Catholic Contextual urban Theology, Mimetic Theory, Contemplative Prayer. And other random ramblings.

Saturday, 30 January 2016

Sermon at Parish Mass, Epiphany 3 2016

The Synagogue at Nazareth - photo Matthew Duckett, 2010

Nehemiah 8.1–3, 5–6, 8–10
1 Corinthians 12.12–31a
Luke 4.14–21

So far so good – this is just after the baptism of Jesus, then his temptation in the wilderness, then he comes to Nazareth and announces the opening of his ministry with the words of promise that he quotes from Isaiah. His audience seems to be attentive. But have they actually heard what he said? Do they understand his message?

Let us look more closely at the words that Jesus quotes. This is what Isaiah actually says in 61.1-2:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
   because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
   to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
   and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God;

Jesus has left something out. He has stopped reading half way through a sentence, and has left out the bit about the vengeance of our God.

Have the people in the synagogue noticed? Probably not, because their immediate reaction, Luke goes on to tell us, is that “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” You can almost see them all nodding in approval.

Is this omission significant? The passage Jesus quotes goes on to talk about the coming vindication of the Jewish people, and their triumph over the Gentiles who have been oppressing them. This is the “day of vengeance”, the bit that Jesus leaves out, which goes on to say:

Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks,
   foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines…
you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations,
   and in their riches you shall glory.

Isaiah here seems to be talking about a reversal of fortune, a turning of the tables so that the oppressors will now become the oppressed. This would have been an obvious meaning to people suffering under Roman occupation, as the Jewish people of Nazareth were at the time of Jesus.

So if they were nodding in approval it may well be because they think this is what Jesus is telling them. The time has come to have their revenge on the Romans. But they haven’t spotted that Jesus left out the bit about the day of vengeance.

So Jesus goes on to remind them of two deeds of the prophets of old: Elijah helping a widow at Zarephath in Sidon, and Elisha curing Naaman the Syrian of leprosy.

Both of these were Gentiles. And the prophets were sent to them and not to Israel. Once Jesus has said this, the people in the synagogue understand that he doesn’t want to drive out the Gentiles, in fact the opposite:  the day of the Lord’s favour is for Gentiles as well. And Luke tells us “When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.” Indeed they then tried to kill Jesus, but he escaped.

So there is a great reversal in this scene. The mood suddenly turns half way through, from approval to rage, when the penny drops and the people realise that Jesus isn’t promising them the vengeance that they are expecting.

This isn’t the only place in Luke where Jesus quotes selectively from the prophets, promising blessings, healing, restoration, freedom – but leaving out verses about vengeance. So we can be fairly sure that this is a deliberate omission, and is therefore an insight into what Jesus wants to tell us.

Jesus has come to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for the oppressed, the year of the Lord’s favour – for everyone.

The people of Nazareth are stuck inside a mindset in which there are insiders and outsiders, victors and the vanquished. They read the Bible as a narrative of exclusion. The year of the Lord’s favour is for them as well, but they need to be freed from a false understanding of scripture which excludes others. They need to be confronted by the way in which they are getting it wrong, which is what Jesus does in this scene.

Whenever we read the Bible, we are interpreting it. We cannot but bring to our reading of scripture all the baggage we are carrying. Our culture, expectations, political world view, and the blinkers that hide from us what we don’t want to see.

We were reminded of that in our reading from Nehemiah this morning. The book of the Law, the Torah, had just been rediscovered, after apparently being forgotten and lost. But the people needed to read it together, with interpretation, if they were to know even whether they were to weep or to rejoice at what they were hearing.

For Christians our interpretation begins with Jesus, is done with Jesus. We are the disciples on the road, talking with the risen Lord as he opens the scriptures to us. Jesus is himself the Word of God made flesh, he is the Torah in person. The scriptures bear witness to him, and the Church reads them through the lens of Jesus, in a living relationship with the risen Lord.

This is one of the reasons why we need to read the Bible with and in the Church, for the community of faith is bigger than we are. We cannot do without our sisters and brothers in other times, places and cultures who read the scriptures with us and may well see things that we don’t. We need each other, as St Paul says in 1 Corinthians this morning: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.”

The abolition of slavery in the 19th Century began with oppressed people, slaves, and some courageous campaigners, reading the Bible and seeing what nobody else could see, which was themselves in its story of freedom. The risen Lord spoke through the scriptures, but it needed the people who had ears to hear to interpret the Lord’s word to the rest of the body.

The equality of women in the Church’s ministry has followed a similar path. And today, in the Anglican Communion at least, there is much debate around what exactly the Bible says about sexuality and same-sex relationships. Christians in parts of the world that are deeply culturally homophobic are finding themselves challenged by other Christians who are saying, we are reading the Bible and we are hearing something different, a narrative of inclusion, not of exclusion.

Now we need to be careful here. It’s easier to see how other people need to change, than to see how we need to change. And if we catch ourselves thinking, we don’t want people like that in our church, then we still haven’t found our way out of the narrative of exclusion.

As the episode in the synagogue at Nazareth shows us, the oppressors are just as much in need of liberation as the oppressed. The year of the Lord’s favour did not exclude the Romans. Likewise, the scriptural message of liberation for slaves did not exclude slave traders from the gospel: they needed to be saved too, and we shall be singing a hymn written by John Newton, the converted slave trader, at the offertory.

Very often the ways in which we exclude and cast people out are hidden from us. All need to repent, and if our sin is deeply embedded in our culture we will need to repent in ways we can scarcely begin to imagine. If this is true for church leaders in homophobic cultures, it will be true for us in different ways in our culture of great affluence, relative to much of the world, with all the assumptions that come with it of entitlement and personal choice.

The word of Jesus speaking in the scriptures comes to every one of us with the challenge of repentance, the change of our mindset, so that we can leave behind the old narrative of exclusion and find ourselves – together with all the other sinners – in the story of God’s radical inclusive love, made known in Jesus Christ.

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