Taking the Side of Love - Jeff Nowers | Feb 4, 2019 |
Last week we heard the story of Jesus’ first visit to his hometown synagogue after his baptism. Jesus had already achieved a bit of fame for his teaching in other synagogues throughout Galilee. And now he makes his homecoming to Nazareth. There’s a heightened expectancy among the people as they fill the local synagogue on the Sabbath to hear what Jesus has to say. In her homily last Sunday, Lucy helpfully pointed out that synagogue sermons were typically expositions of Scripture, clarifications and elaborations that would help the people’s understanding. But Jesus goes further than that, off on his own tangent. After the passage from the prophet Isaiah is read—“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor,” etc.—Jesus declares, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words, Jesus is informing all those in his hometown that he is the one; he is, right then and there, the fulfillment of the Scripture under consideration.
What was the initial response of the people when they heard Jesus make this bold claim? Did they balk at it, question it? Did they resent Jesus for being more than a little self-assured and presumptuous? Not exactly. We’re told that upon hearing Jesus, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” We might imagine that a ripple of whispers and low chatter spread throughout the synagogue as Jesus was speaking. “Wow, amazing!” “Is it just my imagination, or am I really hearing what he’s saying?” “This guy is incredible!” And then the mood changes in a matter of a few short minutes. The people turn on him quickly and drive him out of the synagogue. It gets so out of hand that they force Jesus out of Nazareth altogether, to the edge of a precipice, intending to hurl him off. But somehow he manages to find a path of escape through the angry crowd. It appears that Jesus’ life was on the line from the earliest days of his public life.
How did things go so wrong so fast? What did Jesus do to provoke such vitriol? Right after his declaration that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him, he criticizes the people of Nazareth for not really believing him—or, more accurately, for not having faith in him. He likens them to their ancestors in the time of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. When famine overtook the land, Elijah was sent by God northward into modern-day Lebanon to dwell with a poor non-Jewish widow—even though there were many widows in Israel to whom he could’ve been sent. Elijah’s successor, Elisha, was a healer faced with a situation of widespread leprosy in Israel. But no one was healed of the disease except a Syrian army commander—again, a non-Jew—who tracked down Elisha in a desperate effort to be healed. The point Jesus makes is that the people of Nazareth are a hindrance to everything he is about. So he will go elsewhere, even into Gentile territory, to proclaim by word and deed the good news of liberation. It’s fair to say that Jesus doesn’t consider the entire town of Nazareth a write-off. In the version of this story that appears in Mark’s Gospel, we learn that Jesus laid his hands on a few sick people to heal them, but that was the extent of it. Jesus perceived Nazareth as a cesspool of unbelief, and he moves on, but not before the people try to kill him.
What can we learn from this curious episode, especially on a day when love is featured so prominently in that famous passage of 1 Corinthians 13? I think the first thing we need to acknowledge is that Jesus isn’t always a nice guy. It’s not always peace and harmony. There’s a part of Jesus that’s unnerving. Jesus doesn’t shy away from pronouncing judgment. So, in light of that, I think today’s Gospel compels us to get to know Jesus better—to read through the four Gospels with a commitment to weigh carefully the hard sayings of Jesus. When we do that, we’ll encounter such sayings as: “I did not come to bring peace but a sword”; or “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple”; or (the one that everyone dances around) “You cannot serve God and wealth.” It seems to me that if we’re going to be serious about following Jesus in our day, then we can’t sweep these tough words away. Sayings like these challenge us to reimagine what it might mean to be Christlike.
This brings me to my second point: we need to be prepared to have Jesus point the finger at ourselves. What I mean is not that we should be fearful of rejection, as though we’re not good enough to follow him. We’re all in some capacity stumbling along, figuring out what it means to follow Jesus with integrity. And as we do that, we’re compromised from all sides; we screw up all the time. So when Jesus speaks the prophetic word—like we hear in today’s Gospel—it’s an invitation to reexamine our lives. What distractions are in the way of discerning what it means to be a follower of Jesus? Do we even need Jesus; have we achieved enough comfort to relegate Jesus to the periphery? Do we take time to engage Scripture during the week? Do we pursue disciplines of prayer or meditation or silence? Do we recognize that we are dust, part of the very fabric of the Earth? Do we know our neighbors well enough to empathize with the struggles they might be experiencing? If we’re able to ask ourselves these sorts of questions, then we’re already allowing Jesus’ judgment to reshape and humanize us, to reorient us and strengthen us as a Christian body.
All of this, however, highlights a concern about the relationship of judgment and love. Is there an irreconcilable tension between the two, or are they congruent? How do we square what St. Paul says so beautifully about love with the antagonism between Jesus and the people of Nazareth? I think we need to recognize that the intense love embodied by Jesus is a love that takes sides. If the language of “taking sides” seems too strong, then at the very least we can affirm that love makes priorities. The good news that Jesus brings is for the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed. His love prioritizes the destitute, the incarcerated, the disabled and all those who suffer and, by consequence, that same love confronts the powers that keep poverty entrenched. For us who strive to follow Jesus in 2018, we must undertake the hard work of discerning what it means to embody Jesus’ love without losing any of his priorities. Love takes sides, which is also consistent with what we hear from St. Paul. Love, he says, takes the side of patience, kindness, humility and truth. It avoids arrogance, jealousy and resentment—and in the end this form of love will triumph.
The Church of St. Aidan exists so that we might learn together what it means to embody that love, just as Jesus himself had to learn it. He grew into it and matured like any human person does. We could have an interesting debate about whether Jesus’ words in the Nazareth synagogue reflect the patience and humility that Paul writes about in 1 Corinthians 13. In any case, our task is to embody a love that takes the side of the downtrodden, all the while opening ourselves to love the whole world. That interplay, I think, is the crux of Christian living for our time. It’s summed up in the words of Father Zosima from Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov: “If you love each thing of God’s creation, you will perceive the mystery of God in things. Once you have perceived it, you will begin tirelessly to perceive more and more of it every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an entire, universal love.”