I was twenty-two years old and more than a little excited about leaving my hometown of two thousand people in rural North Carolina. Big plans lay ahead: a move to the Northeast, medical school, and learning the ins and outs of a large city. I spent the last two days in my hometown running errands and saying goodbye to the people I had known since I was four years old. One such errand was to deliver a check to Mr. McCain, an eighty-five-year-old man from whom my family rented our house. I gave him the check, we chatted for a few minutes, and I got up to leave. It was then that Mr. McCain said these words, the last words I would ever hear from him: “Now, Teri, we’re all very proud of you. But don’t go get above your raisin’.” (Now for those of you not from the South—raisin’, in Southern language, refers to your upbringing.)
Well, I think it’s clear in our gospel reading from Luke that Jesus has indeed gone and gotten above his raisin’…and the people of Nazareth are pretty upset. The day didn’t start out that way. If you remember from our gospel reading last week, Jesus returns to Nazareth and, as was his custom, goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath. I imagine it was a homecoming of sorts. Filled with the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus stands up and reads this beautiful passage from the prophet Isaiah: “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.” So far, so good—for this is good news obviously intended for the people of Israel. All eyes are fixed on him, people are speaking well of him, and they’re amazed at the gracious words that come from his mouth. “Is this not Joseph’s son?” they ask. It seems the golden-haired boy has come home. The problem is that Jesus doesn’t stop there. Instead, he goes on the offensive with three successive remarks that turn the crowd against him in a heartbeat.
The first, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb,” Jesus says. “‘Doctor, cure yourself!’” Strange, because Luke hasn’t yet told us about any healings Jesus has performed. Next, Jesus tells the crowd that they will no doubt demand that he do the same healings among them that he did at Capernaum, but Jesus doesn’t even go to Capernaum in Luke until fifteen verses later. What we see is that Luke takes this story of Jesus in his hometown synagogue out of chronological order and puts it at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, maybe because what Jesus reads from Isaiah that day, for Luke, forms the basis of what Jesus will be about for the rest of the gospel. It is the thesis sentence of Jesus’ ministry, if you will. God’s favor will fall even on those thought to matter least by society’s standards—the poor, the imprisoned, the blind, and the oppressed. There shouldn’t be much to upset Israel in these words, and there isn’t—until Jesus goes on to make clear by what he says next that God’s favor doesn’t fall just on the poor, imprisoned, blind, or oppressed of Israel.
Jesus references two of the most prominent prophets Israel had known – Elijah and Elisha. And the stories he mentions tell the people gathered in the synagogue there with him something about the way God works. Elijah predicted a fierce drought that would fall on the nation of Israel, and it came to pass. But instead of sending Elijah to bring hope to one of the many hungry widows in Israel, the Lord sends Elijah right into the heart of Baal-worshipping territory. It is a foreign widow’s jar of meal and jug of oil that will not run dry, and it is her son who is revived. During a time of Israel’s own judgment and desperation, God has mercy on those outside her borders.
During the time of the prophet Elisha, there were many lepers in Israel, but who is it that comes to the prophet Elisha and is healed? Naaman, the commander of the Syrian army—an enemy of Israel, one who is leading raids against Israel. The beautiful words in Isaiah – words meant to comfort Israel – are used to embrace the enemies of Israel.
No wonder the people in the synagogue take offence! Jesus has definitely gone and gotten about his raising. Jesus speaks to those who those who think they hold the full understanding of God’s plan—they know the plot, the unfolding. It’s about them. Only when they find God’s words in the mouth of a prophet, these words break wide open their closed hearts, small understanding, and rigid ways. Jesus is rewriting their version of the story of Israel, making it broader, richer, and more inclusive. And that can be both a painful and gracious process.
It’s not too hard to imagine the response to Jesus’ teaching in his hometown synagogue. “Well, looks like the way we interpret Isaiah isn’t good enough for him anymore.” “You know, I hear he’s not even keeping Sabbath these days.” “Well, I can’t believe he’s calling us hard of heart when his uncle Jacob would just as soon stab a man as look at him.” Being a prophet is indeed a profession without honor in one’s hometown, because a call to change from the inside of a community is seen as a rejection that in turn begets the rejection of the prophet him- or herself. Yes, Jesus comes to speak what will ultimately be a word of grace, but all that is heard in Nazareth is a word of judgment.
Well…I live in Nazareth. Many of us grew up here. The culture of our Nazareth is one of baptisms, Eucharists, confirmations, outreach, evangelism, caring for each other, and just basically living out our common commitment to the good news. It is often a harmonious, peaceful town; but then, once in a while, one of us gets above his or her raisin’. One or several of us will rise up with a prophetic word – a word that causes us to rethink our understanding of God’s plan and where we find ourselves in that plan. And when that happens, we in the Church, like the people in the synagogue at Nazareth, sometimes respond with anger and confusion. How dare God act outside our well-formed images of who God is, outside our script of how salvation comes, outside our well-demarcated lines of goats and sheep, faithful and unfaithful, saints and sinners?
Sometimes the prophetic word we need to hear comes from outside our town of Nazareth, from outside the Church. It can come from the photos of war–ravaged countries like Syria, from the nameless hitchhiker we pass by on the ramp from I-40, from those who live in poverty far from us – those we often forget about until news of another natural disaster breaks through the insulated world in which we live. Prophetic words come to us day in and day out; the question is whether or not we will have the courage to hear those words when they do, and to let them rewrite our story in gracious, mind-blowing ways.
The truth is that God’s love for the world is always greater than we can imagine. And each and every time we think we have the graciousness of God figured out or scripted, God sends us a word to the contrary. What if we could hear the prophetic words that come our way without immediately turning to rejection as our ally? What if we could hear all these words that sound like judgment or that threaten our need to be in control, and find in them also God’s word of grace to us – leading us forward, transforming us? As our narrow comprehension of God’s love and plan for the world is blown wide open, as we are called out of our comfort zones into the great expanse of God’s love, we catch a glimpse of the same grace that is here for us. It is precisely here – in the prophetic words of unimaginable love that call us forward – that we come face to face with our own salvation.