My sermon for this week was based on Luke 4:21-30, but hearkening back to last weeks' Gospel passage, Luke 4:14-21.
There is something funny that has happened to me enough times since my ordination for me to suspect a pattern.
Oftentimes, my sermons are inspired by events in my churches: situations that are going on, conflicts, issues, and so on. So while strictly adhering to the confidentiality to which I am bound as a priest, I sometimes deliver a sermon hoping that someone in particular in the congregation will absorb the message.
Whenever I do this, almost without fail, the very person I hoped would get the point comes up to me and says, "Great sermon. Boy, do I wish my wife had been here to hear that!"
I think Jesus often came up against the same problem, and he certainly did in today's Gospel passage. The problem is making the distinction between when someone is talking about us, and when someone is talking about other people.
Sounds like it should be simple, but it's not. We make the mistake all the the time, and so did people in Jesus' time, and today's Gospel passage is a perfect example.
To summarize, Jesus comes home to Nazareth and goes to the Synagogue. He is appointed to read a passage from Scripture, and the passage he reads is from Isaiah, which says, "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 favour".
He then makes the tremendous statement, "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing", basically stating plainly that he is the man who is going to do all those things.
And the people love him! We are told, "All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth". But then Jesus says something that seconds later infuriates the crowd to the point that they actually attempt to throw him off a cliff.
Why? What did he say? Why were the people happy and then suddenly outraged?
They were happy at first because they thought Jesus was talking about them, and they got angry because he was actually talking about someone else.
The inflaming statement Jesus makes is to point out two Old Testament stories, one where the prophet Elijah is sent to a starving widow in Zarephath during a great famine, and the second when the prophet Elisha is sent to cure Naaman the Syrian of his leprosy. What got the people so mad is that both of these people were Gentiles.
We know that in Jesus' time, there were clear and stark lines drawn between observant Judaism and Gentiles. Gentiles did not follow the same ritual purity laws and food laws, and so were considered profane. They were not considered to be part of the people of God, and hence not deserving of God's favour. But here is Jesus pointing out two instances when God's favour clearly fell on a Gentile.
When Jesus read the passage from Isaiah, chances are that most people in the crowd thought he was talking about them. In other words, they thought they were the poor, the oppressed, the blind, the captives to whom Jesus referred, and Jesus was going free them. Not the case, because they were already doing okay.
Although it is very difficult to get an accurate demographic reading on attendance at the Synagogue in Jesus' time, historians suggest that attendance then mirrored church attendance today: your average churchgoer today has a higher-than-average education and higher-than-average salary. In other words, we are the haves, not the have-nots. We are not the poor, the captives, the oppressed, the blind.
Chances are the crowd in the Synagogue where Jesus was speaking were similarly not poor, captive, oppressed or blind. They certainly were not starving like the widow at Zarephath, and they certainly did not have leprosy like Naaman. But maybe they, like us, were perhaps a little self-centered and focused on their own problems. That's why they loved Jesus at first because they thought he was talking about them, that their good situation was going to get even better.
They failed to realize that even though from time to time we all feel a little poor or oppressed, that is nothing compared to the oppression and poverty that is felt by other people, and this is what Jesus points out to them. There are, he points out, people who are literally starving and people who are literally dying of sickness, and that is who God is actually for. He was trying, I think, to move his listeners to action. Rather than sit there waiting for even further redemption, he was hoping his listeners would be grateful for their already good fortune and then go out and minister to the truly needy.
Don't get me wrong, I am not trying to diminish anyone's problem. God is for everyone and it is not like God hates us if we are rich and free and healthy, but if we are rich and free and healthy, how do we respond to that? Do we reach out in gratitude and share with others, or do we sit back and ask for more?
Case in point, I hear people complain about taxes and high hydro fees (and I am not above complaining myself), but as I consider my own life, I eat at least three times a day. I have a home and a car, and enough money to pay for both. My neighbourhood has regular garbage pickup, water and sewage. I am not a refugee. I am not suffering from any major illness. I am not doing too bad, and I suspect that many people reading this are in similar situations. Heck, if you have the internet and a computer to read this on, you are already doing better than a lot of people!
Today, my hope is that we could all be grateful for our good fortune and blessings, and to reach out from our places of privilege to help in God's work of freeing true captives, bringing good news to the real poor, restoring hope and vision to those who truly dwell in darkness and to proclaim a year of the Lord's favour.