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By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
It’s sabbath day in the synagogue at Nazareth. Jesus the wandering rabbi is back in his home town with a band of disciples. So many of the faces in the synagogue are familiar to him. The young adults are his friends from childhood; the older adults are their parents, now a little gray.
He’s invited to choose and read a scripture passage, and what he delivers comes from Isaiah. Here is what he reads:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to heal the broken hearted,
to proclaim release to the captives,
recovering of sight to the blind,
to deliver those who are crushed,
and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
It’s a familiar passage to those who hear Jesus read it. And some of them are certain they know what it means: in God’s good time, the messiah will come to deliver them from oppression by Rome, to set them free as the privileged people of God.
Jesus takes his seat again, and everybody looks at him, hoping that he will provide them with a comforting interpretation. Then he says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” They are shocked, surprised, delighted. A ripple of conversation moves through the congregation like a pulse of electricity. Jesus the hometown boy is telling them that the day of deliverance has arrived. Before sunset the Roman soldiers will be gone; and they, the people of Nazareth, will walk the streets of the town as free people, with God their only king. Hallelujah!
Jesus raises his voice again. He expects they will ask him to do in Nazareth great deeds such as he did in Capernaum. Nazareth is a proper Jewish community; Capernaum, on the other hand, has more than its share of Gentiles. If he’s been a busy do-gooder there in Capernaum, then certainly he owes as much and more to the people of his old home town, who knew him back when he was Joseph and Mary’s little boy.
But instead of working a miracle in their midst, Jesus says, “Most certainly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in his hometown.” He thus demonstrates that he has read their hearts: they are governed, not by the grand designs of God, but by in-group loyalties, by their own sense of entitlement. Their vision extends no further than taking care of their own; they expect no less, and no more, from their hometown prophet.
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Scripture doesn’t say, but I expect that by now the crowd has moved from elation to a state more subdued, more pensive. Jesus keeps talking. He reminds them of two stories that they know well, stories from their history.
One of them concerns Elijah the prophet during a time of drought and famine. It’s not safe for him to seek help from his own people. All of them are worshiping a false god by order of their king, who has put a price on Elijah’s head. So the Lord sends Elijah to Zarephath, to a Gentile widow, a poor outsider. She may be a Gentile, she may be poor, but unlike Elijah’s own people, she recognizes and respects him as a true prophet of God.
The second story makes a similar point, but even more strongly. Naaman the Syrian is not only a Gentile, he’s an enemy army commander whose forces have just defeated Israel. Yet when he comes, however reluctantly, to the prophet Elisha, seeking recovery from his skin disease, he ends up cured by the power of God. Like the widow from Zarephath, he knows a true prophet when he encounters one, and he confesses his faith in the God of Israel.
Jesus is needling his hometown congregation—bringing up episodes in their history when the people of God refused to recognize a prophet in their midst, but that prophet was acknowledged by such unlikely sorts as a pagan widow or an enemy general. He ‘s cautioning them not to assume that the way they see it is the way God sees it. Gentiles in Capernaum welcome Jesus as a prophet; it may be that his hometown neighbors cannot do that because their in-group loyalties make it impossible for them.
Barely has Jesus said this when the congregation explodes in rage. They jump up, drag Jesus outside, and haul him to a convenient cliff, ready to throw him off.
Somehow he counteracts the energy of this mob and walks away from it. Opposition such as this will bring him to his death, but that will happen later, not now; and it will happen not in Nazareth, but in a bigger place, Jerusalem.
Leaving Nazareth, he heads to Capernaum. In the synagogue there he gets a better reception. In-group loyalties have not progressed so far in closing the hearts of the listeners. Again he speaks with authority, and his teaching astounds them.
This story replays itself time and again in the history of the people of God. The community of the chosen enjoy special privileges, but do not get what God is about at some essential moment.
The Zarephath widow and Naaman the enemy general keep appearing in different guises. They are outside the community yet recognize God’s fingerprints unmistakably on their lives. It may be desperate circumstances that drive them to this recognition; what matters is that they demonstrate faith by their willingness to seek help; to give help; to honor prophets, not kill them.
Where today do you see the church behaving like the old neighbors of Jesus that traumatic morning in the Nazareth synagogue? Where do you see any group suffering from a toxic case of in-group loyalties, otherwise decent people making furious fools of themselves? Any group that considers itself to be favored can behave in this way, from a congregation to a nation.
Where today do you see people outside an in-group, people like Naaman and the Zarephath widow, knowing a prophet when they see one, welcoming some small scrap of good news and new life, setting to shame those who pride themselves on insight and devotion?
Those of us who belong to an in-group may well choose to pray:
—that God will open our eyes,
—that God will soften our hearts,
—that God will renew our minds,
—lest we miss what God is doing here in our very midst.
Those of us who find ourselves outside may well choose to pray that we can:
—move from the fears that hold us,
—rejoice when grace addresses us by name,
—and dare to enter through doors God opens to us.
Our healing depends on this boldness as does the healing of others.
There is an old theological statement that compares the infinite God to a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.
Let’s take this illustration a step further and compare the compassion of God to a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.
Where do you and I err by drawing our circles of compassion too small? Who do we need to recognize as a center point for the compassion of God and not as lying outside the circle of that compassion?
Perhaps we exclude people because of their nationality, their religion, their social class or lifestyle. We may do so because of their personality and how it annoys us. We may even exclude ourselves. The circles we draw can be stifling. But God draws infinite circles and will not stop doing so.
May we be set free from rage like that of the Nazareth synagogue crowd. May we rejoice that God draws infinite circles of compassion. Amen.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.
Copyright for this sermon 2006, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission.