The Old Testament history of the Jewish people had so many strange twists and turns that it is nothing short of a miracle that it survived to the birth of Jesus. And things haven't been straightforward for the Jewish people since either. The Jewish road from obscurity to political, social and religious power was filled with breathtaking events of danger and destruction. In the time leading up to the birth of Jesus, the Jewish people became so fragmented, lost and hopelessly endangered that they realized that their condition was beyond human help. They were holding on to the hope of divine intervention into human affairs in the form of a Messiah. And this growing expectation was not casual. It was their only hope for deliverance from the burgeoning power of personal and political enemies.
Crises came and crises went and still no messiah, but the Jews held on to the hope of divine intervention and they survived.
Then in the "fullness of time"--at the "right time" a child was born--the promised Messiah. No one expected him to come as he did, a child of peasant parentage. We know essentially nothing of his childhood until age 12 when he shows up briefly in Jerusalem with his parents. Then Jesus disappears from public life until, once again, in the "fullness of time" at age 30, he shows up publically and begins a three-year ministry of teaching and healing during which time he proclaims himself as the one who "is to come"--the long awaited Messiah. He is still a puzzle to those who see and hear him and to both the well-heeled and main stream his claim of "Messiahship" is an unforgivable heresy which eventually leads to his death at age 33.
Who was this Galilean peasant whose obscure beginnings got connected with so much from the past and whose brief life has profoundly influenced so many for so long? Who was this stranger from Galilee about whom we know so much--and yet so little?
The Gospel lesson for today is Mark's account of Jesus coming home to Galilee. With an economy of words Mark told how he went to the Synagogue on the Sabbath and taught. People were amazed at Jesus' wisdom and mighty works. And when they pondered who he was--just a home-town boy--they took offense at him. And Jesus said to them, "A prophet is not without honor except in his own country and among his own kin and in his own house" (Mark 6:4). Now Matthew gives an identical account of the event (Matthew 13: 53-58).
It is Luke's account (Luke 4:14-30) that gives us two of the principle reasons the folks in his own home town were so angry at him. First, Jesus read the messianic passage from Isaiah 61:1-2:
The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord" and Jesus began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
They were more puzzled than angry when he proclaimed himself as the Messiah. However, when Jesus gave two Old Testament illustrations of how two great prophets were sent to minister to non-Jews, they lost it.
They were filled with wrath and they ran him out of town and led him up to the brow of the hill upon which their city was built so that they could throw him down headlong. But passing through the midst of them he went on his way. (Luke 4:28-30)
Jesus knew these people in his hometown--people who would readily harm you for any association or act of kindness to a non-Jew. Yet he spoke bluntly to the religious establishment--people who were convinced that they knew all of the answers and that it was just so simple--there was only "them" and "us." And by now they were saying to Jesus, "We don't want you. You are not one of us."
Reading this I felt like I was back home in South Alabama during the '50's and '60's. I knew many clergy who were literally run out of their churches and run out of town for the least suggestion that a black person would be welcomed in church or allowed to sit on the front seat of a city bus. Times had not changed much in 2000 years.
Now Jesus was simply giving his neighbors a concrete example of the proper conduct of one of God's prophets to someone who was different. People still resist and resent concrete examples of treating "them"--those who are different--with kindness and respect.
When I was a seminary student at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in the '50's, I was in a New Testament class taught by Dr. Albert Barnett. He was playfully warning us inexperienced, naïve white clergy of the dangers of using concrete illustrations --even those straight out of the Bible--that were suggesting that black people were equal to white people, unless we were willing to pay the price. He told us how a few years earlier he had been commissioned to write a series of adult Sunday School lessons. When he sent his manuscripts to the General Board of Education, he got a letter from the Adult Sunday School Editor suggesting that he give some illustrations of how to implement his ideas that were given in his lesson plans.
Dr. Barnett wrote back to thank the editor for his helpful suggestion, but felt that he should tell the editor of an earlier experience he'd had. Dr. Barnett had sprinkled Biblical and contemporary illustrations in an earlier series of lesson plans; it was printed and the editor was fired. With that information in hand, the Adult Sunday School Editor withdrew his suggestion. Specific illustrations about implementing vague moral and spiritual ideas can be dangerous especially when they include people and practices that have traditionally been excluded. Luke's account of Jesus' proclamation illustrates how dangerous specificity can be when it brings into question our prejudices and exclusions that have become systemic and socially acceptable.
Jesus' ministry is generously sprinkled with other subtle--and sometimes not too subtle--illustrations and teachings against systemic Jewish exclusivism. The parable of the Good Samaritan in which a Samaritan is made the hero of a story is one of the more memorable examples.
Even the disciples were not free of the sin of exclusivism. John said to Jesus, "Teacher, we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us." (Mark 9:38 - NIV)
Perhaps we should not be too surprised that even the Beloved Apostle John would draw lines in the sand to separate them from us. John and the other disciples came by their sense of exclusivism naturally. Their lives had been marinated in it. They belonged to a religion and a culture the main identity of which was that they were "God's chosen people." Now there is a certain sense of entitlement in the concept of "chosen-ness," particularly when it has to do with fulfilling a divine purpose, but there is also an inherent danger. The idea can degenerate from "chosen" to "different" to "better than," which is exactly what had happened in the religion as practiced and preached by the Scribes and Pharisees.
Perhaps John never thought about that slippery slope to hierarchy, closed shops, better than, but Jesus did. For John it was simple; the stranger couldn't do holy work because "he was not one of us." Jesus responded, "Do not stop him." He adds to this simple command a profound lesson on the psychology of inclusiveness: ". . . for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us." (Mark 9:39-40)
When seen in its larger context, there is some humor, if not irony, in the fact that the disciples are trying to prevent the alien exorcist from casting out a demon who had just refused to respond to the apostles' authority. (Mark 9:18)
The feeling expressed by John--"we told him to stop because he was not one of us"--may not have been intended as a knee-jerk exclusiveness. He may well have felt that there was a need to keep the Kingdom message and practice uncorrupted by strange people and practices.
Most institutionalized religious groups have a book of discipline and order designed to regulate admission, practice, and interpretation. When do such rules become an impediment to the message? I do not know where the line is, but there is a line. Perhaps we should begin to look for the line when the rule book becomes bigger than the Bible or when an inordinate percentage of the work force of a denomination is employed full-time as makers, interpreters, and enforcers of rules, regulations, and guidelines. If lines were to be drawn, Jesus wanted them to include not exclude. It is all too easy to develop misplaced loyalties in which the means is more important than the end, and the organization the object of our loyalty rather than the Gospel it was created to serve.
The power of God is always breaking through the boundaries that have been built by religious groups who have lost their focus. The great reformers such as Luther and Wesley lived and labored on the edge of heresy. Their work, however, has enriched and enabled the promulgation of the Christian faith. Told to stop doing holy work because they were not one of the in-crowd, because they were not doing it "right," the great reformers and others went on their way following God's call, not counting the cost.
Jesus' visit to his hometown was not a social call. He was there to declare who he was and to share a new understanding of the nature of God. Even though his brief stop in his old neighborhood had a profoundly important purpose, it no doubt stung Jesus to be so decisively rejected by his church, his old friends, and family.
When I finished Seminary at Emory University, my wife and I decided that my ministry might be enriched by some in-depth study in the field of pastoral care and counseling. We put our worldly possessions in our car, and we went to a foreign land--Northwestern University and Garrett Biblical Institute in Evanston, Illinois. In the mid '50's our home state of Alabama was in turmoil. The Methodist Church was struggling to free itself from segregation. The socio-political climate in the South was not just "unpleasant," it was dangerous. So after two years in the Chicago area; we decided we should come home to begin full-time ministry. We felt we were needed back in Alabama.
We had arranged to be appointed to a church in the Alabama/West Florida Conference. We did not know which church or even where. So we stopped in Montgomery, Alabama, where the Annual Conference was in session and began to look for someone who could tell us where we were being sent. We were finally told that we were going to a church in Mobile, Alabama. We were happy; we were excited. We felt like we were "ready." We then searched the Conference ground to find the lay delegate from that church. After a few hours we found an older man who was a delegate, and we introduced ourselves to him. Expecting some measure of Southern hospitality, we were shocked when the first words out of the man's mouth as he shook his finger at us were:
We don't want you at our church. You have been "up North" to a liberal school. We know you are an integrationist. We have heard that you are a Communist Sympathizer and probably even a secret Communist. We don't want you. We'll not have you. YOU ARE NOT ONE OF US.
O Lord, save us from fretting over things that we do not know, some of which we do not even need to know. We do realize, dear God, that in this world we will never have unlimited knowledge, but we do pray for enough knowledge to save us from unlimited ignorance. Save us from lingering so long in the twilight zone of uncertainty that being unsure becomes a handy hiding place for the timid and fearful, a place where the undecided are tempted to make an armistice with evil or raise a flag of truce when great principles are involved. From these and all other distance-keeping maneuvers, mercifully deliver us, O Lord. In the good name of Jesus, Amen.