+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Nearly a decade ago, I had the lovely but very strange experience of preaching and serving as Deacon of the Mass at the parish where I grew up. It was lovely, because I got to see several wonderful friends from my teenage years- people whose support during my awkward adolescence did as much as anything to keep me attending and being active in the Episcopal Church during my college years (the time when too many of our youngsters fall out of that habit).
But it was strange, too. I had preached from that pulpit as a lay-person thanks to special dispensation from the Bishop as I was discerning a call to ordination. It was different this time, though. I was an ordained person, actually set apart to do that sort of thing. I had been up at the altar years before as a server, but now I had a dog collar and a stole on, and I was touching these holy things. As strange as I felt, I imagine it was stranger for the people who knew me as a kid.
I suspect some of what was going through the minds of the good people at church that morning was also going through the heads of those attending synagogue in Nazareth in this morning’s Gospel. Here’s Mary’s son. They knew the kid, but things are different now. He’s different. How strange!
Now, it would have been much weirder for the people at the synagogue that morning than it had been for my old friends for three reasons. First, I’m not the Son of God except in the sense in which we’re all daughters and sons of God. Jesus was (and is) the Son of God in a much more literal sense. Second, I was not (and am not) famous in any sense. News of Jesus, though, had spread throughout the countryside. No doubt word had come to the members of Jesus’ childhood synagogue that one of their own was making quite a name for himself. Third, I’m pretty sure I didn’t say anything controversial or earth-shatteringly interesting that morning. I don’t remember what text I preached on or anything else about my sermon that morning, but I’m pretty confident it would have been pretty standard stuff as far as my own interpretation was concerned. Jesus, on the other hand, came out with something nobody was expecting. He came out with something which must have been more than a little shocking.
Back to that in a minute. First, a little more regarding the context. A synagogue in Jesus’ time would not have had professional clergy. That would come several decades later, after the temple was destroyed and the sect of the Pharisees would evolve into the clergy (the Rabbis) of modern Judaism. Instead, each synagogue would have had a president elected from within the congregation-a sort of Jewish Senior Warden-and that person would (among other tasks) assign somebody in the synagogue to read and teach that particular Saturday. Most likely they didn’t have schedules, so the synagogue president would round somebody up on his way into the service.
This method had its pluses and minuses. On the positive side, it meant not only that everybody was eventually going to contribute something to the life of the synagogue, but that everybody had to get literate enough in biblical studies to be able to say something. When the teacher is eventually going to call on you, you’re more likely to do your homework. On the negative side, this probably meant that most synagogue services were rather dull and uninspiring. Familiarity and literacy do not necessarily translate into creativity, and most sermons in the Nazareth Synagogue were probably just a dry recapitulation of the reading.
Not so the morning Jesus showed up. The synagogue president was probably pretty proud that he got the local boy who’d made good… that is until Jesus opened his mouth. Then he probably wanted to hide behinds the nearest Torah scroll. You see, Jesus not only said something interesting (again, probably not a regular occurrence in the small-town synagogue), but he said something controversial:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord… Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
What that unsuspecting congregation heard was Jesus placing himself in the place of Isaiah (the prophet from whose book he had just read) and he could have been taken as claiming to be better than Isaiah. “Isaiah wrote it,” he might have said, “but he wrote it for me to say.”
As if this weren’t bad enough, the content of Isaiah’s prophecy would have been too much for some in that synagogue to bear. It seems like a pretty comforting reading to us, but a closer look suggests that it is anything but comfortable to some. Jesus, using Isaiah’s words, proclaims “the acceptable year of the Lord.” Other translations read “the year of the Lord’s favor.” What Isaiah and Jesus are referring to, though, is not a vague period of special blessing, but a specific biblical concept. Every fiftieth year, the Law commanded, was to be observed as yovel or jubilee, and as the Book of Leviticus explains:
This fiftieth year is sacred—it is a time of freedom and of celebration when everyone will receive back their original property, and slaves will return home to their families.
Universal emancipation, the forgiveness of all debts, the termination of every lease agreement, and the redistribution of all property were supposed to take place every fifty years according to none other than God’s command.
That is “the acceptable year of the Lord,” and the majority of those in the Nazareth synagogue would have been biblically literate enough to know it. How do you think that would have gone over? Well, if there were slaves in the synagogue they would have liked the sound of that, but there probably weren’t any as Jews couldn’t enslave other Jews according to the Law. Poor folk would have liked the sound of it. Others wouldn’t have. Slaveholders really would have hated it (they tend to get a bit irritable when their “way of life” is challenged, no matter what century we’re talking about). If you had recently leased some land that happened to produce a lot of figs or olives, you would have been furious at the suggestion. If you’d had bad harvests for a while you might have been happy to get out of the contract for the land.
No matter who you were, the observance of the jubilee year would have led to complications and uncertainty. This is probably why the Jubilee may never have actually been observed, even though it was one of God’s commandment and was still very much in effect.
Guess what happened next. Our lectionary reading ends a bit to soon. As soon as Jesus finishes his teaching in the Nazareth synagogue, Luke’s Gospel continues:
When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and put him out of the city, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw him down headlong. But passing through the midst of them he went away.
These were the people Jesus grew up with-his parents’ friends and neighbors-and so outrageous was his teaching that they tried to murder him.
Yet his teaching wasn’t all that outrageous. It was exactly what the prophets before him had said. He was just quoting the scriptures which all in the synagogue had affirmed was the Word of God. Perhaps it wasn’t outrageous but it was courageous. The word of God, as I have said so many times from this pulpit, is not some pablum which merely affirms and comforts us. Rather, it convicts us of our hypocrisy, and that can make us not only uncomfortable but furious.
There is nothing comfortable people are more uncomfortable with than the suggestion that they’ve got more than enough and they’d better give it away. It makes me uncomfortable, because I’ve got more than enough to get by pretty comfortably. To dip my toes once more into the shark pond of contemporary political rhetoric, do you notice how often we actually hear people in power talking about the indigent. I don’t hear it very frequently. No matter what the political party of the person talking, the conversation is always about the middle class. It’s meant to encourage people like me and most of my compatriots who are firmly in the middle class. Talk about the underclass, the truly poor-which in this country is a larger group than in any other developed country-is uncomfortable. It might make people feel guilty and then they might act out defensively in anger instead of feeling convicted to give more of their wealth for the care of the needy. It’s what happened in the synagogue in Nazareth that day after all.
One might argue that Jesus’ words in this morning’s Gospel are meant to be taken only figuratively- that the poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed of which Jesus speaks are the spiritually poor, those spiritually imprisoned, the spiritually blind and the spiritually oppressed. One might argue that the jubilee year he proclaims is only about the remission of our sin-debts, the manumission of those enslaved to sin, the return of Israel’s spiritual inheritance.
Well, if that’s all the Gospel is, we may as well stay home on a Sunday morning drinking tea and reading Chicken Soup for the Soul instead of getting up and coming to church. I think I’d just as soon be a secular humanist as be in a religion that doesn’t demand anything of me other than adopting some vague sense of comfort and self-affirmation. Show me your faith, the Apostle James wrote, and I’ll show you my works.
Thank God the Gospel demands more of us. Thank God that Jesus keeps reminding us of our obligation to lift up the poor, to free the captive, to give relief to the oppressed. Thank God that the acceptable year of the Lord has been fulfilled in our hearing. It is now ours to act on that reality. To give and give and give some more to the work of spreading that Good News of release and relief and redemption.
+ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.