On this week’s Sermon Brainwave podcast, Matt Skinner gives an interesting reflection. He notes that he doesn’t see himself in the categories covered by Jesus’ selected scripture reading. He doesn’t see himself as poor or captive or blind or oppressed. Skinner cautions against spiritualizing those categories in order to make them comfortably adaptable and applicable to us. By “us,” he means White, American, privileged, positioned, powerful and propertied persons. I take Skinner’s point and want to make that our touchstone for some reflection in this post.
Most of us contemporary readers are going to have to do some work to find “good news” for us in Jesus’ inaugural sermon at Nazareth. But was there “good news” for the first audience of this reading and sermon? Let’s put aside for the moment whether events actually unfolded in the way the Lukan author reports them. In the context of the story the author tells, is Jesus speaking the Gospel for the home folks in the Nazareth synagogue?
Asking that question makes clear the problem with dividing the scene into two lectionary readings, even if they are on successive Sundays. Something Jesus says or does really pisses off the hometown folks, according to the Lukan account. “In the second part of this story (4:21-30) which is next week’s Gospel reading,” writes Elizabeth Johnson in her workingpreacher.org commentary, “the reaction of the hometown crowd will turn from amazement and approval (4:22) to rage and even murderous intent (4:28-29). Knowing what is coming,” Johnson continues, “it is difficult to preach on only the first half of the story.”
Near the end of her commentary, Johnson raises this question. “Will hearers today receive this message as good news, or will they respond like the hometown crowd in Nazareth, fearing the loss of privileged position?” On its face, that seems to be an odd way to frame the question. Certainly, the text quoted from Isaiah 61 (and perhaps 58) sounds like a threat to those of us who are not poor, captive, blind, or oppressed. There is no question that Jesus proclaims an overturning of the economic, political, social, and carceral status quo.
But would the folks at Nazareth have heard the Isaiah passage as the same kind of threat to them? That seems unlikely. In fairness to Johnson, I’m not suggesting that she believes first-century Nazareth was filled with rich, privileged, and powerful people. But it is important to keep clear about what’s good news and what’s bad news for them and for us in Jesus’ reading and sermon.
The rage and rejection in the second half of the text do not come from the Isaiah passage. The Nazareth folks don’t reject the message. They reject the messenger. They’re not troubled by the sermon theme. But they don’t care at all for the application.
We will need to pursue this further next week and with great caution. The easiest thing in the world in the second half of the text is to make the Nazareth folks serve as stand-ins for “the recalcitrant Jew.” This story is the Lukan version of the Johannine assertion that “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (John 1:11, NRSV).
The gospels of Matthew, Luke, and John wrestle with the problem of general Jewish rejection of trust in Jesus as the Messiah. They each present some variety of Jewish “hardheartedness” as the solution to that problem. I mention the whole issue here, because I want us to be careful not to paint ourselves into that corner as preachers over the next two Sundays. That will require great care.
Certainly, there were differences in income and status among the people of Nazareth. But Jesus’ hometown was not a bustling Hellenistic colonial burg in the way that Sepphoris was, just a few miles over the hill. I’m not saying that the Nazareth folks were somehow immune to or isolated from Hellenization and the impact of the Greco-Roman cultural system. But it would seem, from archaeological and textual evidence, that first-century Nazareth was a pretty humble little place in political and socioeconomic terms.
So, it seems to me that Jesus’ textual choice would have been regarded, on its face, as very good news for the home folks. He is proclaiming a reversal of fortune for those on the outside looking in. In fact, he is announcing the beginning of a Jubilee year. Whether Jesus has in mind the actual institution of the Jubilee Year as described in Leviticus 25 is a matter of ongoing scholarly debate. But, regardless of the niceties of scriptural provenance, Jesus declares that the upside-down world is about to be turned right side-up.
You may recall that the Jubilee Year was intended to be the great socioeconomic reset for the society of ancient Israel. Debt and concentration of property in fewer and fewer hands would inevitably deprive at least some of the people of Israel of their ancestral birthrights of land and blessing. In order to ensure that God’s promise to all the people remained intact, the institution of the Jubilee Year declared that every fiftieth year, everyone would go back to square one.
Debts would be forgiven. Alienated home farms would be returned to the traditional owners. Israelite debt slaves would be set free and perhaps criminal sentences would be waived and expunged. The distance between the top and the bottom, the haves and the have-nots would be erased, at least for a while. It would be like entering the Land of Promise once again for the first time.
Whether the Jubilee Year was ever enacted or was simply an aspirational construct is hard to tell. But it seems unlikely that anyone every really went through with it. The few times it is mentioned in the Old Testament outside of Leviticus, the institution does not fare well. We can imagine the economic chaos such an event would produce in market-driven systems. And if the Jubilee Year were a reality, then it would hang over every transaction, and the life of the market might grind to a halt.
Of course, the previous paragraph is not a critique of the Jubilee Year. Rather, it’s a critique of the market’s tendency to widen the wealth gap and concentrate money, power, position, and property in fewer and fewer hands – unless there is some sort of societal intervention.
Let’s move from the times of Leviticus and Isaiah to the day when Jesus read and preached in the midst of the Nazareth synagogue. In the twenties of the first century in the Roman province of Syria, some new revenue policies were put in place. Land was accumulated and controlled by a few wealthy owners, many of them absentee landlords living on the Italian peninsula.
People were losing their farms and businesses as the Imperial system imposed a different economic order in what the Romans called Palestine. Tax rates were increased, and people already living in a subsistence economy were pressured even more. People who had been thrown off their land in this process wandered the countryside looking for work, food, and housing. At least some of the folks in the crowds following Jesus were likely these economic refugees looking for some solution, some salvation, for their problems.
So, it seems reasonable to believe, based on the historical record and the text itself, that Jesus’ scripture selection would have been received as good news indeed. The initial response in verse 22 (which we don’t get until next week) confirms this assessment. All who heard him at Nazareth testified about him in positive terms. If Jesus had actually stopped talking after verse 21, things would have gone much better for him during his homecoming tour.
But would we have had the same positive reaction to Jesus’ words? Perhaps that is a place where we can reflect as preachers. Unless we spiritualize the Isaiah text into comfortably “interior” and non-material terms, the proposed upending of our political and socioeconomic arrangements should leave us at least a bit unsettled. Would we speak well of Jesus and be pleasantly surprised by what he had to say?
If we’re honest (we who are privileged, positioned, powerful, and propertied), we would have to say that we would not be. Here’s a reminder that the Law or Gospel impact of a text depends a great deal on the position and posture of the hearer.
We can also be reminded that Jesus did not somehow “invent” God’s passion for social, political, and economic justice. Jesus begins his ministry in the Lukan account by aligning himself with the historic and scriptural passion for the widow, the orphaned, and the sojourner, which runs throughout the Hebrew scriptures. This passion is not limited to the prophets but is a bright line tying all the Hebrew scriptures together.
Jesus is not breaking from tradition but rather affirming it. Perhaps this is what Jesus means when he asserts that the scripture is being “fulfilled” as the Nazareth folks are hearing it. The promise to turn the world right side-up is not a new innovation but has been the plan all along. Jesus announces that the plan from the beginning is coming to fruition in and through him.
That might not have pissed off the Nazareth folks, but perhaps it doesn’t make some of us very happy. What will we do with that challenge?
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