I find this one of the most disturbing readings of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus had just been baptized by John in the Jordan River, and he was praying. And the Spirit of God wrapped around him like a dove. And God, the Holy One of Israel, the Father, appeared to him and boomed out, “You are my Son, my Beloved. In you I am well pleased” (Lk 3:22). That must have swept him off his feet. If he had had doubts, struggled with those inner forces that were driving him to something, but what he hadn’t known, now he was beginning to.
There was a good chance that if Jesus hadn’t already discovered the fully God part of himself, he was well-prepared spiritually to hear that word. It is suspected he may have stayed with the Essene community. We are told John certainly knew who he was. In any case, Jesus is driven out by the Spirit to the wilderness and is tested by Satan during and after 40 days of severe fasting.
And he goes home. Probably more than a little buzzed. He hasn’t picked companions yet. He turns up at his local synagogue feeling his oats a little, somewhere between being just a bit entitled, and not quite knowing what he is doing. But the Spirit is upon him. If ever there was a Jewish altar call, this was his moment. As any good Jewish adult male, he is given a scroll to read. If the same liturgy was used then as now, the Pentateuch had been read by a senior member of the assembly. If the same liturgy was followed than as now the reading would have been Deuteronomy 29:9-20, which exhorts the people of the Exodus to know that they were in a new covenant with God, a renewed covenant after forty years of wandering. And since they had seen the idolatry of the people whose lands they had passed through, they know that they must obey the rules set down in the covenant by the Holy One of Israel.
Since Jesus had just come home, it was a gesture of welcome to give him the next reading. He unrolls the scroll, and he reads Isaiah 61:1-2a. And using the words of God in Scripture proclaims that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him, and the Jubilee year, when all debts are forgiven and prisoners released, is now. And then he adds that this really is now, in their presence. Stunned silence. Muttering. Approval. Then the chill hits. He has been doing signs in Capernaum, but who does he think he is? Joseph’s boy. Nothing special.
And Jesus reminds them of two miracles, one by Elijah and another by Elisha, where Jewish needs were passed over and Gentiles healed. Was he saying that once more his people, the people of God his Father had again failed to adhere to the covenant? That he was the Messiah and the Jubilee was now? But not for them? What was Jesus thinking? He certainly provoked them. Was Jesus, the man, struggling with what had happened to him at the Jordan and in the desert? Was he not yet fully as filled with his authority and a modicum of sense as he would grow into when he had chosen companions and had begun his ministry? Even for true God of true God, it takes time and experience to ease into a calling. Yes, our Lord and our God did really live a life as we live. We can reach him in prayer as we struggle to find our voice and our place asking for clarity. And a whole lot of mercy as we ask, what does God want of us?
But not a lot of mercy was shown to him, and this is where embarrassment morphs into terror, and why this reading hits me in the gut every time. Is this the price of speaking the truth? Even in a small town synagogue? How did this upstart dare say that they weren’t the chosen of God, that Gentiles would take their place? They didn’t need to change. And they didn’t need to hear this blasphemy. Jesus is driven to a cliff face to be thrown over, and if he didn’t die right then and there, they already had the stones in their hands. These good people were entitled. And they would protect it.
What is our entitlement? Can we hold on to the center, the word of God, the love of Jesus Christ and still allow ourselves to change? Can we expand to a new way, but never lose the covenant which God made with us? Jesus went on to teach that the covenant renewed at Moab took in more than the tribes of Israel. That the Sabbath didn’t prohibit mercy offered to real people in need. That what went into our mouths wasn’t as important as what came out from our mouths. That rigid adherence to a code of law was not what he came to promulgate. When he teaches that he did not come to banish the law, the law he spoke of was not the many complex laws required of observant Jews. The real Law was always there. We are to love God, totally, and to love our neighbor, but now the neighbor is everyone. We are facing radical changes. Gender identity is not just a boy and a girl. Hasn’t been for a long time, but now we know it and acknowledge it. But that is hard for some. Racial identity has become more important, but the good part, accepting those who are different from the WASP society of our imagination, has a terrible part, separating those of color, size, shape, ethnicity from each other in a vicious Balkanization of society. And national separatism is again on the rise, internationally and here in the U.S.
Jesus was called to bring a message that was heretical, blasphemous to the good citizens of Nazareth, who were just doing what they thought God had told them to, and God had, but now things had to change. Now the world had to come under one rule of the one God, a rule of peace and abiding love in the face of the complexity and sinfulness of humankind. And Jesus was not just the messenger as John was, but was God’s own self, here to suffer the worst his people and the Roman Empire had to offer. And suffer for telling God’s Truth, not a revolutionary or violent truth, but one so merciful that it should have, could have, been taken in right then and there. Or not. And after the grace of John, the gift of the Spirit, the testing in the desert, this was Jesus’ first real world encounter with that sad truth.
Yes, Jesus got away and went on to banish demons, heal, and chose those with whom he would share his ministry and teaching. As each of us has had to pick ourselves up from the deepest betrayal, of family, friends, teachers, even the Church itself, and either give up and go into the darkness where the Christ does not reside, or turn back, slowly and painfully, and pray for the courage and indwelling of the Spirit to forgive, truly forgive, and love those who hurt us, and move on to whatever God has still in store for us. That is Easter. That is the Resurrection.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.