The great Episcopal preacher Barbara Brown Taylor tells the story of attending a seminar where everyone was invited to “share a story about someone who had been Christ to them.” This invitation elicited sincere but typical responses: stories about a friend who had stayed close by during a long illness while others deserted, or the story of a mentor who had helped navigate the journey into faithfulness and wholeness. Other similar stories followed until one woman said, “Well, the first thing I thought of, when I tried to think of who had been Christ to me, was who in my life has told me the truth so clearly that I wanted to kill him for it!”1
I think that’s what we have here in our story from Luke. Jesus speaks a truth so outrageous, so unsettling, that his hometown friends and neighbors want to throw him off a cliff!
It didn’t start out that way. At first there was good news. Jesus, the hometown boy, takes the seat of honor in the local neighborhood synagogue, reads from the prophet Isaiah and announces that this scripture has just been fulfilled; this scripture about the Spirit of the Lord coming and anointing someone to bring good news to the poor, and release to the captives, and sight to the blind, and letting the oppressed go free — this scripture has found fulfillment in Jesus! He’s the anointed one!
It’s still all good up to this point. But then the crowd starts to wonder about this Jesus, the hometown boy they know so well. They think they know all about him and his family — after all they grew up with the guy! Can he really be the anointed one who has come to do all these great things? It sounds too good to be true, but the locals are willing to let Jesus prove himself. Yes, they love his “gracious words” but they’ve heard rumors of incredible acts, miraculous deeds Jesus has done elsewhere. So they think to themselves, now it’s our turn to receive some of those incredible acts and miraculous deeds. We want our fair share and we want it now.
This is where the good news goes bad. Jesus knows what they’re thinking and he’ll have none of it. He’s not a circus sideshow and he’s not an on-demand miracle worker. Jesus knows his neighbors want him to do the same amazing things he did over in Capernaum. They think, if in Capernaum, why not here?
But instead of doing any incredible acts or miraculous deeds, Jesus tells two quick well-known stories to make his point — stories straight out of their Book. The first is the story of the prophet Elijah, the greatest of all the prophets. Elijah served during a time when there was a famine in the land of Israel. Crops had withered. The soil had cracked. Not a drop of rain for three years and six months. And God sent Elijah to feed a Gentile widow during this time of famine. Why? Perhaps because she was willing to first share her bread with him.2
1Barbara Brown Taylor, Christian Century, March 18-25, 1998.
21st Kings 17
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If not, here’s another story. Jesus says to the crowd, “Okay, how about the story of the prophet Elisha. During his time a lot of people suffered from leprosy in the land of Israel. But God didn’t heal any of them. Instead, God sent Elisha to a Gentile army commander from Syria, and not to any of the lepers in Israel.” Why? Perhaps because Naaman was willing, albeit after some serious negotiations, to receive God’s healing.3
Do you get it now? Do you hear what Jesus is saying? Do you see why they wanted to kill him?
Jesus is not only telling his neighbors that he will not be doing any incredible acts or miraculous deeds among them, but more importantly he’s telling them that he’s headed into Gentile country where he will do incredible acts and miraculous deeds! The shocking truth that Jesus shared with his hometown crowd, the truth that made them want to kill him, is this: God’s love and grace extends beyond Israel to the whole of the world.
So in the end,
Jesus does not go elsewhere because he is rejected by his hometown friends and neighbors;
Jesus is rejected by his hometown friends and neighbors becausehe goes elsewhere.4
The great author Flannery O’Connor wrote a short story entitled “Revelation.” It is the story of one Ruby Turpin. The story begins with Ruby sitting in a doctors office quietly judging herself to be superior to everyone else there, especially a poor, unkept, teenaged little wretch named Mary Grace seated on the other side of the room reading a book. At first Ruby keeps her judgements to herself, but then she decides to share them out loud. She tells Mary Grace that she is nothing but “white trash” and the lowest of the low. And in the blink of an eye, Mary Grace slams her book shut and hurls it across the room hitting Ruby upside-the-head, square between the eyes. “This,” writes O’Connor, “was the beginning of Ruby’s road to redemption. Revelation, it appears, often begins when a large book hits you in the head.”5
And isn’t that what Jesus did with his hometown friends and neighbors? He didn’t throw just any book at them, he threw The Book and hit ‘em right between the eyes with Isaiah, then jabbed them with First Kings, and then threw an upper cut with Second Kings.6
And it all comes home to us when we realize the paradox we live with.
On the one hand, we’re called to love patiently and kindly, while bearing all things, enduring all things.7This is love coming to save us from being wounded.
On the other hand, we’re called to recognize that sometimes we are loved best when the Book hits us upside-the-head, square between the eyes. Sometimes love wounds in order that we might know healing. I mean, isn’t that what happens when someone tells you the truth so clearly that you want to kill him for it?! Isn’t that what happens when we get hit in the head by the Book?!
Jesus’ inclusive ministry remains something we struggle with. If we’re honest with ourselves, we still sit quietly judging the worth of others. We still like the idea that God’s blessings are meant only for us and not for others. We still long to constrain the ways of Christ and keep him obedient to our rules and our boundaries. We still have our lists of unwelcome “Mary Grace Gentiles”: liberals, conservatives, gays, the addicted, ex-cons, street-people, non-Christians, undocumented immigrants — we’ve all got our lists.
And yet the Good News remains both
a healing balm
as well as a blow to the head —
the Good News that
the love and grace of God in Jesus Christ
is for all people!
3 2nd Kings 5
5Flannery O’Connor, The Complete Stories (New York: Farrar, Strause and Groux, 1962), pp. 488-509.
6William Willimon, Christian Century, January 24, 1997, p. 20.
71st Corinthians 13
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2013, Jeffrey K. London. Used by permission.