Turning on Christ: A Reflection on the Lectionary Readings for 3 February 2013

Revised Common Lectionary Page for 3 February 2013 (Fourth Sunday of Epiphany, Year C)

Jeremiah 1:4-10  •  Psalm 71:1-6  •  1 Corinthians 13:1-13  •  Luke 4:21-30

Popular acclaim can get ugly in a hurry.  Certainly that’s no surprise to us twenty-first century folk; anyone who spends any time watching television or reading on the Internet is aware of the big business that has arisen around the “fall” of various celebrities.  We’ve come to expect well-produced “confessional” interviews about the events that threw down the mighty (I still get a chuckle out of Charlie Sheen’s refusal to play that particular game by the rules of network television), edited montages of video clips from the “glory days” of the famous one, well-paid commentators explaining to us, the public, why this given celebrity took the turn for the worse, the obligatory editorials scolding the public for enjoying all of this (and enhancing the enjoyment, without fail), and a hundred other manifestations of a voyeur culture.  If there are “job creators” in the twenty-first century, they’re Roger Clemens, “Papa” John Schnatter, Mel Gibson, Mark McGuire, Kristen Stewart, Lance Armstrong, Lindsay Lohan, and my own favorite, Charlie Sheen.  An entire segment of our media ecosystem is unimaginable without the meme-worthy fallen celebrities.

Certainly the faithful should take Jesus more seriously than an Internet meme-magnet, but something like the “celebrity fall” seems to have happened when Jesus made his famous Isaiah reading.  Before that moment, all in Galilee were speaking well of him.  Even after his declaration that the oracle of the Jerusalem prophet had been fulfilled “in their hearing,” people were impressed.  But then Jesus started the speech that would have been the viral YouTube clip:

[24] And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. [25] But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, [26] and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. [27] And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” (ESV)

And there’s where the public turns.  From the time Jesus returns from his own baptism, the people of Galilee have said nothing but great things about him, but with one public comparison of his own Galilee to the Israel of nine centuries before, he’s earned the wrath of the crowds.  With no Facebook accounts to distract them from their anger and no computers sophisticated enough to start making “meltdown Jesus” memes, the crowd reverts to a more visceral means of showing their displeasure: they form a lynch mob.  In the short span of five verses, Jesus has gone from public acclaim to attempts on his life.

The theological import of the comparison is the real heart of this episode, of course: Jesus, entering into a Galilean synagogue, a hotbed of revolutionary fervor (I’m going to go out on a limb here and speculate that this wasn’t one of the more pacifistic synagogues that eventually became Rabbinic), goes straight to those parts of the Scriptures that the nationalists and insurgents most want to forget, namely that YHWH is a God who chooses YHWH’s saved ones freely, often in the face of Israel’s expectations.  Certainly those rushing Jesus to the edge of the cliff know that 1 Kings is among their synagogue’s scrolls, and certainly they’re not unaware that there are texts like Ruth and Jonah that at least cause some discomfort to those “Israel first” folks.  Yet when Jesus combines his declaration that he is himself Isaiah’s anointed one with this comparison of God’s old work and God’s pending work, that’s the last straw.  The people won’t have a great teacher who isn’t their own great teacher, and off Jesus goes to the cliff.

Luke, who often gets praised as a text that pays attention to details, doesn’t offer much explanation as to how Jesus got away.  This week’s reading ends simply with “passing through their midst, he went away” (ESV).   No sense of what X-Men power allowed him to escape an entire crowd of people who had assembled just to kill him.  Not even the common courtesy of a Johanine “it was not yet his time.”  He just goes through the middle, and Luke is on to the next story.  Perhaps Luke doesn’t want Jesus doing “miraculous” sorts of things that are mere escape-artist stunts.  Maybe the point of the escape isn’t the mechanics of the movement but the literary contrast with the other end of the gospel, where there is no escape from the crowds at Calvary.  It’s hard to say.  What is evident is that, for Luke, the opinions of crowds, at either end of the gospel, aren’t to be trusted.  It’s not that crowds always hate the truth; it’s that they might start hating the truth right when they’ve been cheering it for ten verses.  It’s just the way crowds are.

May our confessions always keep the glory of our LORD, not the acclaim of the many, at the heart of things.

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