“Home Field Advantage?” 2-3-19 Luke 4:15-30
A rabbi once asked his students, “How do you know when the night has passed and the day has begun?”
One student answered, “I know! It’s when you can tell the difference between the leaves of the fig tree and the leaves of the olive tree.”
“No,” the teacher said.
Another student offered, “I know! It is when you can tell the difference between a sheep and a dog coming down the road.”
“No,” the teacher said.
None of the rabbi’s students knew. Finally the rabbi said, “When you can look into your enemy’s eyes and see there your sister or your brother, then you know that the darkness has passed and a new day has begun.”
I first heard this story from Munib Younan about ten years ago, when he was still serving as the Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land. He used it to illustrate his dream for the faith communities in his care, as well as their neighbors of others faiths and of no faith. Among the stories he shared—stories of unemployment, homes being bulldozed, hospitals jeopardized, and the separation that the Wall has created among families, both physically and metaphorically—the saddest ones to me were those of widespread apathy in the face of suffering, even among people of faith.
Younan said it would be people of faith who would lead the way toward reconciliation and peace, for assuredly politicians would not. The dream he shared with us is not unlike what Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah in today’s Gospel lesson: a time when the oppressed would be lifted up, the captives set free, and the blind would see. Imagine a time when there would be no more division between the Palestinian people and the state of Israel! Do we dare to dream of a time when the land we call Holy would no longer be a place of bloodshed, hypocrisy, and retaliation but a place all people could call home?
If such a transformation were to occur it would resemble what we’ve been singing about at the beginning of each Epiphany worship service: a time of Jubilee. What Isaiah calls “the year of the Lord’s favor” is referred to in the book of Leviticus as “the year of Jubilee.” It’s described as occurring every 50th year. During the year of Jubilee, all debts were supposed to be forgiven, and all slaves liberated. Beasts of labor and even the earth itself were granted reprieve as fields were supposed to be left fallow for that year. The crowning feature of the year of Jubilee was that all land would be returned to its historical owners.
The point of all this jubilation was to remind the people of God that they didn’t own or control anything, but were entirely dependent on God to provide for all their needs.
It’s this Jubilee that Jesus says he’s come to declare, the hope he would fulfill. Home run! FINALLY someone was declaring the year of the Lord’s favor! The Messiah they’d awaited, the one who would bring good news to the poor, liberty to the captives, and sight to the blind was one their own! All that they’d longed for was coming true in the unlikely child of Mary and Joseph—Jesus, whose bloody knees they had bandaged when he was a kid, whose diapers they had changed! Little Jesus was all grown up now and was going to put Nazareth on the map! Local hero! If at that moment he’d announced, “Now, let’s go overthrow the wretched Romans who have been oppressing our people!” no doubt the crowd would have risen up and followed him right then and there.
But Jesus didn’t say that. He did not press his home field advantage. Instead he took this opportunity to offer further commentary on how God wanted to bring about the Jubilee. Jesus does this by bringing up a few well-known Bible stories. He starts out well, choosing to bring up the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Normally playing up these guys would be good strategy, but Jesus picked the strangest stories to highlight. Though Elijah won a fabulous showdown against 400 priests of the pagan god Ba’al, Jesus doesn’t mention that. Instead he recounts the story of Elijah bypassing all the starving widows in Israel in order to assist a widow in Zaraphath, an enemy land. Then Jesus selects an equally troubling story about Elisha, pointing out that instead of healing any of the lepers in Israel, Elisha healed Namaan, a Syrian leper. Why would Jesus talk about God’s prophets walking past needy Israelites in order to give aid and comfort to the enemy? What is he trying to prove?
I once heard a pastor say, “As soon as you draw a line between us and them, remember that Jesus is standing on the other side of that line.”
The idea of Jesus standing beside strangers and outsiders sounds like good news until we think about all the people we don’t want to think of Jesus standing beside—all the people we are sure have twisted morals and skewed values, those we fear or even hate, those who don’t vote like us or speak like us or understand history and science like us, who are so clearly not as faithful to God’s dream as we are. It’s easy for me to sing about Jesus loving everybody and aligning himself with those who are suffering until it becomes clear that this might mean Jesus is standing on the opposite side of the line from me.
According to scholars, the year of Jubilee was never actually observed. Is anyone surprised? Doesn’t it seem like pie in the sky to imagine people agreeing that every 50 years they would give up all their property rights and stop collecting the money they were due? I mean, just how far back are we supposed to go in returning the land to its original owners? Many Palestinians argue for the 1967 borders drawn by the UN. Others go back to the borders established in 1946. In this country, we’d have to consider giving all the land back to Native American tribes. But which ones?
And then, can you picture even a month, much less a year, when no one sowed or reaped the resources in fields, orchards, oceans, mines, and other producing entities? Would we have consider paying reparations for slavery in light of the mandate for all people to be declared equal, with no servants and no masters, no discrimination, no hierarchy, and no privilege? Can you fathom a culture with no talk of walls keeping people in or out?
Jesus said, “Today is the beginning of all of that.” No wonder they wanted to throw him off a cliff.
And Jesus had started out so well in this story! He’d represented the model life of a devout Jewish man. He honors the Sabbath day. He goes regularly to the synagogue and participates in worship—reading the Scriptures and offering commentary, as all adult men were encouraged to do. On this occasion, after reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, he offered this commentary on it: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
But then, he crossed the line, turning what we thought was our home-field advantage against us. Where does Jesus’ radical interpretation of this text leave those of us who hold onto grudges, who have no intention of sharing all that we have with the poor, much less handing over our hard-won advantages? Jubilee may sound like good news to those who have nothing, but to those of us with property and possessions and a modicum of social clout, it doesn’t sound so joyful. It sounds punitive.
No wonder the people of Nazareth felt betrayed and abandoned. Not only was this young upstart NOT going to lead them to glory, he was going to actively aid and abet people who did not deserve God’s tender mercy. To people who had perceived of themselves as the underdogs that God was intending to rescue, Jesus’ announcement that they were actually the ones he was going to challenge was just too much.
It’s not hard to see how this story foreshadows another incident when people decide to rid themselves of the extravagant inclusion Jesus represents. And then, just as he does in this story, after the crucifixion Jesus will again walk away from any attempts to put an end to his radical vision of God’s kingdom being a home for all.
When Jesus walked across the line in Nazareth dividing “us” from “them” in order to be with those on the other side, he left behind all the security and comfort of home field advantage forever. He took his place not among the respected and honored home-town heroes, but among the outsiders—traitors even.
It’s important that we note Jesus began his incendiary sermon on Isaiah’s text with the word today. “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” This the first public word Jesus utters in Luke’s Gospel, and it sets the tone for everything that comes after. Jesus doesn’t wander the countryside allowing people to wallow in the old glory days, nor does he invite them to spend their time dreaming of the sweet by-and-by. Nope.
Jesus claims God’s dream for today! Today this man will be healed. Today this sinner will be forgiven. Today the conditions weighing down the poor and the wronged will be remedied. Today Jesus will open the eyes that have been unable to see the truth. Today Jesus embraces the strangers. Today is the beginning of Jubilee!Today we began worship by acknowledging that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. We admitted we are captive to our own prejudices and judgments. We are blind to ways we hurt others, ourselves, and God’s creation. We know we are guilty of creating God in our own image instead of worshipping the God that transcends all attempts to domesticate the Holy.
The Good News is that Jesus sees our inability to love God, others, and ourselves fully. Jesus knows we don’t want to give up our privilege or sacrifice our comfort. And because we cannot cross the gulf between where we are and where God is calling us to be, today Jesus comes to us. Today is the beginning of the year of the Lord’s favor, when all are uplifted and granted grace, fed and forgiven with God’s own all-all-encompassing love. Today the Good News is that Jesus knows all about us and still includes us in his proclamation of Jubilee. Today we have a place in God’s own family.
Today, we who have been liberated are called to proclaim liberation to other captives. We who have new insight about ourselves are sent to grant sight to the blind and to proclaim the year of Jubilee to everyone else—even those we are quite sure don’t deserve it. Today all land has been declared holy. Today all people have been declared to be our family members. Today there are no more enemies. Night has passed and a new day has begun. Thanks be to God!
Here’s the audio recording of the sermon. TO LISTEN, in the SoundCloud window below, CLICK (or double-Click) the red button with the white arrow pointing to the right. If that does not work, then click on the “Sermon 2-3-19” name of the sermon.