Jesus’ Jewish hometown crowd wanted to throw him off a cliff because he challenged their belief that they had privileged status with God over the Gentiles. But in God’s Kingdom, there are no favorites, and we are called to let go of our sense of privilege. Access to God’s favor is not a zero-sum game; there is an abundance of grace and love to go around to everyone.
Speaker: Pastor Stephen “Tig” Intagliata
Main Bible Passage: Luke 4:21-30
Many of the businesses that we patronize have some sort of loyalty or rewards program where you can save money and also get some perks or privileges for giving them your business.
One of my favorites is a car rental VIP program where you go straight to the car and don’t have to stand in line for three hours—that’s really nice after a long flight and a long wait to get a shuttle to the car rental company!
Our daughter used to work for a major airline, and about a year ago she took a voluntary separation package which will extend for a few more years certain flying privileges she had as an employee.
As her parents, we also get some of those perks, and when they expire we will definitely miss having those privileges.
When you get used to being treated in a special way, it’s hard to come back down to earth when you lose those privileges, when that preferential treatment no longer applies.
And if there are people who you see are responsible for taking away your privileges, you can get pretty upset with them.
Maybe that’s one reason why Martin Luther King wasn’t very popular when he was alive. After all, he worked to change laws that gave privileges to white people that brown-skinned people didn’t have.
There was a CNN article that came out on MLK day this year, just a couple of weeks ago. The article said that in 2011 over 90% of Americans had a favorable view of Martin Luther King. But back in the mid-60’s, when he was alive, his favorable rating was closer to 40%.
Another poll taken while King was alive showed that he was one of the least respected Americans of his day, almost as disrespected as George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama who worked to keep racist policies in place.
A lot of advances were made for racial equality through the prophetic witness of Dr. King and others in the civil rights movement, but in recent years we have been reminded that white privilege still exists in our society.
And racism continues to cause tension and division between those who don’t believe that it’s a problem or are OK with it, and those who want to continue to work at dismantling it, both in individuals as well in our institutions, even our churches.
I’ve heard it said that a prophet or preacher’s job is to do two things: comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
In the scene of Jesus preaching in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, we can see Jesus wearing both of these hats.
Last week we saw Jesus wearing the hat where he comforts the afflicted. He unrolled the scroll from the prophet Isaiah, where it says that God’s spirit was upon him to bring good news to the poor, which included freedom to those who were oppressed.
Now Nazareth was a humble Jewish community living under the shadow of an oppressive Roman Empire, so the people hearing Jesus’ words likely saw themselves as the recipients of the good news.
They were afflicted, and it gave them comfort to know that the coming of God’s Kingdom through Jesus gave them hope for a better life.
Sure, they were surprised that their hometown boy, this son of a humble carpenter, was God’s choice for this role of leading this new movement, but they were OK with it as long as it benefited them.
But then Jesus said some things that he knew would not make a prophet welcome in his hometown Jewish crowd, things that would afflict them in their comfort.
What he said made them so angry that they chased him out of town and were going to throw him over the cliff, assassinate him like what would happen to Martin Luther King centuries later.
What did Jesus say that pushed their buttons, that made them uncomfortable and unruly?
Well, he told two stories that dismantled the privileged status that the Jewish people felt they had with God.
You see, they were handpicked by God, God’s chosen people, the people who God showed was on their side by freeing them from slavery at the hands of Pharoah in Egypt.
The Israelites were people whom God had fought to protect and preserve, always accompanying them and providing manna and quail for them as they wandered through the wilderness for 40 years.
And true to God’s word, He led HIS people to a promised land flowing with milk and honey and everything that went along with it.
He was THEIR God, He was on THEIR side. And they felt privileged because of it.
Throughout the history of the Israelites, they remembered God’s favors and God’s faithfulness to them. And in Jesus’ day, they continued to embrace their identity as God’s chosen people.
And they interpreted it to mean that God loved them more than the Gentiles, which meant everyone else.
So what sets off Jesus’ hometown crowd is when Jesus told two stories of Gentiles who God seemed to show favor to over and above Israelites.
The widow of Zarephath was a Gentile whom God sent Elijah to in the midst of a famine, where both Jews and Gentiles were dying of hunger.
God chose this Gentile widow over Elijah’s fellow Israelites, to eat with her and her son, and then to heal her son who was dying.
Naaman the Syrian was also a Gentile whom God sent Elisha to, at a time when both Jews and Gentiles were suffering from leprosy. And God chose the Gentile Naaman instead of an Israelite to heal him from his leprosy.
“So what is going on here?, Jesus’ hometown crowd wondered. How could Gentiles get the kind of treatment and privileges that WE should be getting?”
These people were infuriated that other people besides them were the recipients of God’s favor and healing and love. To them it felt like they were losing their privileged status before God. The rewards program was going to expire.
It kind of brings me back to the story of Jonah in the Old Testament. Now there are a lot of scenes in that story, and the part of the story that children’s books focus on is Jonah’s unwillingness to go to Nineveh to warn the people there that God will destroy them unless they repent of their sin.
So Jonah’s reluctance causes a storm to rise up in the boat he is on, he gets thrown overboard, swallowed by a whale, who spits him out on the shores of Nineveh, where he then preaches to the Ninevites.
And Jonah’s message is so powerful and anointed by God that the people of Nineveh repent of their sin, and God forgives them and spares their lives. And that’s usually where the children’s versions of the Jonah story end.
But there’s one more chapter to the story, which talks about Jonah’s reaction to God forgiving the sins of the Ninevites. It’s important, but it would spoil the Hallmark-story type endings that we like to have, both children and adults.
What happens is that just like the people in Jesus’ hometown, Jonah gets angry and upset that God shows mercy and grace to Gentiles, people outside of his own Jewish tribe.
I wonder, Are you and I anything like Jonah? Are we anything like the people in the synagogue of Nazareth?
Do we feel like we should have privileges with God, that other people shouldn’t have, that we’re more special and deserving than they are?
Do we think that there is enough of God’s love to go around for everyone, or is it a zero-sum game where if other people get it, then there might not be enough for you or me as well? Can it be “both-and” or does it have to be “either-or”?
Does our society’s emphasis on competition leave us feeling like we’re competing with other people for God’s attention, God’s love, God’s goodness and favor?
And because of that, do we have trouble sharing in the joy of someone who has an experience where they are touched by God in a profound way that brings them healing and hope and reconciliation with God and maybe other people as well?
Are we sometimes like the older brother in the prodigal son story, so resentful and jealous that he refused to join his father in rejoicing that his wayward younger brother had come home?
The first Christians were of Jewish background. And because their faith was tied up so much with their culture and traditions like circumcision and keeping kosher, they didn’t think there was room in God’s heart or a place in the Church for Gentiles who didn’t practice these things.
The book of Acts, which is the history of the beginning of the Church, begins with Jesus ascending into heaven. And right before he is taken up, his last words to his disciples are ‘you shall be my witnesses, in Jerusalem and in Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (1:8)
And that is what happened—the Church began in the Jewish center of Jerusalem,
And then bit by bit it expands outwards, to the Samaritans in Samaria, and then into Gentile territory, to the ends of the earth.
This has been God’s plan from the beginning. That those who had been chosen as God’s people would not see their status as a privilege, and something they hoard for themselves,
but as a gift and as a responsibility, to be the messengers of God’s plan from the very beginning to be a light to the Gentiles, so people of every tribe and nation could experience the fulness of God’s love and salvation.
Jesus tells his disciples that they are to be a light that shines to the world around them, and not hide it under their own bushel.
When he turns the tables on the moneychangers in the temple he shouts, My house shall be a house of prayer for all nations!
The early church leader Peter has a vision after an encounter with a Gentile that moves him to declare that God shows no favoritism or partiality toward any one group,
The apostle Paul reminds the early church that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28).
He’s telling the Church that your ethnicity or your social status or your gender don’t give you any special privileges or superiority in God’s eyes or in the Church.
In the relatively short time that I’ve been here at Daniels Run Peace Church, I’ve seen how this community has embodied Paul’s description of the Church.
I feel like we are all on equal footing here, that each person, no matter where they’re from, or what kind of job they have, or what gender they are, are fully included in this community of faith,
that no one here has any privileged status, other than the responsibilities that have been given to leaders to serve the community.
But maybe I have some blind spots. Maybe others have some blinds spots. That’s how privilege works—there are things that we benefit from that we are often oblivious to.
And I hope and pray that we have the courage to point out blind spots when we see them, and the humility to let go of the privileges we feel we’ve been entitled to.
Maybe we’re all in some ways like the people in the synagogue, or Jonah, or the older brother, that if God gave the same status, the same value and dignity, the same privileges to other people that we felt like we deserved more,
that somehow our status and our value before God would suffer, that our life would be diminished in some way.
I thank God that the longer I travel on my spiritual journey, the more that I am experiencing the reality that life in the Kingdom of God is not a zero-sum game, where if one wins, then another one has to lose.
No, God is a God of abundance whose love and whose gifts are limitless and available to all.
Jesus described the Kingdom of God like a big feast, where there is room at God’s banquet table for everyone, and no one has a seat of honor higher than any other.
At God’s table, there’s enough mercy and healing for the faithful in the synagogue at Nazareth, and also for a Gentile widow in Sidon and a leper in Syria called Naaman.
At God’s table, there’s enough forgiveness and grace for Jonah and also for the foreigners in the faraway land of Nineveh.
At God’s table, there’s enough love and enough joy for an older brother who stayed home and also for his little brother who wandered and squandered before finding his way back home into his Father’s arms.
At God’s table of abundance, there is no place for privilege. Or for competition for God’s favor. No room for jealousy or envy.
Because at God’s table, there’s enough for everyone.