4th Epiphany: In Our Midst

Joseph LaVela


RCL Year C Feb. 3, 2019
Jeremiah 1:4-10
Psalm 71:1-61 
Corinthians 13:1-13
Luke 4:21-30

The story – a story – of Jesus’s rejection in the synagogue at Nazareth appears in all three synoptic gospels.  A risk when that happens is that we conflate the different accounts and miss the differences.  In this case in particular, we think that we already know the story:  Jesus preaches at the synagogue, and the people, recognizing him to be someone who grew up in town, immediately take offense at him for having the gall to teach in the synagogue when he was, after all, just the carpenter’s son.  And that indeed is the story told in Matthew and Mark. 

But it is not at all what we heard in Luke today.  The story we heard from Luke today is a continuation of the one we heard last Sunday.   In last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus reads from a passage in Isaiah concerning God’s anointed one, and then makes the bold claim that he is the fulfillment of that scripture.   This week’s reading then picks up from there.  Jesus’s claim to be the fulfillment of scripture is an audacious one, certainly much more likely to offend then merely coming and teaching.  But as told by Luke, the people take no offense to it.  Instead, Luke tells us that after he said it, the people – all of them – “spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” Yes, they also said, “Is this not Joseph’s son?”.  But there is no indication in Luke that this realization angered them in any way.  Instead, from all that we can tell from Luke, it just makes it all the more amazing to them that this visitor speaking gracious words was someone who had grown up in their midst.

Things change only when Jesus, seemingly unprovoked, confronts them.  “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’  And you will say, do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did in Capernaum.”   The meaning of the proverb may vary a bit depending on the context, but here, it is the equivalent of “charity begins at home.”   In other words, take care of your own house before helping others.   Jesus follows up on that saying that he expects them to want him to do for them what they heard he did in Capernaum.     Take care of us, your hometown folk, before you go off performing works in other towns, he says they are thinking.

At this point in Luke, there is still no indication that anyone had yet become angry with Jesus or that their amazement had diminished.  When in that context Jesus says, “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown,” it is more a self-fulfilling prophesy than a reaction to anything they did or said.  The rejection comes only after Jesus goes on to make emphatically clear to them that he is not there to live up to their expectations.   He is going to do what God calls him to do, regardless what the hometown crowd wants or expects.  To drive home the point, he invokes stories of the prophets Elijah and Elisha helping not fellow Jews, but Gentiles from other lands.   And that fills the Nazoreans with rage to the point of undertaking to throw him off a cliff.   Jesus, though, just passes through their midst and goes on his way.

Jesus was not going to be controlled by their expectations.  That’s what made him confront them and what made them turn on him.  He could not let them confine his mission.  As we heard in last week’s reading, the prophesy from Isaiah now being fulfilled was to “bring good news to the poor, … proclaim release to the captives, … [and] let the oppressed go free.”   That’s bigger than the hometown, and the expectations of the people of Nazareth were not going to contain that.  Jesus consistently put his focus on the poor, the downtrodden, the marginalized and the ignored, wherever they were.   No room for favoritism in that.  Indeed, Jesus makes that very point later in this same chapter in a passage not included in our lectionary.  After leaving Nazareth, Jesus goes preaching in synagogues in other parts of Galilee.  The people there do not reject him but implore him to stay with them.   But he declines, Luke tells us later in the chapter, explaining “‘I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.’”

There was something else behind Jesus’s refusal to be confined by the expectations of the Nazoreans, which I think is better seen in the context of today’s Epistle reading. 

Just as our Gospel reading today is a continuation of last week’s Gospel, today’s Epistle reading is a continuation of the one we heard last week.   Last week’s reading, from 1 Corinthians 12, focused on spiritual gifts, and makes that point that, although we do not all have the same gifts, together we form one body.   Although our gifts vary, with some being teachers, and others being leaders or helpers or healers, we all are important, and we all need each other.  We are one body.  This is an important lesson, in and of itself.

But in today’s reading, from 1 Corinthians 13, Paul expands on this to emphasize that, at the end of the day, it is not our gifts – whatever they are --that matter, but how we practice them.  Even if I speak with the voice of angels, Paul says, “if I do not have love, I am a … clanging cymbal.”  What matters --all that matters-- is not our gifts, but the fruit we bear using our gifts in loving relationship with one another.

Although English has probably the richest vocabulary of any language on Earth, it falls a bit short when it comes to the word “love”.  Biblical Greek has four different words that in English are all usually translated as “love”.  There is “eros”, romantic love, “storge”, the love between close family members, and “philia”, usually referred to as “brotherly love” (as in the city Philadelphia) but meaning the type of love between close friends.  But the word used in the Greek text of today’s Epistle is “agape”. 

Agape is the kind of love God has for us.  It is the word used in John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son…”  One indication that the English word “love” fails to capture the full meaning of agape in Greek is that in the first English translations of the Bible, John Wycliffe’s in the 1300’s, the Geneva Bible in the 1500’s, and the King James Version in 1611, the word in today’s Epistle, agape, is translated not as love, but “charity”.   

What that translation helps convey is that agape love is a giving, self-sacrificing love.   More than just a feeling, it is an active way of being.   Agape demonstrates love to others through actions.  And since that is the kind of love God has for us, it is also the kind that God wants us to show not only to God in return, but to others as well.  It is the kind of love that Paul exhorts us to practice.  Love that is patient and kind, not envious or boastful or arrogant, never insisting on its own way.

In other words, love that is not about what’s in it for us.

And therefore the antithesis of what Jesus sensed in the synagogue in Nazareth, whose people he believed were interested only in what he could do for them, that he would do for them what they heard he had done elsewhere.

We today are not so different from the Nazoreans.  Studies have confirmed that concerns underlying the factors in our decisions whether to attend church and which one to attend in essence are expressions of “what’s in it for me?”  In his book The Second Coming of the Church, George Barna cites one such study whose conclusion was that people today “believe religion is a commodity to be consumed, not one in which to invest.”  Seconding this, in his article “Why consumer culture could be killing your faith,” Lutheran Pastor Chris Goswami writes “Increasingly people choose churches not according to what can God do with me here but simply what can I get here.”  In his article “The Consumer-Driven Church”, after reviewing the factors a recent Pew study identified as important in church selection, things like proximity to home, the format of the services, and such, author Regis Nicoll observed “absent is anything suggesting a desire for personal spiritual growth,”  growth that he notes would help us give affirmative answers to questions like “Is [my] attitude toward [my] neighbors and enemies [getting] more loving?, [Am I getting] better at responding kindly to unkind people…?, Do [I] have more patience with frustrating people… ?”  In other words, growth in our ability to practice the agape love to which Paul exhorts us in 1 Corinthians.

The Communion Anthem at Diocesan convention this weekend included a verse that I believe is apt here:

The loving Spirit with us now has called us all to be

A loving presence in the world to all God’s family,

To welcome those within our midst with more than passing nod.

To celebrate the lives and loves of every child of God.

God’s will for us is to be a loving presence in the world.  Although Jesus’s confrontation of the people at the synagogue in Nazareth may seem harsh, it was actually quite loving, because Jesus knows that a “what’s in it for me?” attitude is not what is good for us in the long run or that in the end will bring us joy.  Doing God’s will for us will yield richer rewards than we in our ignorance could ever imagine.

As Jesus’s body here on Earth, we ourselves can participate in the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophesy, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God on Earth, perhaps in word but more importantly by demonstrating the agape love of God in our actions.  If we instead focus on our own selfish wants and expectations, Jesus may very well, as he did in Nazareth, pass through our midst and go on his way.  But if we set our personal expectations aside enough to be able to discern what God wants us to do in the world, then Jesus will remain in our midst to help us, and to make us whole.