Threatened by the Truth

Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Luke 4:21-30

Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”

Welcome back to this Epiphany sermon series called, “the Truth about God.”  How do you find the truth about God?  You look to Jesus, the Son of God.  John tells us that “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, has made him known” (John 1:18).  Which is to say that Jesus himself is an epiphany, or rather, he is the Epiphany: he is the One in whom the truth about God is revealed.

And that’s a relief.

On Friday morning I was doing my daily Bible reading when I was stopped by one verse in Exodus 32.  Moses had just come down the mountain after speaking with God and he found all the Israelites dancing around a golden calf they had made.  Moses was furious.  He called out, “Who is on the Lord’s side?” and all the Levites gathered around him.  He said to them (and this is the verse that stopped me), “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side, each of you! Go back and forth from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill your brother, your friend, and your neighbor.’”  And then it says, “The sons of Levi did as Moses commanded, and about 3,000 of the people fell that day.”

I was horrified.

I wondered, “Is that true?  Did God really command the Levites to kill their brothers, their friends, and their neighbors?  What kind of God is that?”  And then I remembered: “No one has ever seen God (not even the person who wrote the Book of Exodus).[i]  The only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, has made him known.”  This is actually part of the Baptist tradition.  The Baptist Faith and Message—which is as close to a statement of faith as we get—says, “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.”[ii]  I tried to imagine Jesus telling the Levites to kill their brothers, and their friends, and their neighbors, and I couldn’t do it.  I just couldn’t imagine those words coming from the lips of the one who said, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

So, I did what I have tried to teach you to do.  I asked myself not, “Did it really happen this way?” but, “What on earth is God trying to say?”  Because I believe the Bible is the most reliable way God speaks to us, even in these parts that are hard to understand.  And I thought, “Maybe God is trying to say that we should be horrified, not by the fact that these Levites were willing to kill their brothers, friends, and neighbors, but that these Israelites—the people of God, the ones he had brought out of their slavery in Egypt—would bow down and worship a golden calf!  Maybe that’s what we’re supposed to be horrified about, and maybe we are supposed to respond with the zeal of these Levites by putting to death anything in us that would tempt us to bow down to anyone or anything other than God.

Do you see what I mean?  The Bible has to be interpreted.  You can’t just take it at face value, at least not most of the time.  If you do you end up killing your brothers, your friends, and your neighbors in the name of God, and some people have done that.  Some people still do that.  But not us.  Thank God we have Jesus to teach us the truth about God and the Holy Spirit to help us interpret the Bible.  Because we need help.  The Bible isn’t always easy to understand.

Take today’s Gospel lesson for example: if you were here last week you know that Jesus was visiting his hometown synagogue in Nazareth when he was invited to preach.  He stood up to read, and the scroll of the Prophet Isaiah was given to him.  He unrolled it, and found the place here it is written:

The spirit of the Lord is upon me

For he has anointed me

To bring good news to the poor.

To proclaim release to the captives

And recovery of sight to the blind,

To let the oppressed go free,

To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.[iii]

When he had finished reading he rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the attendant, and sat down.  Every eye in the synagogue was fixed upon him.  He said, “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Now, look carefully at the next verse, Luke 4:22: “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.  They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’”  And then skip down to verse 29, just seven verses later, where Luke tells us:  “They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.”  You have to ask yourself, “What happened?  How did these people go, in the space of only seven verses, from speaking well of Jesus and being amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth, to being filled with rage, ready to take him out to the edge of town and throw him off a cliff?

I’ve been trying to imagine what I would have to say to produce the same results.  I mean, it’s not hard to say something offensive.  It’s not even hard to say something so offensive that someone would feel the need to get up and walk out of a sermon.  I’ve done that before, usually without meaning to.  But I’ve never said anything so offensive that the entire congregation got up, dragged me out of the church, and tried to kill me.  What would that be?  No, really, what?  It would have to be something that made them feel threatened.  It would have to come across as a threat to them, their homes, their families, their status, or their security.  They would have to perceive me as a danger.  They would have to be thinking, “This man must be stopped!”  Apparently that’s what they were thinking about Jesus.  Something he said in those few verses threatened them so deeply that they all felt they had no other choice than to put him to death.

What was it?

Let’s take another look at verse 22.  That’s where all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.  They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”  But this is where I wish we had a tone-of-voice indicator in the Bible, because in light of what has come just before this saying it would make sense to assume that they said it positively: “Is not this Joseph’s son?” as in, “Hasn’t little Jesus done well for himself?!”  But it’s also possible that they said it negatively: “Is this not Joseph’s son?” as in, “Who does this whippersnapper think that he is?”  It’s that second reading that helps me to understand what Jesus says next, because while he has been speaking “gracious words” up until this point, he suddenly changes direction.

If we had a tone-of-voice indicator we might hear him say, “Oh, now you’ll probably start quoting that old proverb to me, ‘Physician, heal yourself!’  You’ll ask me to do for you what I did for those folks in Capernaum!  Well, let me tell you something: real prophets get a warm welcome everywhere except in their own hometown, among their own people.  Truth is there were plenty of widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, back when it didn’t rain for three-and-a-half years and nobody had anything to eat.  But Elijah wasn’t sent to any of them.  No!  He was sent to some widow woman in Zarephath, over in Sidon.  And listen, there were plenty of lepers in Israel in Elisha’s time, but none of them was healed, none of them got cleansed.  No, it was only Naaman, the Syrian.”  And that’s when everybody in the synagogue was filled with rage.  That’s when they got up, drove Jesus out of town, and tried to throw him off a cliff.  It was as if he were saying, “Yes, the spirit of the Lord is upon me, and yes he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, but not you people.  God’s blessings are not for you!”  That might be enough to make you want to kill someone.

But there’s another way to read this passage, in another tone of voice.  When Jesus said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” and everybody began to speak well of him and marvel at the gracious words that came from his mouth, they might have said, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” as in, “Isn’t this one of our own?  Didn’t he grow up right here in Nazareth?”  It’s as if Jesus has told them that he just won the lottery and they begin to turn to each other and say, “Did you hear that?  We just won the lottery!”  That’s when Jesus says, “Doubtless you will quote to me the proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself.’  And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”  That is, “Hey, lottery winner!  Charity begins at home!”  And they start holding out their hands.  But Jesus responds as if he were saying, “Do you think God’s favor is only for you? Do you think you can keep his goodness to yourselves?”

It reminds me of that story from 2 Kings, where the entire Aramean army surrounded the city of Samaria and laid siege to it until the people were starving to death.  They would have eaten almost anything, and paid almost anything to get it.  But there were four lepers sitting outside the city gate, and they finally got so hungry that they said, “Let’s go into the Aramean camp.  If they take pity on us and feed us, well and good, and if they don’t and they kill us, well, we’re dying anyway.”  So they went, and found that the camp had been deserted.  God had thrown the Aramean army into a panic and they had fled for their lives, leaving everything behind.  Suddenly these four lepers had more than enough to eat.  They were stuffing their mouths, rejoicing in their good fortune, when one of them said, “Wait.  This isn’t right.  Here we are, gorging ourselves, while the people of our city are starving.”  So, they went back and shared the news that God had worked a miracle, and now there was enough for everyone (from 2 Kings 6-7).

Hold on to that last line for a minute—“God had worked a miracle, and now there was enough for everyone”—and then picture Jesus, preaching in his hometown synagogue, where people seem to think that because he grew up there they can keep him and all his blessings to themselves.  “All spoke well of him and said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’”  It may be another way of saying, “Doesn’t he live just down the street?  Next time my bunions start acting up instead of going to the doctor I can just go to Jesus and ask him to work a little miracle.”  But Jesus says, “Not so fast.  I grew up here but you don’t own me.  You can’t expect me to work only for you.  I work for God, and God’s mercy is bigger than the little town of Nazareth.  It’s bigger than the entire nation of Israel.”  And maybe that was what filled them with rage and made them think they needed to kill Jesus: the idea that they weren’t as special as they thought.

Maybe you remember the joke about the man who got to heaven and was surprised to find that it looked like a big hotel.  He was also surprised to find that St. Peter looked like a bellhop.  Peter said, “Ah, yes!  Mr. Jones.  We’ve been expecting you.  Let me show you to your room.”  But as they went down the long hallway to the elevators they passed a huge conference room where there seemed to be some kind of party going on.  The doors were closed and Mr. Jones asked, “Who’s in there?”  “Shhh!” said St. Peter.  “Those are the Baptists.  They think they’re the only ones here.”  One of the funny things about that joke is that you can tell it about any denomination.  It works equally well for Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians.  But one of the sad things about that joke is that there is some truth to it.  Each of us think our way is the best way to get to heaven, which we should, but some of us think our way is the only way to get to heaven, which we shouldn’t.  Why is that?  And why, if anyone should ever try to contradict us, do we get so angry?

Anger and fear come from the same place, and behind the anger of the crowd in Nazareth was the fear that if God started sharing his blessings with Syrians and Sidonians there wouldn’t be enough for them.  They imagined it as a zero-sum game in which anything given to others would mean less for them.  Maybe that’s where our own fear comes from.  Maybe we are so careful about being in the right group and having the right beliefs because we can’t imagine that God has enough love for everyone.  Haven’t we been listening to Jesus?  Don’t we know that there’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea?

That’s the truth about God, and it comes to us as good news.  If there is enough of God’s mercy to go around then we don’t have to hoard it any longer, we don’t have to fear that we won’t have enough.  As Jesus has reminded us again and again,

There is plenty to share.

—Jim Somerville © 2022

[i] To be fair, the authorship of Exodus is often attributed to Moses, and Moses came closer to “seeing” God than most. “And [God] said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you the name, ‘The Lord’; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.  But,” he said, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live” (Ex. 33:19-20).

[ii] Baptist Faith and Message 1963, Part I. “The Scriptures”

[iii] From Isaiah 61.