“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting,” G. K. Chesterton once wrote, “it has been found difficult and left untried.” I think that insight predates Christianity by several centuries. When Jesus gives his inaugural sermon at Nazareth, according to the Lukan author, he does not come up with new texts or novel concepts. He stands up and reads from the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah is also not innovating in the language or ideas of his prophetic oracle. Instead, he is recasting the moral center of the Torah to apply to his time and place.
Jesus did not invent social justice in the Roman province of Palestine in the third decade of the first century of the Common Era. Nor did the prophet of Isaiah 61 invent social justice in the fifth or fourth centuries before the Common Era in response to the Babylonian Exile. Concern for the poor and the imprisoned, compassion for the ill and injured, release from domination and debt – these are notions that come from Torah and stand as the moral center of the Tanakh.
The fact that Jesus takes this text for his sermon and then declares that in the reading it has been fulfilled in the ears of the listeners means that God’s passionate plan for the wholeness of Creation has not changed from beginning to end. The God of Israel embraces the poor, loves the prisoner, and seeks to reverse all the ways that human beings make our communities into bastions of inequity and violence. That is God’s heart yesterday, today, and forever.
That is the good news of this text, I think – that the Lord is now, has been, and always will be in the business of turning the cosmos right-side up. If loving God means loving whoever God loves, then the poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed must be in our field of view at all times. And in those moments when we find ourselves in such circumstances, we can be sure that nothing will separate us from that love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
I think that the Chesterton quote can just as easily be applied to the social justice values of the Tanakh as it can to the life of discipleship for Christians. Care for the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner is a value that enlivens the Torah from end to end, but that care was not embodied well in the times of the Judges and the Kings. The classical prophets do not invent a new religion but rather call Israel and Judah to remember and to practice the traditions handed down to them. Those looking for the fulfillment of reign of God in the first century didn’t need a new set of values. They needed to embrace the heart of God’s love for all in ways that were new to them.
We will see the converse of this assertion in the continuation of the reading next week. Just as the words of the prophets were not accepted by some in the times of Elijah and Elisha, the Lukan author tells us, so that same kind of rejection happens at Nazareth. The struggle to move from privilege to compassion, from exclusion to inclusion, from tribalism to love of the cosmos is as old as humanity – and as contemporary as yesterday’s headlines.
The pairing of the reading from Nehemiah with the gospel reading from Luke can provide either a helpful linkage or an unhelpful contrast. We need to exercise care here. The omitted verses are mostly the names of the Levites who assisted in translating the reading from Hebrew into Aramaic and doing some interpretation as part of the translation. Lectors can be grateful for that omission, and I would not advocate for restoring those verses.
But the potential to draw a contrast between the “gracious words” of Jesus in Luke 4 and the half-day long recitation of “the Law” in Nehemiah is hard for contemporary preachers to resist. The NRSV translates the Hebrew word, “Torah,” with the English word, “Law.” That is unfortunate, because we Protestants in particular jump immediately to our Reformation over-simplification: gospel = good; law = bad. It would be much better if the translation would be something like “teaching” rather than “law.”
In addition, we Protestants in particular then assume that this “Law” is nothing but the ritual and ceremonial regulations (and all those boring genealogies and population reports). But where do we think we get the notion that God loves the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner? It is in that very “law” that we so easily caricature and hold in contempt.
I’m struggling a bit with our morning devotions in the last few days. I was hit today with another example of making Jews look bad in order to make Jesus look good. The writer notes that the people stood and listened to the reading of the Law from early morning until midday. We preachers can ruefully observe that we can’t get most of our folks to listen more than about ten minutes (at least in mainline Protestant shops), much less for half a day.
The devotional writer focuses on this report and wonder who in the world needs to listen to the Law for that long. After all, Jesus summarizes the whole of the Law and the Prophets in two brief commandments. The implication is clear, whether intentional or not. Poor, foolish Jews who have to stand and bear the burden of rigid legalism hour after hour while we Christians can get the straight stuff in thirty seconds and get on with our lives.
This is another example of what Barbara Brown Taylor points to in Holy Envy as “the language of contempt.” It’s not intentional, I don’t think. Nor is there any direct insult uttered. But the contrast itself makes clear the perspective that Christianity supersedes a defective predecessor religion and does it in a fraction of the time.
But let’s read the Nehemiah text for what it really says. The people tell Ezra to bring out the book of Moses’ teachings – a gift direct from the Lord to Israel. The ears of all were attentive to that teaching, even though it took hours to read it all. The people knew they were in the presence of holiness and greatness and stood to honor that presence. They wept when they heard the places where they fell short. And Nehemiah urged them to celebrate now that they heard the truth.
Of course, one day of this teaching wasn’t enough. The heads of all the ancestral households came together for more study of the Teaching. As they studied, they re-discovered the Festival of Booths. They put together their own wilderness booths to remember their heritage and “there was very great rejoicing.” Seven days the reading and rejoicing continued. The festival finished with a solemn worship service and a rededication to the covenant with the Lord.
This sounds nothing like a terrible burden or a command performance. The people found life and joy in the Torah. It was in a return to the heart of the Lords’ teaching that they found this life and joy.
When Jesus preaches at Nazareth, he is not proclaiming a different teaching. He is calling the people of God back to the values and institutions that make them who they have been called to be. It’s not that the Torah was tried and found deficient. It’s that it hadn’t always been tried. It hadn’t always been tried because the heart of the Torah is justice and love. That heart challenges our hearts of stone and dismantles all the ways we seek to maintain our power and privilege.
As Nehemiah read the scrolls of Moses’ teaching to the people, they looked into a scriptural mirror and didn’t like what they saw. That’s the source of the weeping. The fact that they wept is a sign that they heard. When they heard, then they could do something to begin to change. The reinvigoration of the Feast of Booths was a sign of that willingness to give the Teaching a real try.
Jesus’ teaching in Nazareth has a similar function. The words from Isaiah are a window into the values of the Kingdom of God, yesterday, today, and forever. These words are also a mirror in which we can see reflected our embrace and/or rejection of these values. If we don’t like what we see, we have a couple of choices. We can be humble enough to make some changes. Or we can break the mirror.
This is the two-fold uncovering in the season of Epiphany – throwing light once again on both who God is and who we are. The question is quite the same. Will we look closely and accept what we see? Or will we seek to suppress the message and kill the messenger?