Unwelcome Truths – Br. David Vryhof
Perhaps it was in the way he carried himself, the way he strode confidently to the front of the room to take his place before the gathered assembly of friends and neighbors. Maybe it was the way he looked out over his audience with calm and serene eyes that sparkled with an inner certainty, as if he was the keeper of a great secret. Or maybe it was the quality of his voice that was different, a ring of certainty they had never noticed before, the unmistakable authority with which he spoke, the powerful authenticity of words coming from one who knows whereof he speaks.
Whatever it was, when Jesus rose to read and comment on the scriptures in the synagogue of his hometown of Nazareth, those present fell silent, fixed their eyes on him and listened. They knew who he was, of course, but there was something different about him that day, something they had never seen before, or – if it had been present – they had completely failed to notice.
With the certainty of a man on a mission, he asks for the scroll of the book of the prophet Isaiah, confidently unrolls it to the 61st chapter, and reads,
“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 liberty 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.”
With every eye now fixed upon him, he carefully rolls up the scroll, hands it back to the attendant, and sits down. “TODAY,” he says, boldly and clearly and with unmistakable authority, “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
He pauses to allow his listeners to take in the import of his words. They know these words and recognize immediately Isaiah’s reference to the coming Messiah, the “Anointed One” promised long ago to save and deliver God’s people from their bondage and oppression. But now Jesus, their neighbor and friend, the son of the carpenter Joseph and of his wife Mary, is using these sacred words to describe himself, clearly implying that he is the one whom the Spirit of the Lord has anointed to proclaim God’s favor to the Chosen People. What are they to make of this?
The initial response is positive. They are “amazed” at the graciousness of his words and glance at one another with nods of approval. But then doubt creeps in. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they ask themselves. He’s a peasant like the rest of us, a simple working man. From where does he get the courage – or audacity – to claim these words as his own?
Jesus picks up on their suspicion. He senses the veiled resentment in their voices, and speaks to them an unwanted truth: “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.”
He’s struck a nerve, uncovered their hidden resentment that the miracles they had been hearing about were done in Capernaum, a city with a heavy non–Jewish population. So why shouldn’t these same acts of power be done here, in his hometown, among people who knew themselves to be children of God through Abraham? Why offer signs of God’s favor to Gentiles and unbelievers? Why should they be the beneficiaries of God’s goodness?
Jesus reads their hearts, and speaks to them with words that pierce.
“Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six moths, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” (cf. I Kings 17:8-14 and II Kings 5:1-17)
Two of your greatest prophets, Elijah and Elisha, also brought God’s favor to non-Jews. Though there were many widows in Israel, Elijah’s miracle was offered to only one, a woman of Sidon, a city of Gentiles. And though there were many lepers in Israel, Elisha healed only one – Naaman, a Syrian.
From their own scriptures he condemns them, revealing their sense of entitlement and their disdain for those outside the bounds of their faith. They are made to face the truth of their own tradition, a tradition they have long defended and embraced. God’s welcome is not for Jews alone. From the very beginning, when God established a covenant with Abraham, it was clear that God’s intention was for Israel to be “a light to the nations” and a blessing “for all the families of the earth.” “By your offspring,” God tells Abraham, “shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice” (Gen. 22:18; also quoted in Peter’s sermon in Acts 3:25).
The tension here is not between Jesus and Judaism, or between the early Church and the synagogue. The tension here, the gospel writer Luke maintains, is between Judaism and its own scriptures. Luke’s point is that Israel should have understood and embraced Jesus’ message and deeds of power because they were consonant with the expressed purpose of God to save and redeem all people.
But this is a message the people of Nazareth do not want to hear. The fact that Jesus’ signs were performed in Capernaum, that God’s grace and favor was offered to non-Jews, has offended them. Their resentment at this fact is not unlike the resentment of Jonah, who, when God sends him to warn the Gentile population of Nineveh, resents it when they turn to God and repent and are spared from destruction:
When God saw what [the people of Nineveh] did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it. But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 3:10-4:3)
Jonah, the reluctant prophet to the people of Nineveh, ready to die when God shows mercy to foreigners. The people of Nazareth, ready to stone God’s Anointed One when he offers signs of God’s favor to the Gentiles.
“[This incident] foreshadows not only the trial and death of Jesus,” writes New Testament commentator Fred Craddock, “but also the fate of many of his followers. If it foreshadows Israel’s rejection of Jesus and the taking of the message to Gentiles, then it is important to notice that Jesus does not go elsewhere because he is rejected. He is rejected because he goes elsewhere.”
“Jesus does not go elsewhere because he is rejected. He is rejected because he goes elsewhere.”
Do we find traces of this same resentment in our own hearts? Are there individuals or peoples or nations that, in our judgment, are not deserving of God’s favor? Do we consider ourselves to be better than others, specially favored of God, worthy of being the primary objects of God’s favor, love, and blessing? Has this type of arrogance infiltrated our national consciousness? Has it seeped into our churches? Has it affected how we look at others?
When the president of our country refers to our enemies as “the axis of evil,” have we supposed that we alone are righteous in our motives and in our actions?
When one part of our Church castigates another, have we convinced ourselves that we are in the right, that we alone know God’s mind and rightly interpret God’s truth?
When we harbor resentment against those who are poor, have we imagined ourselves to be deserving of wealth and privilege by reason of our hard work and innate goodness, and condemned others to reap the consequences of their ignorance, laziness and lack of initiative?
When we disdain those who are different from us, have we imagined God is on our side and prefers people who look like us, act like us, think like us?
Have we resented God’s favor being shown to those whom we discount or disdain?
There are times when we are challenged by unwelcome truths, when we are made to see ourselves as we really are and not as we imagine ourselves to be. There are times when we are shown that we ourselves are in violation of the very principles we have espoused. There are times when our own scriptures condemn us.
“Jesus does not go elsewhere because he is rejected. He is rejected because he goes elsewhere.” The embrace of God is wider than we like to imagine, the love of God is deeper than ours will ever be, the welcome of God far surpasses our own capacity to welcome, the generosity of God outstrips our own. We are recipients of undeserved grace, of a love that overlooks the arrogance, pride and self-centeredness of our hearts, of a kindness that forgives our haughtiness.
Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward to you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matthew 5:43-47) “Be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate” (Luke 6:36).
May God’s love be the pattern for ours. May God’s wide embrace, God’s boundless generosity, God’s reckless mercy, God’s steadfast and unfailing love be our rule and guide, today and always. Amen.
 The story is told in Luke 4:16-21.
 Craddock, Fred. Luke (Interpretation Commentary); (Louisville, KY; John Knox Press, 1990); p.64.
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Br. David: “Has this type of arrogance infiltrated our national consciousness? Has it seeped into our churches?” And so many other “unwelcome,” penetrating, and timeless questions in this sermon.
God help us re-focus on the message/messenger rather than the “Christian” label.
There is one group I resent, though I shouldn’t. I very much resent those who would put God in a box of their own making. Sometimes the box is too small even by human standards. Can’t they realize that a box the size of our universe would still be too small for our Creator? Though we are sometimes angry with God (because we are so very human), we have no right to judge Him or His actions. We cannot judge the Infinite by our limited human standards and understanding. He is who He is – the Great I Am.
Yes, thank you, David, for these words. Good image from Mary… I just did ‘eat these words for breakfast’. Now to digest them throughout today.
I am grateful for people who show me the way and walk with me.
David – thanks much for this wise sermon. I could profit from eating it for breakfast…warm regards, Mary
Very powerful and so true of all of us – my prayer is that we make decisions based on God’s compassion and wisdom not our own fear, intolerance, arrogance and self-righteousness.
Another penetrating great message. Thank you.
I grew up in an area which does not allow those unlike themselves to attend church with them.
Sadly, it still exists in many places. It so grieves me when I visit there. I’m so glad that Jesus came to “rent the veil in two.” He was rejected “because he went elsewhere.” The power of the Spirit knows no barriers except those we make ourselves. Love is all inclusive, thanks be to His holy name. As a Gentile, I’m so glad He opened His arms to me, too.
In St Matthew ch.5. v.15 Jesus spoke of the light that should be put on the lampstand in order to give light to all. Surely these words by Br.. David are such a light that we all need and especially at this time. A light for those dark places in all of us. Thank you Br.David.
And, point well-made, if we are tolerant only of those who are tolerant, we cannot truly consider ourselves tolerant.
I will read and reread this again. Thank you. Currently I feel called to be a local spark for interfaith initiatives, focused on but not limited to Abrahamic traditions. This inspiration goes against most of what I learned growing up in a narrow evangelical ethnic enclave, so it comes with a fair dose of personal anxiety. However, I believe that I too, particularly in community that is broadly defined, can have the certainty of a man on a mission that you describe Jesus in his home town. Grace and courage are not so far apart.
I too feel very called to respond to Abrahamic tradition. I have a son who converted to very conservative Judaism. He is schizophrenic, but he finds peace in Judaism, so it’s all good with me when he is well with that. I have worked in Islamic cultures quite extensively outside the USA and am strongly pro-Palestinian as I know so many who had family hurt by various situations there where they were treated no better than Jewish residents of ghettos in the Nazi era. (Can provide links if wished.) I am an Episcopalian, and we are generally disliked by the “evangelicals” and the “new apostolic reformation” right-wingers for being tolerant, intelligent, science advocates and also for not seeing just ONE pathway to sanctity. Thanks for your note. I’m with you on this.
Powerful; the context of Jesus presenting Isaiah’s message: today, ourselves . You have blessed us with this wide, deep pattern. Continually thankful for all of you.
Thanks so much. I’m once more reminded that we “can’t outgive, outlove, outforgive God.”