Good News for All

Good News for All

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

Scripture: Isaiah 61:1-4; Luke 4:14-30

“When they heard this all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and put him out of the city, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built; that they might throw him down headlong.” — Luke 4:28-29

In the Methodist datebook I use, this Sunday is called “Ecumenical Sunday,” and for my little black book that means we should on this day make a special effort to be nice to the Baptists, Episcopalians and others Christian groups as part of the effort to reunite the church. This is a worthy cause, but it is too parochial for our Gospel reading. The reading is indeed about reunification, but of the whole world, not just the Christian church. The “Oikumene” (Greek for “all the nations of the world” and the source of our word “ecumenical”) our Gospel has in mind, is the whole world.

The passage Luke 4:14-30 has been thoroughly misunderstood in current theology as setting an agenda for the rectification of the world by the moral efforts of the church, as if Jesus had announced himself to be a Liberation theologian and the leader of a revolution. He had come literally to make the poor rich, the captives free, the blind sighted, and the oppressed unburdened, as in a Jubilee year.

This interpretation is plainly wrong and for two reasons: it ignores reality and it ignores Scripture. Reality persists mostly as it has ever been, “the poor we have always with us” (quoting Jesus in Mark 14:7), prisoners stay imprisoned, the blind, literally and figuratively remain blind, and the oppressed bear their burdens to the grave, and the Jubilee does not ever really come, but remains merely a recurring ritual gesture. Scripture, both the passage quoted from Isaiah 61 and its application in Luke 4 do not speak of a piecemeal rectification by moral effort in this world but of the rectification of the whole world by the final intervention of God.

The Isaiah passage is one excerpt from a long recitation of the blessings that will accrue to the Jews when God vindicates them finally and forever. The original passage included the announcement of “the vengeance of our God,” which pointedly Luke leaves out of his quotation. Even in the final judgment of God upon the nations there is for Luke’s Jesus no vengeance, but for the Jews who wrote these self aggrandizing “prophesies” the riches, freedom, miraculous medical care and terminal unburdening were for them, and the divine revenge was for the Gentiles. All those who had treated the Jews badly would feel the cold steel of God’s vengeance, while the Jews felt the warm embrace of his vindication.

Not so for the Jesus of St Luke! He quotes from these prophesies to change their purport from ethnic to ecumenical, and before that more subtle move, to banish flatly and firmly, any hint of revenge in the dealings of God. Indeed, there is not even a whisper of revenge in this Gospel passage because Luke leaves out the line about vengeance altogether! This fact is of major importance: no vengeance in or from God! No divine keeping score so God can fit his revenge to our crimes!

The more subtle process going on here can only be seen if we rehearse the story in Luke 4 in the light of what I have said so far. Jesus reads the prophecies and all eyes in the synagogue are a on him admiringly. Then he said, “Today this prophecy has been fulfilled in your hearing,” meaning ‘I am the one who is speaking in the prophesy, and that means, I will make you rich, free, healthy and unburdened. And they loved him for it! ‘ “And all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words that proceeded out of his mouth.” So far he is going on like a politician, promising his hearers everything they crave, and telling them exactly what they want to hear. ‘God is about to bless the Jews and curse the Gentiles, Hooray!’

And then someone asks, ‘How can we believe him? After all he is only Joseph’s son and we know old Joseph to be a solid citizen, not given to reckless promises and wild dreams. Let this son of his work a miracle or two to prove himself, like the ones we heard he worked in Capernaum.’ And Jesus says that he can’t work a miracle here because this is his hometown and no prophet is honored at home. ‘That is why’, he says, ‘the first prophet Elijah, worked his miracles in Sidon, and the second prophet Elisha, healed not a Jew but Na’aman the Syrian.’ “When they heard this all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and put him out of the city and led him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built, that they might throw him down headlong (Luke 4: 28-29).”

What has swung the crowd so suddenly from congratulation to execration? The suggestion that because of its skepticism ‘home’ cannot enjoy the blessings of the divine rectification that is now beginning. On a larger canvas this story, certainly written by Luke, the evangelist of the Gentiles (unlike Matthew who favored the Jews) and traditionally an associate of the Apostle to the Gentiles, Paul, tells how the fact that the majority of the Jews rejected Jesus, treated him like a prophet at home, giving him no credence and no honor, was part of God’s plan to bring the final salvation via the Gentiles who in turn receive it from the Remnant of Israel, which is like the Jews of Capernaum whose confidence in him enabled miracles.

It is now clear that when someone in the crowd spoke up for skepticism and Jesus took up that skepticism to make the point that the final rectification of God will not have the Jews at its core but the Gentiles, the crowd swung from adulation to execration and drove him out of town like the scapegoat of Leviticus 16. Clearly, therefore, we have a scapegoat story including even the cliff over which in the Jewish traditions of Mishnah and Midrash the goat usually falls off to his doom.

The source of the violent action and reaction is the crowd. They approve the violence of God against Gentiles, they cannot abide to be told that it is not a vengeful curse but a blessing that God brings for all, not violence but reconciliation; and what irks them most is that the reconciliation should start with the Gentiles first and then only come to the Jews, that is, that they are not at the center of the divine action any longer, as once they might have been, but now they are on the margins, and Jesus the truly human one, Son of Man and one of their own, is the new, true, center of God’s new world, without vengeance, without class distinction, without gender disadvantage, and without ethnically based privilege.

On that great eschatological day the poor will indeed become rich, the prisoners free, the blind sighted and the oppressed light of heart, and the great Jubilee of the end of time is already here in our midst as Jesus Christ, crucified and resurrected.