would not forever remain that dream one dreamed in agony."
William Sloane Coffin, 20th century
"The lack of material well-being among the poor reflects a lack of spiritual well-being among the rest."
Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner, 21st century
"...there is a God, there always has been. I see [God] here, in the eyes of the people in this [hospital] corridor of desperation. This is the real house of God, this is where those who have lost God will find [God]...."
Alice Walker, 21st century
"Anybody can observe the Sabbath, but making it holy surely takes the rest of the week."
"Wake up and smell the possibility."
Graham Greene, Brighton Rock, 20th century
"You cannot conceive, nor can I, of the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God."
Charles Chesnutt, North Carolina storyteller, 20th century
"There’s time enough, but none to spare."
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