A few years ago I heard a recording of Martin Luther King, Jr. recalling some of the challenges he faced in the early days of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. There were a lot of details of his story that stood out to me. Did you know that Martin Luther King, Jr. was fresh out of seminary when he moved to
Montgomery? It was his first pastoral call. He was 26 years old, and had a baby who was just a few months old. And did he ease his way into the community? Nope. He joined the Montgomery bus boycott within months of moving there, and became the leader of the burgeoning local civil rights movement within his first year. He also started receiving death threats and attacks on his home and family members within that first year.
Now, as a pastor who came to her first church when she was 26, fresh out of seminary, and who has given birth to two children in this community, Dr. King’s reflections on his early ministry really hit close to home. When he shared, in this recording, how one night he sat at his kitchen table at one o’clock in the morning, knowing that his wife and infant daughter were sleeping down the hall in the bedroom, I could imagine myself there with him. But when he starting listing the death threats he and his family received that week, and the phone call that woke him up, threatening to harm him and his family if he did not leave town, well—that was completely foreign to me. I cannot begin to imagine the kind of fear that comes from receiving 30-40 threatening phone calls or letters every single day. It’s hard for me to wrap my head around how people can be so cruel to other human beings. It is completely outside of my experience of being a pastor.
But, in today’s gospel reading—the continuation of last week’s story—we discover that it was not a foreign experience for Jesus. Last week we heard the scripture passage from Isaiah that Jesus read in his hometown synagogue, and we heard the beginning of his sermon—the opening sentence, anyway. Then we left it on a cliff-hanger. Did you expect the story to conclude with Jesus’s hometown trying to literally drive him off of a cliff? Probably not. Last week they seemed so pleased to have Jesus back in town reading familiar parts of scripture to them.
So what changed? How did they turn from a sentimental crowd welcoming the home-town hero into an angry mob threatening Jesus’ life?
Last week we looked carefully at the passage from Isaiah—words of comfort that God is sending someone to bring good news to the poor, release to the captive, restored sight to the blind, the let the oppressed go free. I asked you to spend some time this week thinking of who those poor, blind, captive or oppressed might be today.
I think the big shift we see in this week’s part of the story is that Jesus and his home-town audience hear this message very differently. The synagogue congregation heard these words and heard a promise for themselves. They saw themselves in the poor, outcast, oppressed and blind who can look forward to good news. Jesus knows this is how they hear it. He continues his sermon saying that they are probably expecting him to do in his own home town all the amazing things they have heard about.
But Jesus hears this passage from Isaiah differently. First of all, he doesn’t hear it, primarily, as a promise to himself so much as a calling—it describes how he feels called to live his life—he feels called to be the one bringing good news to those in captivity and poverty and distress. But when he looks out at his hometown synagogue, that’s not who he sees. He knows that as he has traveled from town to town, the people he is drawn to are not the religious leaders or the faithful synagogue-goers. He is drawn to the unexpected outsiders—the people who are not welcome in the synagogue—the people on the fringes of society who have a bad reputation.
I think that is what Jesus is hinting at with the references he makes to Elijah and Elisha. They were both prophets known for listening to and following the spirit of God, and that spirit led them to some unexpected places, and Jesus, too, finds himself drawn away from the power centers—away from the respectable core of his society and out to people in forgotten corners.
Now, I’m still not sure this fully explains the ferocity of the crowd’s reaction. After all, Jesus is simply being honest with them. He has a calling—a calling to announce good news and bring positive change to people’s lives, but it doesn’t start with the respectable listeners in his hometown synagogue—this ministry starts with outsiders and outcasts. It seems like maybe the synagogue members could have just shrugged, and said, “Oh well.” But they don’t, do they. No. Instead, they chase Jesus out of town, and drive him toward a cliff with the intention of forcing him over it.
I’m going to pause, here, to point out that we are still in Epiphany, and still expecting to see themes of revelation in the stories we read. So, what is being revealed today? Well, I think today’s story is all about revealing the hearts of these listeners. Maybe it can shed some light on our own hearts, too. Now, back to the angry mob.
The truth is, this is the norm of how people react when the status quo is threatened. Jesus is announcing a change in focal point—this comforting message from God is not necessarily meant for them—it might be meant for the very people they despise. He’s challenging their traditions, the way they read their Bible—he is challenging them to reorganize their social system to place value on members of society that they have been ignoring.
It’s actually not far from the kind of changes the civil rights movement in Montgomery was instigating under Dr. King’s leadership. He and his fellow leaders challenged the Caucasian community to read their Bibles differently—to hear God’s promises as promises spoken to the African-American population of their city—to reorganize their social system to place value on people they had been ignoring.
And we’ve seen this kind of backlash against prophetic religious leaders again and again in history. When Francis of Assissi gave up his fortune to live among the poor, the church and town leaders were outraged. When church leaders fought for the end of apartheid in South Africa, they were beaten and put in jail. When early Jesuit missionaries began to bond with native communities in the Americas and Asia and question the colonial expansion of the Spanish empire, they were massacred.
So, what do we do with this grim history? What do we do with this story of Jesus’ rejection? If we want to avoid the same pitfall of rejecting Jesus and his ministry of good news, when it turns out that we may not be the people most in need of that good news, what are our other options? When we sense that the status quo might be threatened, how else could we respond?
This is actually a question I have grappled with a lot, as my experience of the world has shifted and grown. I remember, keenly, realizing that, in a global sense, I could never be considered poor—not even close. So, what do I do with the vast number of scripture passages that speak of good news to the poor—justice for the poor—help for the poor? I’m on the wrong side of that equation. Justice for the poor of this world might involve loss, or sacrifice on my part. It might mean access to a smaller variety of produce. It might mean more expensive electronics or fuel, because current prices are based on unjust wages to the workers who produce these products I consume.
It’s frightening. So, can I—can we—pray for God’s kingdom to come and God’s will to be done, if it might mean that we have less so that others can have enough? Can we hear these words of comfort from scripture and affirm that they are good news, even when they may not feel like good news to us—even when they might challenge us to reach outside of ourselves in sacrificial ways?
This is the crux of it, I think. One of the options we have before us, as privileged members of this global economy, is to see ourselves in this passage the way Jesus did—not as the poor or captive who await God’s promises, but as the ones who are called to the high, and holy calling of delivering good news—of seeking out the poor and the outcast, and demonstrating through our words and our actions that God cares about their plight—that God has sent us to do something about it.
It might be through a program like Food $en$e or the foodbanks that meet immediate needs in our own community, or it might be by raising awareness about the working conditions of the factory workers who make our clothes, and our electronics and the farm workers who pick our produce. It might be through organizations that help children in developing countries get an education, or by getting involved with a group that ensures free access to a clean water supply for a village.
Can we make that shift? Can we join Jesus and walk with him on this mission of bringing good news? Because, if we can, I think we will discover that it is good news for us, after all—the more we allow our eyes to be opened to the truth of our world, and the possibilities for our own lives to impact others, the more we will be among those receiving good news. Maybe we are the blind whose eyes need to be opened. May it be so.