The nutshell translation of Sunday’s gospel, Luke 4:21-30, is that Jesus had been preaching, teaching, healing, turning water into wine, and other miracles – and he had made a name for himself because of it all. So, when he shows up back home in Nazareth, those people who knew Jesus from back in the day are glad to get some time with Joseph the Carpenter’s Son. When we pick up the story today, Jesus had just read for them from Scripture and reminded them of the prophet’s promises about good news for the poor, about release for the captives, about recovery of sight for the blind, about freedom for the oppressed, and about the year of the Lord’s favor. And they like what they’re hearing.
And Jesus knows they’d like more than just to hear about these things. They’d also, no doubt, like to see some of his best work, which is why he kind of teases them with that old proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself.” That’s why he says what he knows they’re all thinking, “Jesus, do something for us – your hometown family and friends – like we’ve heard you’ve been doing out there in the world. Release some captives here. Heal some of us who are sick. Give some of that Lord’s favor to those of us who know you best now that you are home. If you’re doing it for them, surely you can do it for us, too.
But Jesus reminds them that this “Lord’s favor” the prophets spoke of wasn’t about playing favorites.
He reminds them about how – during a famine once, way back in the day – when all of Israel – God’s chosen ones – could have used a little release and recovery and favor, that Elijah was sent outside the fold, to help some widow in Zarapheth of Sidon. And he reminds them about how, during the good ol’ days of the prophet Elisha, there were plenty of Hebrew lepers who could have used a cleansing, but that Elisha was sent to an outsider – some guy named Naaman from, of all places, Syria.
And it was right about at this time when Jesus’ hometown lost their ever-loving minds. They were thinking:
“You mean this grace and favor and recovery and release stuff isn’t just for us?!”
“You mean we aren’t supposed to look out for number one?!?!”
“You mean we don’t take care of our own, first, and then – with the left-overs – pick and choose who we think might be worthy?!?!?”
“You mean this ‘recovery’ and ‘release’ and ‘freedom’ is for them, as much as it is for us?”
See, to begin to grasp what was so upsetting and unsettling to Jesus’ hometown crowd, we need to be reminded about the significance – or the insignificance – of these widows and these lepers about whom he was preaching. They were at the bottom of the barrel as far as social standing was concerned. They were outcasts. They were unclean, unworthy, unlovable, and unwanted by the rest of the world.
So, for Jesus to proclaim grace to lepers and widows was a pretty big deal. But that wasn’t all. Not only was he talking about the outcast, the sinner, the shamed and the shameful, he was talking about people outside of their Jewish circle. Jesus was saying that, just like the prophets Elijah and Elisha had showed, foreigners to Israel were welcome to the grace of God, too. Not only was God’s grace for losers – like lepers and widows – but it was even for (and especially for) Gentile widows and Gentile lepers, to boot. Which seems to imply that there wasn’t anyone beyond the reach of God’s love, or beyond the reach of his own ministry, as a result.
So, besides the fact that Naaman, that Gentile leper God loved, was from SYRIA, of all places, does any of this sound familiar? Could this be anymore timely a lesson for us, in this day and age? If Jesus walked into the midst of his hometown today, what would he find, and what would we do, if he reminded us about the likes of Naaman, the Syrian, the refugee, the widow, the outcast in our towns?
I’m afraid the truth is, too many Christians are too busy looking for cliffs whenever the message of God’s grace and love and mercy and favor gets too wide and when it refuses to play favorites the way we pretend it should. And Naaman, the Syrian, and that widow in Zarepheth of Sidon, are just First Century examples of our 21st Century reality, it’s sad to say.
So, the questions for us are the same as the questions Jesus’ friends and family were wrestling with in Nazareth that day. Who are the 21st Century “widows” and “lepers” among us? Who are the unloved, the unlovable, the unworthy or the unwanted as we gather here today? Even more, who is outside the circle of God’s grace as far as Christians in the Church are concerned?
Is God’s grace big enough for the Jew and the Muslim? For the Protestant and the Catholic? For the married and the divorced? For the soldier and the conscientious objector? For the bigot and the bully?
How about the Christian who doesn’t sit in a pew, or the non-baptized or the non-tither? What about the un-Christian, the un-churched and the un-repentant? What about the person who willingly wears a mask and the anti-masker? The person who chooses to be vaccinated and those who do not? Does God’s grace extend to them?
This morning’s Gospel reminds me – and what all of these questions force me to realize – is that none of this is for you or me to decide. The grace of God is just that – it’s God’s grace. It’s not for any one of us to dictate or deny. All we can do is celebrate and share it.
Sure, we can try to say who wins and who loses; who gets saved and who doesn’t. We can try to limit God’s grace or draw lines in the sand or keep it for ourselves. We could even try to silence the truth by hurling the messenger over a cliff or by running him out of town or by nailing him to a cross – but we have been there already and thankfully his message carries on.
And it’s the resurrection that reminds us that God’s grace will be shared – no matter what. It will bring good news to the poor. It will release the captive. It will restore sight to the blind. It will set the oppressed free. The Lord’s favor will be proclaimed – whether you and I are on board or not.
Because what I’m always convicted by when I hear about Jesus’ near-death experience that day in Nazareth, is the invitation to get out of God’s way and to get with the program. What I hear is a call to the Church – our church at Emmanuel and the larger Church as a whole – to not be left standing on the cliff like the people of Nazareth, only to find that Jesus has passed through our midst – untouched. What I don’t want any of us to find is that he’s continued on his way sharing grace, doing justice, and offering God’s blessings to a world so desperate for it, and that we were too busy or too angry or too self-absorbed or too selfish and scared to join him in that work.
So how exactly do we tap into Jesus’s call for us to be involved in bringing good news to the poor? Release to the captive? Sight to the blind? Setting the oppressed free. I think for us here at Emmanuel, it means tapping into our Outreach programs. Getting involved with helping our refugee families to settle in. Helping out with ALIVE! Helping to find someone to chair the Outreach ministry at our parish. Or if helping with one of our Outreach efforts doesn’t work for you, then to find another way to help bring good news to people who are poor.
God’s been so Good to us. Let’s pay that Goodness – God’s Grace – forward.
Peace friends, chuck.
The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog