I’ll admit that the gospel reading for this week is one that would have tempted me to too-easy, shock-value sermons in a hurry. Is this a passage that reminds the nativist that Jesus preached his first sermon on God’s preferential option for a Syrian? A warning to young preachers that emphasizing God’s love for outsiders is likely to get regular Sabbath-go-to-meeting sorts of people mad enough to throw you off a cliff? Perhaps even a Superman-Jesus story in which Jesus uses his Ninja powers to slip through the crowd, demonstrating that he is divine or, at the minimum, Batman.
Of course, my own sense of responsibility when I preach–and this might have been part of what got me fired a year ago–keeps me from doing the one-liner for an easy shock, preferring instead to situate any given lectionary reading in its own book, in the Old Testament or the New Testament, and ultimately in the long history of Christian grappling with the Bible. So I suppose I’ll attempt to do that here.
What Jesus does with Isaiah here is some tricky business–oracles concerning Israel’s restoration are political dynamite in the Palestine region, and to say that a scripture is coming to its fullness in front of a crowd of Synagogue-attenders–the people who eventually would make up a significant part of the force that Rome put down in the siege of Jerusalem in AD 70– is something close to a call for open revolt. The text does not say so explicitly, but I get a sense that rumors coming from this gathering might have already drawn the attention of Rome. (In other words, later in the gospel, when agents from Jerusalem start showing up, I don’t think the world’s chief military power is unaware of the danger of Jesus.)
That’s just one side of the story, of course. When Jesus starts reciting stories from the Elijah narrative, everybody in the house knows what else was going on when Elijah feed the hungry Phoenician and healed the leprous Syrian, God’s favor went out to those nations not out of some vague sense that Elijah was a citizen of the world rather than a provincial Israelite but because Ahab, king of Samaria, was doing the world-citizen thing. Elijah’s miracles in behalf of foreigners are as symbolic, as superhuman acts, as are Hosea’s marriage to Gomer, Moses’s turning the Nile into blood, and Jesus’s smashing things at the Jerusalem temple. When Elijah heals Ahab’s enemy, the point is not a photo-op with the colonized but a warning that, if Israel continues to act like a second-rate Carthaginian colony, YHWH can find other people on whom to bestow God’s favor.
Such is not to say that the Israel-in-rebellion story line exhausts what Jesus was after. Far from it; from the gospel of John’s insistence that Jesus’s moment only comes when Greeks start to gather around Jesus to the gospel of Mark’s insistence that only a foreign, pagan, occupying military officer can be the first human being to call Jesus the Son of God (a term for the true King in the Old Testament), the New Testament grapples with the possibility and eventually the conviction that “Israel” now names all who, because of the work of Jesus, struggle with God, irrespective of the birth-circumstances of those struggling. When Jesus shows up, a genuinely new moment in God’s story with the human race begins, and the family-that-blesses-the-nations that begins in Genesis 12 transforms and expands into the family-that-encompasses-all-nations in Galatians 3.
But none of that changes what the angry Synagogue-crowd would have heard when Jesus spoke what he spoke. I prefer not to insist on one, correct, irreplaceable theory that fixes the meaning of any given Bible passage; I’m much more of a Dantean than that, insisting that the best texts (and the Bible is the best of texts, no?) do not offer one reading and stop but multiply significance, speaking literally and morally and allegorically and anagogically at least. So in addition to the kingdom-that-embraces-all-kingdoms that we eventually meet in St. Paul’s letters, I think that a careful reading of this passage has to include the reality that Synagogue-people, who regard themselves as the ones who will receive God’s Kingdom, have to hear in the words of Jesus a perversion of Elijah, a word that calls them Samaritans rather than the faithful remnant, idolaters rather than faithful, imitators of the hated pagans rather than God’s holy people who stand in contrast to the Kittim.
And that’s where this story, for me at this moment, highlights some of the sadness and some of the charge of being a Christian in the age of Facebook. The fact of the matter is that, not unlike the first century, ours is a moment that tends to lead people to think that God is on their side and out to smash those who would oppose them. Not unlike the first century, we’ve got an overdeveloped sense of “us” and “them” when God comes into the picture, and anyone who is only partially “us” starts to look like a collaborator with “them,” and if there’s a cliff nearby, too often it stands to reason that there aren’t enough of “them” at the bottom of it. And when we read the Bible, our tendency is to map the bad guys onto “them” and to imagine “us” as the righteous ones standing toe-to-toe with evil. And not unlike the first-century synagogue-crowd, we (and I’m including myself here) tend to get a little heated when someone suggests the possibility that “we” might be “them” as God tells the story.
I should point out here, if I haven’t been clear enough yet, that all of this applies to your favorite faction as well as the faction you regard as the devil’s party.
I appreciate, when I slow down to think of it, that Jesus does not sway the crowd but merely escapes them. In that, Jesus remains, in my mind, someone who can show us some humility in this time-between-the-times, offering us a reminder that faithful witness in a dark time often means defeat and sometimes lands the faithful on crosses. As we consider this word from Jesus, let us never forget that, as far as the eye can see, the holy often do not win.
May you find our words faithful, O Lord, even when they sound in the face of failure and terror.