Wednesday, February 03, 2016

Scandalous Grace

Scandalous Grace
Luke 4:14-21[1]
It doesn’t take much to be able to see that prejudice is alive and well in our world today. Segregation may no longer be legal, but it still defines our world in ways that are subtle and others that are not so subtle. As Martin Luther King, Jr. observed, racism is just as real in other parts of the country as it ever was in the “Deep South.” If you doubt the fact that prejudice is still alive and well, all you have to do is listen to the political rhetoric coming not only from our country but also from other world leaders.[2] The sad truth is that what drives the prejudices that they promote is fear, plain and simple. Unfortunately, there have always been those who have no qualms about using fear to gain power.
But the really hard truth about prejudice is that it has a way of taking root in the soil of our faith. I have heard with my own ears a member of a Presbyterian church say that there are some people he wants to go to hell! While I don’t think most of us would be so crass as to actually say that, I’m afraid we may feel that way about certain people we find offensive. At least we don’t want them going to church with us! The problem with this is that it becomes incredibly easy to assume that those we dislike are also outside God’s favor. We can all fall into the pattern of excluding those we deem unworthy of God’s grace.
This may sound like a very negative way to introduce our Gospel lesson for today. It is a message of amazing good news. Jesus appears in the synagogue at Nazareth, his home town, and announces a message full of hope and promise: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me 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” (Lk. 4:18-19). It is a wonderfully upbeat message: Jesus was announcing that in him God was going to bring freedom and renewal to all who had been beaten down by the injustice and cruelty of this world.[3]
It is a message that found deep resonance with the audience at the synagogue on that day in Nazareth. I think when it says that “The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him” (Lk. 4:20) after he read the scripture, it may be a bit of an understatement. You could probably say that everybody in the room was sitting on the edge of their seats. It was one of those situations in which it was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop. They had suffered under Roman and Greek military occupation for centuries. They had seen their land taken away by the wealthy among their own people who took advantage of the political situation to enrich themselves. They were tired of it and longed to be set free.
So perhaps we can understand that they totally misconstrued what Jesus was saying, as the outcome that day at Nazareth makes clear. They heard him promising to bring hope and freedom and renewal to them—to the people of his own home town. The fact that later Jesus rebukes them with the proverb “Physician, heal thyself,” indicates that he knew they were expecting him to perform miracles for “his own kind” just as they had heard he had done for others who were “outsiders” (Lk. 4:23). [4] It would seem that they were more than a little put off by the fact that he had done wonderful things for others, but hadn’t taken care of the home town crowd.
But that was where they got it all wrong. From the very beginning of Luke’s Gospel, the Scripture makes it clear that the marvelous events that were unfolding were not just for the “home town crowd.” They were not even just for the Jewish people. The fact that the news of Jesus’ birth was delivered by the host of angels to shepherds, who were the lowest of outcasts in Jewish society, already demonstrates that what God was doing was going to break through all social barriers. And Simeon made it very clear when Jesus was presented at the temple: he was going to be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Lk. 1:32).
That was the message Jesus proclaimed on that day in the synagogue at Nazareth: the good news was for the poor—for all the poor everywhere.[5] Jesus made it clear that God’s “favor” was coming upon those who had been excluded from “proper society” as outcasts.[6] The freedom and release and renewal he said God’s Spirit had empowered him to bring was for those who had been beaten down by the hard-hearted attitudes of some of the very people sitting there in the audience. And when he made it clear to them that God’s grace was for the outcasts they themselves had excluded, it enraged them so much they tried to kill him.[7]
It is an unfortunate truth of human existence that we like to be around people who look like us, who talk like us, who live where we live and shop at the same stores as we do.[8] But in the meanwhile we are very likely unaware that we are living our lives in a closed circle. Our human tendency is to prefer to stay in that closed circle. But the message of Jesus is one that will not let us stay there.[9] It is good news for the outcasts of our day—the people we exclude from our circles, whether consciously or unconsciously. It is a message that breaks down all kinds of walls we build up to protect ourselves from “outsiders.”  Because Jesus proclaimed God’s scandalous grace, he calls us to venture outside our closed circles to put God’s good news of freedom and release into practice for everyone, everywhere.

[1] © 2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 1/24/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Cf. “Illiberalism: Playing with Fear,” and “Anti-Immigrant Populism: The March of Europe’s little Trumps,” in The Economist, December 12, 2015; accessed at and .
[3] Cf. Fred B. Craddock, Luke, 62: the message of Isaiah 61, the passage Jesus read in the synagogue, is that “Christ is God’s servant who will bring to reality the longing and hope of the poor, the oppressed, and the imprisoned. The Christ will also usher in the amnesty, the liberation, and the restoration associated with the proclamation of the year of Jubilee.” Cf. also Cf. R. Alan Culpepper, “The Gospel of Luke” New Interpreters Bible IX: 106: “Jesus’ ministry signaled that the time for the liberation of the impoverished and oppressed had come, and in that respect at least his work would fulfill the ideal and the social concern of the Jubilee year.”
[4] Cf. Craddock, Luke, 62-63: The fact that Jesus quotes this proverb, along with “no prophet is welcome in the prophet’s home town,” indicates that “Jesus understood the people to be expecting a demonstration of his extraordinary work reported from Capernaum.” He continues by pointing out the problem very likely lay deeper: they were motivated by “resentment that Jesus has taken God’s favor to others beyond Nazareth, especially Capernaum, said to have a heavy non-Jewish population.”  Cf. similarly, Culpepper, “Gospel of Luke,” NIB IX:106. He suggests that they were hoping to “share in the fame of the prophet from Nazareth so that no longer would anyone be able to say (however wrongly) that there were no prophets from Galilee (John 7:52).”
[5] Cf. Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, 208: where he insists that Jesus takes the initiative throughout this narrative: “at every step in his address at Nazareth he asserts the universal embrace of God’s salvific purpose.” Cf. Culpepper, “Gospel of Luke,” NIB IX:108: “Jesus came announcing deliverance, but it was not a national deliverance but God’s promise of liberation for all the poor and oppressed regardless of nationality, gender, or race.” Cf. similarly Craddock, Luke, 63.
[6] Cf. Green, Gospel of Luke, 211, where he points out that the word “poor” was broader that simply either economically poor or spiritually poor. He says, “one’s status in a community was not so much a function of economic realities, but depended on a number of elements, including education, gender, family heritage, religious purity, vocation, economics, and so on.” Therefore, he concludes that the poor included “those who are for any number of socio-religious reasons relegated to positions outside the boundaries of God’s people.” Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 128-29, 175-76; Jürgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 89-90, 112-16, where he points out that what made Jesus’ offer of God’s grace scandalous was the fact that he offered the blessings of God’s Kingdom not just to the “righteous,” but also to “sinners.”
[7] Cf. William Willimon, “Book ‘Em,” The Christian Century (January 27, 2004), 20, where he says that in citing the examples of God’s grace through Elijah and Elisha to those outside of Israel, Jesus “threw the book at them.”  Cf. also Craddock, Luke, 63: “That these two stories were in their own Scriptures and quite familiar perhaps accounts in part for the intensity of their hostility. Anger and violence are the last defense of those who are made to face the truth of their own tradition which they have long defended and embraced. Learning what we already know is often painfully difficult.” He also refers to the story of Jonah, which he says “stands forever as the dramatic embodiment of that capacity in all of us, Jew and Christian alike, to be offended by God’s grace to all those of whom we do not approve.”
[8] Cf. Craddock, Luke, 62, where he remarks suggestively, that “Unfortunately, “The history of the church does not, …, bear unbroken testimony to Jesus’ announcement, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled.’”
[9] Cf. Culpepper, “Gospel of Luke,” NIB IX: 108, where he observes, “God’s grace is never subject to the limitations and boundaries of any nation, church, group, or race. Those who would exclude others thereby exclude themselves.”

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