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Smack Talk in Nazareth

San Williams

February 3, 2013
Luke 4:21-30

02-03-2013 Sermon On the church’s calendar, today is the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, but today is more widely known as Super Bowl Sunday.  When the San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens line up against each other later today, you can guarantee that there will be some smack talk going on.  In case you’re not familiar with this slang expression, it refers to the inflammatory comments that have become common in sports, especially professional football.  Smack talking players hurl taunts at one another in order to get under an opponent’s skin and provoke an angry outburst.

Well, as we just heard in our reading from Luke, after Jesus is praised by his hometown congregation for his gracious words, things start to get ugly.  As much as we hate to say it, the hostility that erupts after Jesus’ inaugural sermon is really Jesus’ fault.  For their part, the members of the congregation were all speaking well of Jesus.  They were congratulating him for his eloquent sermon.   Surely they were proud that one of their own was showing such promise.  After all, Jesus had learned the scriptures and been tutored for his bar mitzvah in this very synagogue. However, right in the middle of the congregation’s praise of him, he suddenly goes on a verbal attack.  He puts imagined words in their mouths and ascribes to them thoughts they have not yet expressed or perhaps even formed.  Seemingly without provocation, he taunts them with a proverb and tells them two stories from their scriptures that seem designed to provoke a hostile response.

Are you surprised by the way Jesus picks a fight with members of his own congregation?   Why provoke those who were saying such nice things about him?  If only he had held his tongue, and been content to stand at the synagogue door and accept the congregation’s praise, he would have remained the hometown favorite.  Instead, he makes an inflammatory comment about a prophet’s being without honor in his hometown.   He then proceeds to provoke their anger by lecturing them with two stories about how, when the prophets of old came to do miracles and wonders, more often than not it was for Israel’s enemies. With that, the folks at Nazareth explode with anger.  They begin shaking their fists and crying out, “Where is his loyalty to his own kind?  Is he saying that pagan Gentiles are as deserving of God’s favor as we are?  Who does he think he is? “

I recall a comment from a person who had been to hear His Holiness, the Dalai Lama.  “When his Holiness speaks,” the devotee said, “everyone in the room becomes quiet, serene and peaceful.”  Not so with Jesus.  Things were fine in Nazareth until Jesus opened his mouth. Then all hell broke loose.

In Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “Revelation,” Ruby Turpin is sitting in a doctor’s waiting room. She scans the room, evaluating the other patients with a bigotry that is appalling.  Ruby is especially disgusted by a poor, unkempt teenager seated across from her reading a book.  While Ruby is busy passing judgment on those around her, without warning, the teenager fixes her steely eyes on Ruby and hurls her book across the room.  The book hits Ruby in the head and she falls to the floor with the girl on top of her hissing into her ear; “Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog!”  This, says O’Connor, is the shocking catalyst for Ruby’s repentance. Divine Revelation often begins, this short story implies, when something unexpected and maybe unwanted whacks us upside the head.  I expect that’s why the name of the girl who throws her book at Ruby Turpin in the doctor’s office is “Grace.”

Well, perhaps something similar is behind this episode in Nazareth. Jesus hurls a metaphorical book at the folks in Nazareth.  In this instance, the book is the Bible. It’s the book about how God called Abraham and Sarah to bring God’s blessing to all nations.  The book that includes the story of Jonah, the prophet who is the embodiment of the capacity in all of us, Jew and Christian alike, to be offended by God’s grace to all those of whom we do not approve. “The reason I did not want to preach to Ninevites,” said Jonah to God, was that “I know that thou art a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.”  The book that Jesus hurled that day in the synagogue also tells the story from Elijah’s time, about how the prophet Elijah bypassed many widows in Israel in order to offer assistance to the widow at Zarephath in the Gentile region of Sidon.  Jesus further assaults their self-centered piety with yet another episode from the Bible, about how there were many lepers on Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and how none of them was cleansed except one, and he was Israel’s  enemy, Naaman the Syrian.  And now Jesus, the living word, the word made flesh, stands before them as the fulfillment of God’s unbounded love, telling them the truth about their pettiness and prejudice.

“The problem,” suggests theologian Barbara Brown Taylor, “is not that God loves the despised ‘other’ more than God loves us. The problem is that people we cannot stand are loved just as much as we are, by a God who has an upsetting sense of community.” And Brown goes even farther.  “No matter how hard we try,“ she writes, “we cannot seem to get God to respect our boundaries.  God keeps plowing right through them, inviting us to follow or get out of the way.”

Well, this is just what Jesus was doing in Nazareth.  Our episode concludes with the observation that Jesus “passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” From Nazareth, he will go on his way, breaking down barriers and crossing boundaries.  Jesus breaks the class barrier as well as the barrier between men and women by speaking to the Samaritan woman. He breaks the barrier of legalism by healing the blind on the Sabbath.  He blurs the boundary between clean and unclean, righteous and unrighteous, worthy and unworthy, by eating with sinners, embracing tax collectors, forgiving thieves, touching and healing lepers.  And every time Jesus welcomed outsiders he met opposition from people who considered themselves insiders. Yet no matter the opposition that Jesus encountered—first at Nazareth, then elsewhere, and finally in Jerusalem–he continued to press on.  He went on his way, and his way was to proclaim and live out the unfathomable love of God.

The lectionary for this Sunday pairs today’s provocative reading in Luke with Paul’s lyrical hymn on love in I Corinthians 13, in which Paul wrote:  “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not rude, irritable or resentful.” Surely these are among the most beautiful words about love ever written.  We often hear them read at weddings and think how sweet, how lovely, how long till the reception starts.  Sometimes gentle words can’t crack through the shell of our narrow, self-centered world view.  Sometimes the truth has to smack us upside the head.  After all, Jesus didn’t come to please people, or to make us like him. Rather he came demanding a fundamental change in our whole attitude and outlook, a radical reorientation of our lives, a new beginning, which is like being born again. That made a lot of people mad, and I’m sure it still does.  But to those who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.    And he still does.