Sunday, June 9, 2013

No Prophet Is Accepted In His Home Town!

No Prophet Is Accepted In His Home Town!
I Kings 17:8-24/Luke 7:11-17/Luke 4:14-30

This week the Revised Common Lectionary pairs the story of Elijah raising the son of a widow in Zaraphath (Gentile territory) from death, with Jesus raising the son of a widow in Nain who was being carried to his burial: two widows, two sons in two Gentile towns. The lectionary is not needed to connect the activities of Jesus to Elijah and Elisha – Luke gets at that right away in chapter 4. Recalling chapter 4 helps to put chapter 7 and widow at Nain into perspective.

For it is in chapter 4 of Luke that Jesus teaches for the first time in his hometown synagogue. He announces that he is the fulfillment of the Year of the Lord’s Favor, the Jubilee year, when all debts would be released, the blind will see, prisoners released. At first the people are pleased and astonished: “Is this not Joseph’s son?” That is, he is ours! We should reap all the benefits of whatever he has to offer. Jesus immediately senses the narrowness of their understanding – a prophet of Israel should do his work right here at home. So rather than correct them, like any good rabbi, he tells them a story – a story everyone would know. He reminds them that although there were many people in Israel going hungry during the famine in the time of Elijah, and many lepers in Israel during the prophetic ministry of Elisha, the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob sent them to minister to people outside the community – Gentiles. Gentile is an all-inclusive term for anyone who is not of Israel. Aliens, strangers, foreigners are all terms the Bible uses to describe this class of people.

What is endlessly fascinating about the Hebrew Scriptures is the concern the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob has for widows, orphans and, yes, strangers, aliens, gentiles. They are treated in the Deuteronomic code as a protected class. Chapters 14, 16 and 26 of Deuteronomy all make provisions that when the tithe is collected (10%) it is to be distributed to widows, orphans and aliens “so that they may eat their fill in your towns.” (Deut 26:12)

That is, the people of the God of the Bible are to care for those who have no one else to look out for them. Once widowed, a woman was largely on her own. Orphans had no family to care for them. Resident aliens, those coming to Israel to look for work or simply passing through, likewise had no one to care for them. The compassion of God is to be extended to strangers, foreigners, widows and orphans as an extension of God’s generosity toward the community of God.

So when Jesus announces that his ministry is to be extended beyond his hometown, as it had been with Elijah and Elisha, the people get angry, turn on him, carry him out of the synagogue to hurl him down a  hillside when – he mysteriously “passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” (Luke 4:30)

The early Christians were often referred to as “The People of the Way” – the way of Jesus. And chapter 7 has him in short order first healing the son of a Roman Centurion (without even going to the Centurion’s house!), and then raising the son of the widow of Nain. So careful is Luke to make sure we connect the way of Jesus with the way of Elijah that the text uses exactly the same words in both stories as the sons are restored, he “gave him to his mother.” (I Kings 17:23/Luke 7:15). This is a clue to understanding this story and the Elijah story – the subject of the miracle, as difficult as this may be to comprehend, is the mother in each story – not the sons!

For it appears to be Luke’s intention to draw our attention to the far reaching invitation to all people, even those beyond our immediate community, to share in the hospitality of God. And that such radical activity on behalf of Jesus, Elijah and Elisha always leads to rejection from those at home. But. And anyone with passing familiarity with the story of Jesus, the good news, the Gospel as we say, knows that this rejection is not the last word. This rejection can also be drawn into “God’s saving plan and made to further, rather than restrict, the outreach of grace.” [Brenden Byrne, The Hospitality of God, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN: 2000 – p.53]

Any serious reflection on all of this is meant to make us think. First, on the nature of Biblical Prophecy – we have been somehow lulled into thinking it is all about predicting the future, when in fact Elijah, Elisha and Jesus all demonstrate it is about doing things for others – especially others who are beyond the immediate community – people who cannot possibly be self-sufficient. Self-sufficiency in the hostile environment of the middle east and Arabian peninsula was, and continues to be, a near impossibility. It is worth taking note that in Surah 96 of the Qur’an, verse 6, one of the very first things the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is called upon to recite are words to the effect, “Oh, no, humankind does indeed go too far in regarding itself as self-sufficient.” Jesus understands this. The question would be, do we?

Endless argument and prattling is wasted on what to do about resident aliens, widows and orphans to this day. And equally endless ideological propaganda is spent attempting to extol the supposed virtues of self-sufficiency, to the extent that those who are in serious economic trouble are blamed for their predicament. Even worse, if possible, is the amount of time wasted trying to mishandle the sacred texts in an attempt to “predict” an end of days, a day of judgment, or whatever, when there is serious work to be done here and now. It is truly a disgrace that the three monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam have, over time, become more restrictive of God’s grace, more inwardly focused, and more committed to just about any way but the way of God as not only outlined in our most sacred texts, but in the actual real life activities of those we claim to be following!

It takes no amount of exegesis or interpretation of these foundational texts to see what is expected of a person who is to walk in the way of the Lord, the way of God, the way of Allah. Compassion and an extension of God’s grace beyond the community of God’s people is not only paramount, it is about all we are asked to do. Care for women, children at risk, and foreigners is, and has always been, at the center of all three monotheistic faiths. The widows of Nain and Zaraphath are the subjects of God’s care despite the needs at home. Those who advocate for such social policy will always be excoriated by the lords of scarcity, provincialism, parochialism, and yes, nationalism.

More than anything else, biblical prophets have a singular role and calling – to hold up a mirror so that we can see ourselves. Those who have eyes will see, those who have ears will hear.

In the fourth chapter of Luke Jesus announces that he has come to fulfill the following pronouncement of God’s word:
‘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.’
It’s easy to see how the people in his hometown synagogue were excited when they wanted to claim all of this for themselves. When Jesus made it clear that the Lord’s favor was to be granted to those beyond the immediate community, literally all hell broke loose. Jesus passed through the midst of them and went on his way. What will we do? Amen.

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