Passage: Luke 4:14-30
Date: February 04, 2007
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
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More than 100 million people will tune in today, even briefly. At least some of them want to see the contest, and to witness the outcome: who will receive the honor, the ring, the high station of professional football world champions. Others will only pay attention during the $2.5 million per half-minute series of interruptions, to be entertained by commercials no less. Some will be glued only during half-time, wondering if there will be an "equipment failure" this year. This week's Fooday was filled with chips and dips, buffalo wings, soft drinks and beer; soups, sausages, burger patties, and beer; shrimp plates, meat balls in sauce, and did I say beer? It has been going on all week, but really began at 9 today, even though the game-yes, there actually is a game-doesn't start till about 3:30. Hmmm...there are some empty places here. For honor, highest honor in football, in commercials, in entertainment. Honor.
Americans love winners. Part of our national psyche is fed by rags-to-riches stories. Like Abraham Lincoln-log cabin, homely, business failure, lost elections, and ultimately saved the nation and even gave his life in doing it. Doesn't get much better than that. Or garage electronic geeks, like Bill Gates, who has made an unfathomable fortune, and become the world's greatest philanthropist. My service club participates in an intensive mentoring program that invests time and energy and money in a student over ten years, so that students do not repeat our perception of unsuccessful living. Even though we wonder about OSU picking up an athlete with a seriously troubled past, at the same time, we desire betterment for him. Betterment. We enjoy it when our offspring make us proud. Part myth, part reality, successful living means moving up the financial-social-material ladder for us as a culture. "We deserve it," one commercial teaches us.
Because this ethos is so deeply inside us and around us, we easily misunderstand other contexts, including our scripture for today. Listen to the contrast with ours. In the Mediterranean world of antiquity, everyone had a proper place. One's birth determined it. No one expected to improve on one's parents' situations, to become something better. Because goods, including honor or status, were limited-not able to expand-if one moved up in status, others of necessity must move down, must lose ground. That threatened the well-being of the community, and was considered deviant behavior. All of life was consumed, not in trying to improve, but in trying to maintain one's position. This worth was not internal, like, "I feel good about myself, so it does not matter what others think." Just the opposite. It makes no difference what I think or feel. All that matters is how others see my worth. Each person inherits, and is expected to safeguard the family's honor. For us, this all sounds like a huge amount of work. In culture then and in many today, it was simply learned from birth.
Now we come to Luke, writing to Gentile Christians, trying to convince them that a landless rural peasant, lower on the honor scale than even a subsistence farmer, was none other God's beloved, God's agent, God's unique presence in the world. Do you hear the problem? In order to get any kind of hearing, Jesus needed a reputation, credibility far above the lowly son of a part time wood worker. So here, near the beginning, Luke lines things up for Jesus in such ways that he receives huge honor from God-his baptism-and then proves it in the episodes which follow. I am grateful to Dick Rohrbaugh, John Pilch, and others for the scholarship here.
It was customary in the Mediterranean for a son to carry on his father's trade and name. At some point, Jesus left it, traveling, something normal people did not do. He was doing something odd, deviant. Then he came home to his village. The gossip network was powerful, and his growing reputation as a preacher, teacher, and healer elsewhere preceded him. The people who had known him and his family through the years already believed he had breached the family honor. Our reading shows graphically the tensions such behavior would raise in any tiny Mediterranean town.
It is no wonder that after he read from the Isaiah scroll, or recited that portion from memory, and then sat down and pronounced its fulfillment in him, it is no wonder that they marveled at what he said, and then responded with anger. Instead of saying, "Boy, his accomplishments would make his daddy proud," they hissed, "Is not this just the son of that sometimes working carpenter? How dare he claim such a lofty position. We need to help him by reminding him of just who he is. Besides that, if he is healing people, it is non-Judeans, people not of his own kind, his own kin. How dare he dishonor his family and us so thoroughly." In a sense, they attempt to ridicule Jesus by reminding him of his lowly birth status.
Their response screamed rebuke to Jesus. Their retort constituted a critical public dishonoring. Public is the operative term, because that was all that counted.
If we were from an honor/shame culture, and listening to this story, at this point, we'd be on the edges of our chairs. What will Jesus do? How can he respond to save face, to re-establish his new found credibility. They had just sliced it, and therefore him, to smithereens. Please understand-this is not merely a verbal exercise. Protecting one's reputation could become a matter of life and death, not only for the person, but for the extended family.
To save himself, and to sustain his newly acquired honored status at the beginning of Luke's story, Jesus unloaded on his townsfolk. Citing two popular proverbs, he aligned his honor status with that of the revered prophets Elijah and Elisha. Not content there, however, he rubbed their noses in it. Remember, he had said, "No prophet is accepted in his hometown." He then told two stories in which these prophets were told by God to go outside of their home country as God's agents, one to a Gentile woman-a double whammy; and the other, to a Gentile enemy military officer; both while not doing much for the chosen ones of Israel. Do you hear Jesus simultaneously claiming the lofty status of these two national religious icons as his own; and, at the same time thumbing his nose at his own village leaders by declaring that God's boundaries are not theirs at all and that perhaps their own lineage is not so particularly valuable to God? Remember, lineage was everything. Mercy, did he cut them down, dishonor them. They were so defeated that they resorted to violence. In an honor/shame society, violence is powerful evidence that one has lost the verbal exchange.
For Luke, in this episode, Jesus withstood yet another test, this time with those who knew him best. He successfully defended his new honor status as the beloved son of God. The remainder of the gospel moves between those who believe and those who challenge his claim on God's behalf.
When I pause before this claim, and as I listen to his understanding of God through Elijah and Elisha, I am encouraged and threatened. I have comfort zones about Jesus, and God's love through him. And, other zones are more problematic. It is sort of a lineage issue. For example, it is easy for me to see how God's love in Christ extends to people like us, even when we really mess up our lives. Of course it does. Basically we are pretty good people. But, did God love the people who flew planes on 9/11 as much as Jesus loves us? A growing problem in our world is adults who offer impoverished rural adolescent boys and girls factory jobs in cities as a way to help their families. When they arrive, they are virtually imprisoned as part of the international sex trade instead, especially designed for affluent American and Asian business people and tourists. Does the God we know in Jesus love the perpetrators and the users as much as God loves those young victims? As much as God loves you, me? Jesus says, "Remember the widow in Sidon during the famine. Remember the enemy military officer."
Friends, I am often astounded by the God we know in Jesus of Nazareth. At times, it is deeply troubling, disturbing to those of us who work hard for a decent living, who are careful and generous in our retirement. It is so easy to believe that in our clean, upright living, we are more deserving of God's love. Of course we are. After all, we do believe that there are winners and losers, that we can improve ourselves with diligent effort, and that God rewards that. Right? Yet, what at times I am able to glimpse is a God without those kinds of boundaries, boundaries of our making. Jesus was among the lowest of the peasant class, from noplace. Yet God had the audacity. "You are my Beloved." In him, God honors us all. All. It is this same Jesus, the Beloved, who invites us here to the table, regardless.
Our growing investment portfolios do not matter here. Nor do the successes of our grandchildren, or our marriages. Nor the color of our skins, or our hearts, actually. Nor our SAT scores or educational levels. Nor our national origin or sexual orientation. We do not have to bring anything to this holy meal. Better we come with nothing, except the forgiving, honor-bestowing, life-changing embrace of Jesus. So come. Come and be fed by the Son of God. Communion in the Presbyterian Church is open to anyone, to everyone who trusts Jesus, who seeks to follow him in life. It is the gift of himself to us, for us. Come.