Re-read Luke 4:14-30
Few people understand what it feels like to be truly hated. Jesus was one of those people. Long before people wanted to put Jesus up on a cross they wanted to throw him off a cliff. His own church people, wanted to throw him off a cliff.
I think in our minds we often have a picture of Jesus that is more “Lamb of God” than “Lion of Judah.” We imagine a Jesus who might never offend anyone, and we are mystified by why it was that Jesus had enemies. I think though it is safe to assume that if we were alive during Jesus’ time and met him, there is a good possibility that we too would be challenged and even offended.
Jesus pushed people’s buttons and challenged their motives, and because we love Jesus we are quick to think that his audience was legalistic, xenophobic, or just plain slow. Texts like this, where we see the people of Jesus’ hometown as a kind of bipolar people who would love Jesus one moment and then rabidly turn on him the next and try to throw him off a cliff—texts like this can often reinforce our biased viewpoint. Now I am not saying that the people of Jesus’ day were perfect, only that they weren’t any worse than we are.
Jesus was revealing to the world that he was the Messiah. Messiah means anointed one, and like many prophets and kings before Jesus, God’s Holy Spirit had anointed their work. But Jesus is not merely a king or simply a prophet, Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise to raise up a prophet like Moses. He is the fulfillment of God’s promise to send a Son of David who would bring about a new Kingdom and a New Covenant.
As Jesus read the scroll in the synagogue, the people of his church were thinking “Yes! This is the moment we have all been waiting for.” At first the people of Jesus’ hometown were eating it up, but then they asked, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” This is not some innocent question, the people asking it were making a statement about Jesus’ authority to make these claims. Wasn’t he just a local boy with a scandalous past? Perhaps all his studies had gone to his head…
In “coming out” as the Messiah, Jesus was claiming more than being a local boy who made good. He was claiming the arrival of a new era of salvation. He was pointing to a new reality enacted through himself, a new reality where the Son of David would reverse the work of Satan in the world. And the way Jesus talked about his call and what this would look like was to borrow the language of Jubilee.
We come to Christianity with a western mindset. We do not live within a system where the land is a gift to all, we live by the code of the free market. For us, equality takes the form of equal power to vote and what we now call basic human rights, but in Israel the main source of wealth was land and it was shared by all.
To describe their system in our terminology, it was a unique blend between capitalism and socialism. It was capitalism in the sense that people could produce things and sell them, they could even sell their land if they needed to in a limited way. But it functioned more like socialism to our ears because since the land was God’s and not really the possession of the people’s, and since God wanted the people to share that land equally, this effectively made every person a kind of land owner. Every 7 Sabbaths years, or 49 years would bring a year of Jubilee, “the year of God’s favor.” This was a time when all the debts would be wiped clean and all the land would be redistributed equally.
This was a picture of economic justice, not an expression of class warfare. Essentially, it wiped clean the mistakes of previous generations sort of like a chapter 11 bankruptcy, giving families back their ancestral lands which were the means of production. This meant that the next generation would get a clean start and would not have to suffer the mistakes of the former generation forever.
Economic justice is not a very popular topic in our society. As I said we think about class warfare. Our society predominantly thinks of poor people as lazy, not merely unfortunate. We are not prone to forgiving debts in society-wide acts of grace. But one of the first metaphor’s we have for the ministry and message of the Messiah is not absent of economics. The first gospel was not one that was primarily about information, but societal transformation.
If the gospel does not compel us to reach out to the poor and marginalized—if it is a gospel that cares only for the soul of a person and not giving them a hand up from their plight—perhaps it is only a shadow of what the gospel is supposed to be. Jesus does not take things like class and socioeconomic status off the table. The gospel is good news to the poor, and it is often the poor who are the most open to the message of hope God has brought to the world.
Jesus’ work and ministry was primarily spiritual, but it was an “inaugurated vision” of Jubilee…of justice for everyone; freedom for slaves, an opportunity for a fruitful life for the poor and disadvantaged. And while Jesus would spiritually give sight to the blind and freedom for the oppressed, he also lived and walked among the actual poor. He healed the sick and the blind. He actually physically went to be with them and be a part of their lives. And Jesus knew what it meant to be marginalized: He fled genocide as a baby, he grew up in a village that questioned if he was even Joseph’s child. He spent his time with people society had rejected like sinners and prostitutes. People accused him of being a glutton and a drunkard.
The American dream is not to be found among Jesus’ teachings, nor is trickle-down economics, nor democracy. Later Luke would have us see Jesus, for all intents and purposes, as a homeless person. He discourages one person from following him by saying, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” He probably had a house somewhere but had long since stopped living in it…
I think in our day and age it would be this radical economic side of the gospel that would make some of us want to throw Jesus off a cliff. But what was it that really ticked off his audience so bad that they would turn on him that quickly? They start by questioning the morality of his origins…. But what sent them through the roof was his reading of history repeating. Jesus pointed out that the true prophets were almost always rejected by the people and recognized after it was too late.
The people of God were often the one’s demanding proof that God was with these prophets, and not only that–some gentiles and poor people who had shown faith during these dark times were the ones who got to see God move! Jesus offends the people of his town by saying they were basically sleeping on the job, blind to the new work of God before them. Jesus reveals himself and his mission in a way that calls people to decision. Some people will instantly reject him without giving him a second thought. He reveals himself to a people who are blind, spiritually blind.
I see two equally dangerous habits of the people of God in this story: The first is that we do not like to include as many people as God does in our view of where to bring the gospel. We are still afraid to get close to the poor, or those who are adherents of other religions; the gentiles of our day. As I wrote in yesterday’s devotional:
In contemporary society, the church has become the furthest thing from a people with a message for the poor. Instead of being pushed by the Spirit to the least, the lost, and the last, the church is often squabbling over its own preferences. The church usually only spends the smallest fraction of its budget to help the poor, and most people in the American church likely do not even know the name of a single homeless person. Stratified by class, the bulk of the church’s outreach is geared toward those that we would most benefit from having join our body, rather than searching out who would benefit from our fellowship the most.
The good news is not about free seats in a social club that happens a couple hours on a Sunday morning. It is not that there is a place to sing “the old hymns the old way” to one’s heart’s content. It is not even that there is a place available for one more like-minded person to worship God. The good news is that there is a powerful Holy Spirit at work in the world that wants people who have not yet experienced freedom to do so. The good news is that the poor have a Savior who died even for them, that through the cross the blind can see and the oppressed can be free.
The other danger is that we can limit what the work of God can look like. We can reject the prophets among us who herald that God is up to new things. We, like the people of Jesus’ hometown, can put God in a box. We can think things like, “God you could never use a person like that…that is just the neighbors boy putting on airs.” Or “you could never bring a ministry like that to a place like this”… or “God could never be worshipped with music like that, why can’t we only sing the good old stuff?”
The truth is that God does not see as many limitations as we do as to where the gospel can go, how it can help, or who God can use. In a world like ours where the church is in decline, where more ministers leave the ministry than enter it, and where there are scores of hurting people building their lives on shifting sands… we need boldness. We need the Spirit of the Lord to shake the dust out of our hair and send us out where the people are.
We need room in our lives to be with the poor, those captive in their sins, those blinded by the lies of this world telling them to be someone other than God is calling them to be… We can go the rest of our lives playing it safe, keeping our mouths shut about Jesus, and hanging out with the people who are already saved. We can go the rest of our lives and never even bother to know the name of a single homeless person… but if we do that, are we really being Christians? Are we really being the church? Do we really believe that the gospel is good news that brings people freedom?
The allusion to a gospel of justice and jubilee does not point us to a comfortably and a permanently quiet faith. Jubilee was brought about with a trumpet blast, it upset the whole apple cart of society with a radical picture of equality by means of the forgiveness of debt. Jesus brought the world a spiritual Jubilee. His death on the cross erased the debts of sin and let us free from slavery. Jesus calls his church to bring word of this jubilee to people who need help, people who have lost hope, people society has given up on. Jesus did not let the fear even of people throwing him off a cliff stop him, he did not let his death on the cross stop him from giving the world the message of hope.
Being a Christian is not a call to arrogance. It is not a call to pretending we are perfect or morally faultless. It is not a call to shoving our religion down people’s throats or threatening them with the fires of hell. But it is a call to be a people of a message who aren’t afraid to share that message, a message that calls people to make a decision about Jesus. It is call to not “missing the moment” when God wants to do something new in someone’s life. It is a call to being anointed by the Spirit in ways that make you radically love people who are hard to love, and where the Spirit helps you in pointing them to Jesus. The church is less about what happens in here, and more about whether the message of Christ is being communicated out there, by us.