Sunday, January 28, 2007
Hometown Boy Makes Bad
Three years ago, I preached on today's readings, Jeremiah 1:4-10 and Luke 4:21-32. This is the famous rejection at Nazareth, and it's a pretty thorny passage. Three years ago, it was particularly and painfully apt for me, because I was embroiled in our parish misconduct mess, wondering if I was going to be driven out of my congregation for speaking truth to power. That didn't happen, for which I'm deeply grateful.
Most people in our parish didn't know about the misconduct investigation yet when I gave this homily; but, of course, the erring priest did, and also knew who'd reported (I wasn't the main reporter, but I'd counseled the main reporter, and also sent a supporting letter). At the end of the service, he came up to me, looking exasperated, and said, "That was a good homily, Susan."
I give him a lot of credit for graciousness under pressure; nonetheless, it was a very surreal morning.
* * *
This morning’s homily has been a real struggle for me. Every time I read this Gospel passage, I find myself sympathizing not with Jesus, but with the townspeople of Nazareth. Jesus is being obnoxious. Of course they’re angry at him. He tells them that prophets are always rejected, but they haven’t rejected him yet when he says that. They reject him only after he’s already rejected them. In popular psychology, this is what’s known as a self-fulfilling prophecy. And what’s worse, Jesus speaks in maddening non sequiturs; my personal response to most of what he says is a baffled what?
I had no luck whatsoever parsing this passage until I tried to imagine it from the point of view of one of Jesus’ friends, until I tried to fill in the gaps in the conversation. I invite all of you, now, to do the same thing.
Jesus is back in town! He’s been off wandering somewhere – doing amazing things, if the reports can be trusted – but now he’s back home. He’s going to the synagogue on the Sabbath, like a good Jewish boy, and you’re going there too. You grew up with Jesus. The two of you played together while the adults stood in small clumps, muttering about boring things like taxes and Roman occupation. It’s sure been great to see him again. He has some strange new friends, true, but that doesn’t matter. He’s still Jesus, still a Nazareth boy.
In the synagogue, you watch proudly while Jesus stands up to read from Isaiah. The passage brings tears to your eyes. “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 favor.” Now that you’re an adult, you know what the grown-ups were muttering about. You’ve watched your father, who’s sitting next to you, struggling to pay his taxes, and if the Romans are better than the Greeks who preceded them – at least they’ve allowed the Jews to keep their own religion – you still hate being ruled by foreigners, by people who don’t belong here.
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” Jesus says, and a happy sigh goes up from the crowd. Jesus has come to free the oppressed Jews. Some of the people around you are skeptical. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” says your next-door neighbor. “We’ve known him since he was in diapers. Where does he get off, acting like he’s the Messiah?” But most of the worshippers praise Jesus’ gracious speech, his promise of deliverance.
But then everything goes wrong. Jesus says, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’” You blink. What? He hasn’t told you to cure anything; he’s told you that you will be cured! Hasn’t he? Is Jesus implying that you need to release captives and free the oppressed? That can’t be right! You are the oppressed! The Romans are the bad guys here!
You’re working so hard to figure this out that you miss what Jesus says next, until you hear your father saying in exasperation, “Of course we want you to do for us what you did in Capurnaum! Everyone says you’re a holy man and a healer, Jesus, and we’re your friends and family! Who deserves your help more than we do?”
“No prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown,” Jesus answers cryptically.
Your neighbor mutters, “If you want us to accept you, stop insulting us! Speak plain Aramaic!”
So he does, which just makes things worse. He reminds all of you that even though there were thousands of hungry widows in Israel during the prophet Elijah’s time, Elijah was sent only to one of them – a foreigner. He reminds all of you that even though there were thousands of lepers in Israel during Elisha’s time, Elisha was sent only to one of them – a foreigner.
By now, your father’s shaking with anger. “Is this why you came back?” he demands. “To tell us that you won’t help us? To tell us that you’re going to help foreigners? What does that mean, Jesus – that you’re going to help the Romans?”
“Well,” says your neighbor, “if he only wants to help foreigners, I guess he doesn’t belong with his old friends anymore, does he?”
And then the entire crowd’s on its feet, pushing and shoving. You’re carried along in the rush. You feel sick. You’re mad at Jesus yourself, but you can’t believe the rage he’s just unleashed. It occurs to you bleakly that the town’s lashing out at Jesus because they can’t lash out at their real enemies; their real enemies are too dangerous. Jesus is a scapegoat. But this thing’s too big for you to stop, and before you know it, the crowd’s dispersed, and you’re trying to put together what happened.
They – you – tried to throw Jesus off a cliff. But Jesus got away, somehow. He parted the mob the way Moses parted the Red Sea, and went on his way. You shiver, remembering that. You know your scripture, and you remember the Lord saying to Jeremiah, “You shall go to all to whom I send you, and you shall speak whatever I command you. Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you.” Jesus really must have been sent by God, if God kept him safe that way. Does that mean that you are an oppressor?
And suddenly you remember the beggar you passed on the side of the road the other day. You didn’t give him anything; you told yourself you couldn’t afford it, because of the Roman taxes. Your stomach twists uneasily. A small, mocking voice in your head says, “That wasn’t good news for the poor, was it?” But that was the Romans’ fault, you tell yourself. They’re the bad guys, not me! Not us! We’re not the oppressors: they are.
Is this what really happened, two thousand years ago in Nazareth? There’s no way for us to know. But this is a version of the story that makes political and emotional sense to me. Us vs. Them. That line ran through pretty much everything in first-century Judea, and it runs through pretty much everything in twenty-first century America. And it means that prophets are no more popular now than they were in Jesus’ time. Just look at what happened to Martin Luther King, Jr. In common usage, the word prophet tends to mean “someone who foretells the future,” but Biblical prophets are people who speak out against current injustice, and who do so in explicitly God-given language.
“I have put my words in your mouth,” God tells Jeremiah. God’s words are dangerous. What sounds like good news to the poor, the oppressed and the imprisoned may sound very different to rich people, oppressors, or prison guards. And no matter what side you’re on, prophecy is always about change – and change is always frightening, even to the people who benefit from it. Prophets want to turn the world upside-down. They’re trouble-makers. The only people who like them are the poorest and the most oppressed, who have no privilege of their own to be threatened, and have nothing at all to lose from change.
My sister, who’s Quaker, once told me that nearly all of us are both oppressed and oppressing. Nearly all of us have both been wronged and done wrong. That, I think, is what Jesus is telling the people of Nazareth. He’s telling them that they’re part of the problem. He’s telling them to cure their own faults, instead of only blaming others. And he’s telling them that he’s not their private property. He’s been sent to everyone, family and foreigners alike. He’s been sent to the entire world, not just to one neighborhood. God’s justice is for all people, even for people who look like enemies.
And what of Jesus’ childhood friend? I picture him sitting on his bed that evening, trying to rewrite the horrible day. Couldn’t Jesus have found some way to be less offensive? Couldn’t he have called his neighbors to repentance more gently, more lovingly? He can’t keep talking to people that way, miraculous healings or not. He’s going to get himself killed.
And a few years later, when Jesus does get himself killed, the childhood friend hears the news and thinks sadly, “You didn’t get away that time, Jesus. No parting of the mob there.”
But there are other stories in the air, incredible stories, tales about how Jesus did get away: stories from people who saw him dead, undoubtedly dead, and then saw him vibrantly alive. Jesus avoided neither the mob at Nazareth nor his death on the cross; somehow, impossibly, he walked safely through both of them. And the childhood friend shivers, and finds that he believes. And he still pays his taxes, and he still struggles to be kind to people poorer than he.
We follow in his footsteps. Believing in Jesus, we still find ourselves complicit in injustice, and we still get angry when we’re asked to confront the fact that we, and not just they, are the source of some wrong. We struggle and repent; we do our best to mend what we have broken. We work towards the Kingdom of God, where there is neither Jew nor Roman, neither slave nor free, neither us nor them: where all will be accepted, and all will be at home.