Inaugural addresses are important. Typically a new President announces the priorities of their administration. But of course it’s more than priorities, it’s also a vision, a vision for what the country can and should be. President Abraham Lincoln used his second inaugural address to name the evil of slavery, the toll it had exacted in human flesh and warfare, and the need to stay the course and resolve both the war and its cause.
Luke treats us with the first recorded words of Jesus. It is difficult to exaggerate the significance of Jesus’ sermon offered from the desk in the synagogue in Nazareth which we find in Luke 4:14 and following. Unlike Mark and Matthew, Luke’s rendition has this as the first explicit public event of Jesus’ ministry. What makes this scene very important to understanding who Jesus is and what he is up to is that this is Jesus’ inaugural address. Here Jesus launches his ministry from his hometown synagogue.
Our text today is often called, “The Rejection of Jesus at Nazareth.” The remarkable thing is that in the first half of the story there is no indication of rejection. At the outset we hear that Jesus is returning from his wilderness sparring with the devil “filled with the power of the Holy Spirit” and that he is “praised by everyone.” It reports that his listeners “all speak well of him and were amazed at his gracious words.” Rejection? Hardly, at least not in this first half of the story.
14Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18“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, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”
We Christians love how Jesus combined passages from Isaiah 61 and 58 and then proclaimed that the scripture is fulfilled at that moment. And why wouldn’t we, given that it is an announcement of the year of Jubilee that arrives with Jesus, the time in which we will see the hungry fed, the imprisoned released, the blind healed, and the oppressed lifted? Jesus’ hometown audience loved the quote and the sermon, too … at first.
So what kind of vision do we hear in Jesus’ address? It is an announcement of his mission. It is a description of the kingdom of God. It is a promise of God’s aid and presence. And all of this and more is summarized by the words good news. But it is not “good news” in general. If we listen closely we will hear that this good news is only good if you are willing to admit what is hard in your life, what is lacking, what has been most difficult. It is good news for the poor. It is not just release, but release to those who are captive, sight to those who are blind, freedom to those who are oppressed. Jesus’ words challenge us to choose to hear that he has not come simply to save us individually, apart from one another, or privately, through our personal belief, but he comes for us all, and is revealed in us and through us, as we reach out to embrace one another’s needs.
Reaching out to embrace the needs of others — that’s where things turned ugly. With the balance of Luke’s story the adulation evaporates.
23He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” 24And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
After the crowd praises Jesus, he, in a sense, tells them, “Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean you. The day of Jubilee isn’t for you.” For Luke, salvation is understood primarily in social and not individualistic terms. To be more specific, for Luke that salvation is a reversal of the social order. Thus, for example, in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, Jesus not only pronounces blessing on the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the hated, he also pronounces woes on the rich, the filled, the laughing, and the respected (Luke 6:20-26). Those on the bottom of society experience this salvation with rejoicing while those on top experience it in the form of God’s judgment and justice.
In the second half of the story Jesus challenges the hometown crowd’s view about who is on bottom of society and who is on top. He reminds the crowd that even when there had been great need in Israel, God sent the prophet Elijah to the Gentile widow in Zarephath and the prophet Elisha to the Gentile leper, Naaman. By implication, the prophet Jesus is not sent to the synagogue in Nazareth but is sent from there to Gentiles. The crowd’s reaction to Jesus changes so rapidly and so radically it almost makes our head swim.
Not unlike Jesus’ hometown crowd, we too want to claim Jesus as our own. We profess faith in Jesus as the Christ and strive to follow Christ in our individual and corporate lives. But this text pushes us to expand our view and push us out of our comfort zone in claiming Jesus’ allegiance to us over against others. Jesus doesn’t accuse the synagogue of such. He does not imply that he turns to the Gentiles because those in Nazareth reject him. They reject him because he turns to the Gentiles.
Can we learn from the ancient crowd in the text and embrace Christ in this turn to those outside the usual boundaries of the sacred community? Indeed, the church can follow Christ into contemporary “Gentile” territory offering aid and acceptance to the widows and lepers of the world. In other words, as this text delineates Luke’s understanding of Jesus’ mission, it can also serve as our own inaugural statement defining the mission of the church today.
Never before have we as a nation been as deeply divided as we are in our responses to refugees, the poor, and minorities. Ancient as Jesus’ words are, and belonging as they do to a culture almost completely unfamiliar in our world, we still hear in those words a ring of truth, that these are the priorities we too must embrace, and the Holy Spirit of Christ anoints us all to this ministry.
Douglas Wood wrote a wonderful story called, Old Turtle and the Broken Truth.
One night truth fells from the stars. And as it fell, it broke into two pieces—one piece blazed off through the sky and the other fell straight to the ground. And then one day a man stumbled upon the gravity-drawn piece and found that engraved on it were the words, “You are loved.” It made him feel good, so he kept it and shared it with the people of his tribe and it made them feel warm and happy. It became their most prized possession, and they called it “The Truth.”
Over time those who had the truth grew afraid of those who didn’t, those who were different from them. And those who didn’t have it coveted it. Soon people are fighting wars over The Truth, trying to capture it for themselves.
A little girl who was troubled by the growing violence, greed, and destruction in her once peaceful world went on a journey—through the Mountains of Imagining, the River of Wondering Why, and the Forest of Finding Out—to speak with Old Turtle, the wise counselor. Old Turtle told her that the Truth was broken and missing a piece, the piece that shot off into the night sky so long ago. Together they searched for it, and when they found it the little girl puts the jagged piece of truth in her pocket and returned to her people. She tried to explain it but no one would listen or understand. Finally a raven flew the shard of broken truth to the top of a tower where the other piece had been ensconced for safety, and the rejoined pieces shined their full message: “You are loved / and so are they.” And the people begin to comprehend. And the earth began to heal.