Wednesday, October 18, 2006

“….and justice for all.”
Luke 4:14-21

Do you know the sort of hush that comes upon a room when a significant speaker steps to the podium? While the average person may feel uncomfortable with the undivided attention the seasoned speaker knows how to use the first moment or two to intimately connect with his or her listeners. There is dynamism in those brief and silent moments. The people gathered in the synagogue in Nazareth that day quite likely felt an experience just that. Little did they know however that they were really sitting in the presence of God. That’s quite a thought – isn’t it? They see a man who looks like most of them – in fact quite like most of them since this being a synagogue those in attendance – at least in the front rows – would have been men – just like Jesus. In fact they were familiar with him – most had watched him grow up in the same neighborhood as they did or perhaps they were even closer – playmates perhaps – perhaps in that same courtyard outside the synagogue. They look and study him in the rich moment of anticipation and wonder. They wonder what he’ll say – does he have anything to say – will he sound as foolish as they know they might – if they were rising to speak?
While the words spoken are the same for everyone in attendance – each hears them with their own set of ears through the filters of their particular experiences. I spent a little time this week considering the variety of ways these words might have been heard.
At the most basic – unfiltered level – what some heard was a scripture reading – old familiar words of a familiar prophet. Isaiah was one of the favorites of the Rabbis. His prophecies of all the world gathering in a peaceable kingdom – gathering on God’s holy mountain – being a light to the nations – God sending a suffering servant messiah. Israel’s faith is woven from the fabric of his words. These words – which Jesus reads are from what we call Isaiah 61 – a prophecy of justice. The justice however is what is promised to Israel. The context is found in the return from a devastating national exile. The promise is that their imprisonment and their suffering – the exploitation they experienced - these are the things which shall find justice – they will be the captives who find release. This is national rhetoric if you will – it was the rallying cry of the oppressed as much as our national pledge came out of our struggle for freedom. We say …and justice for all and we mean first of all – justice for ourselves and for those who live in our national bounds – then perhaps our thoughts move outward even further. The same would have held true for the people listening to Jesus in the synagogue. These were their words of liberation and justice. And if Jesus would have stopped there everyone would have gone home as please as could be with their hometown boy.
Jesus finishes his reading from the sacred scroll – rolls it reverently back up and ceremoniously hands it to the attendant. Then in another of those pregnant pauses he sits and – then – while all eyes are on him and minds are playing back the scene - in anything but an after thought – he adds these words: Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
Everyone does a mental double take. Some who have been listening figure he means it like most of the other preachers they have heard read this text and relegate it to the expected – just church words is all – nothing to them – there never is. It’s not much different if he had just read a poem or some other prose – meant to lift one’s spirits – perhaps sprinkle a little beauty but nothing much is meant by it.
Others think a bit more deeply and see it as something akin to nationalistic rhetoric. Yes… they think to themselves – the promises to exiled Israel will be true for us. Our day is coming – right on Jesus. That’s our boy – Joseph’s boy – he knows – he’s one of us.
Still others – I imagine – pause in their assessment a little longer – take a critical moment before deciding to nod their heads. Did he say; in your hearing? That might mean something quite different – could it be that Joseph’s son figures that the promises to Israel come though him? They move to the edge of their seats – turn a careful ear to see if he might say something more.
One last group listening – probably in the back of the room or listening in the women’s gallery – or perhaps from open windows – these are the disposed and marginalized ones. These are the ones who because of social standing, and gender and economic position hear these words of hope and promise for what they truly are – or what they at least desperately hope they are – words of a purer justice. Like the African American chant of our generation hope simmers in their heads as they hear these words and the refrain echoes in their hearts we’re gonna at last … free at last. They also move to the edge of their seats and around windowsills and pillars – they are eager to hear more – and how this will come true.
At this point most everyone is pretty pleasant – polite words about the home town boy. Some issue somewhat typical back handed comments – to the effect of; so this is what Joseph’s boy has been up to not wanting to give too much praise. The mood in general is mild amazement – as if everyone has figured something more has just happened but they have no idea what.
It’s too bad that we don’t usually read further into this story – most lectionaries leave it here and allow it to remain pleasant church words.
But let’s venture out a little further this morning and explore where Jesus was taking them and takes us. I figure Jesus baits them on a bit – he hears their back handed compliments and their naive assessments and decides the lesson isn’t quite done. Let me read the next part for you: 23He said to them, ‘
Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ 24And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. 25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers
* in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’
Now remember what I said at the beginning about the origins of these words – how they were from the prophet Isaiah after the exile in Babylon – that they were words of hope and restoration for Israel. What Jesus has just done here is to remind them of what they don’t want to remember – that God’s gracious justice is for all… for everyone. The widow of Zarapath – Naanman the Syrian – neither of these belonged to the Jews – they were the outsiders – and both received God’s favor. You see what Jesus is doing here? Now it’s clear what Jesus is getting at – what is fulfilled in their hearing is justice alright – but justice for more than just a select and chosen few. It’s no wonder we read next:
28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They 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. 30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
In our case study of South Africa and the confession we call Belhar we are reminded that White Reformed Christians like most of us found it as difficult as those original listeners to Jesus to accept that God’s justice is for all. That – to quote the Belhar:
God is in a special way the God of the destitute, the poor and the wronged and that He calls his Church to follow Him in this; that He brings justice to the oppressed and gives bread to the hungry; that He frees the prisoner and restores sight to the blind; that He supports the downtrodden, protects the stranger, helps orphans and widows and blocks the path of the ungodly; that for Him pure and undefiled religion is to visit the orphans and the widows in their suffering; that He wishes to teach His people to do what is good and to seek the right;
We might do well to sit here a few moments so that we might be sure that we don’t make the same mistake. Honesty – Gospel truth challenges us to ask ourselves how we interpret the thought or the phase…and justice for all.
Have you heard of Muhammad Yunus? Considering his name and nationality it’s quite likely he probably doesn’t consider himself a Christian but he’s living out this Christ-like commission and the Nobel Committee on Friday recognized that by awarding him this year’s Nobel Peace Prize on Friday. He’s neither a diplomat nor a public figure really. He’s an economist who in 1976 reached into his own pocket to give his first loan of $27.00, to 42 villagers living near Chittagong University where he said he was teaching “elegant theories of economics.” The borrowers invested the money and repaid him in full, though they had no collateral and signed nothing. He said he asked himself that day, “If you can make so many people happy with such a small amount of money, why shouldn’t you do more of it. From that experience Muhammad Yunus created Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. It has been a leader in micro credit - a program of lending money to the poorest people in the world so that they might have a safe and honest way to borrow money and move themselves out of poverty. His bank is dedicated to helping the poorest people. Loans are as small as $12.00 and the money is used to purchase milk cows or bamboo to construct stools or yarn to weave stoles. His bank’s long term goal is – and I quote: to eliminate poverty in the world. And he began with $27. (the New York Times 10.14.06)
So I guess we’re left with the question – not whether we each have $27 but do we have the will to join in proclaiming Good News to the poor and to care about justice for all.
The Gospel calls us to a ministry of justice not for ourselves but for others – justice isn’t a personal nor a national issue – it’s a world issue – a world so loved by God and entrusted into our care. Amen.

Harold Delhagen


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