Our gospel reading for this morning picks right up where we left off last Sunday. If you remember, last week, we saw Jesus just beginning his ministry in Galilee and making his public debut in his hometown, Nazareth. We heard the very first words that Jesus speaks as an adult in the gospel of Luke – and he reads these words from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah:
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.
And at the beginning of our gospel text for today, we hear him say again, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That’s a pretty bold claim! Like we talked about last Sunday, Jesus is laying out the scope of his mission: he has come to bring good news to the poor, to liberate captives and the oppressed, to give sight to the blind, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. And the people are all for it – Luke says that “all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth”
But then this story takes a really unexpected twist. Jesus predicts that the people will reject him and what he has to say. And sure enough, by the end of this story, he manages to make them so angry that they actually grab him and try to throw him off a cliff! What happened??
When you first read this story, it’s kind of hard to follow what exactly it is that Jesus says that makes the people so furious with him. I certainly didn’t understand. To be honest, I always assumed it was because he had the audacity to claim, “oh yeah, all that stuff Isaiah wrote was totally about me” – but that’s actually not how the story goes down. People get mad when Jesus references two stories from the Hebrew scriptures: the story of Elijah and the widow and the story of Elisha and Naaman.
We actually read the story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath way back in November: God sends Elijah to a widow in the region of Sidon, which is in modern day Lebanon. There is famine in the land and the widow feeds Elijah with her last bit of meal and oil, which miraculously last until the famine is over. Elijah also brings her son back from the dead after a grave illness.
Naaman was a commander from Syria who had been stricken with leprosy – he heard about the prophet Elisha and traveled to Israel, begging to see Elisha and to be made clean. Elisha tells him to wash seven times in the Jordan, and Naaman is healed.
Both Naaman and the widow were total outsiders to Israelite society – they were outsiders because of their nationalities and they were outsiders because of their respective social status. Jesus brings up these two stories to make a point to his hearers: he points out that, when Elijah and Elisha were around, there were plenty of widows and lepers in Israel – but God didn’t send the prophets to them. God chose to send prophets to those on the outside, to those on the margins. You can kind of understand why this made Jesus’ people so upset – they were on the inside; they were part of God’s devoted, chosen people. Why didn’t God send the prophets for their lepers and widows?
You see this same kind of frustration throughout Jesus’ ministry. Jesus spends his time with widows and lepers and the demon-possessed, with tax collectors and prostitutes, instead of with the righteous and their religious leaders, which makes them angry. Jesus himself says in the next chapter of Luke that he was sent not to the righteous and healthy, but to the sick and the sinner. This story that we read today seems to re-affirm that God has a tendency to show up in ways we do not expect at all – and that God often shows up in ways that have nothing to do with us. God shows up in a stable, at a well in Samaria, at a tax collector’s table. God often chooses to reveal Godself not in churchy, religious places where we might expect God to show up, but instead God often shows up in and among the people on the outside, people at the margins.
So, knowing that this is how God likes to show up, this raises a question that my pastoral colleagues and I wrestled with at our text study on Tuesday: does God love the poor and the marginalized more than other people? It’s a rough question. And, I mean, given what we see God doing throughout the witness of scripture, it’s kind of hard to answer no.
Now, before you start looking around Schuyler for a cliff you can throw me off of, hear me out! The idea that God loves anyone more – even the poor and the marginalized – is an idea that we immediately and strongly resist. We usually think of God as being all-loving and impartial toward humanity. And while God is certainly all-loving, the God we see in scripture is actually not very impartial at all. God is firmly for the poor and the oppressed. This is what we see in the life of Jesus – from the poor widow with two coins to the woman accused of adultery to the Samaritan woman to the Gerasene demoniac and on and on – Jesus surrounds himself with the least, the last, and the lost. Jesus shows his love the most to the people whom the world loves the least. God shows love the most to the people whom this world loves the least.
What does this mean for us? I would argue that we are probably most like the people in Jesus’ hometown – good, religious, normal, churchy people. We remember the things that God has done in the past and we try to serve God the best we can. And you have to admit that the idea that God would treat other people besides us preferentially offends our sense of fairness.
After all, it’s not like we are millionaires or billionaires sitting here – to my knowledge, none of us here are among the richest or most powerful people on the planet. We’re not the ones oppressing people, and we definitely haven’t thrown anyone off a cliff today! However, we are also far from being the poorest people in the world – or even the poorest people in our community. There are plenty of food and housing insecure people right here in Schuyler and in Columbus; and globally, we are far better off than many millions of people.
In truth, we are somewhere in the middle. And I think that that makes this text good news and bad news – and then good news again for us. It’s good news because we know that God loves us. Even if God shows more love to the poor, God still loves us beyond measure. And we know that God draws even closer to us in love when we are the ones who are outcast or struggling or marginalized or sick. God holds in love those parts of us that are broken and hurting and ashamed.
The bad news of this text is that even though we are not the richest or most powerful folks in the world, we do benefit from systems that perpetuate inequality and oppression. It’s not that we want to – we didn’t choose it – it’s just that things are set up in ways that make it hard to avoid the exploitation of the environment and of working people around the globe. And we shouldn’t be surprised to find God showing up in love among those who are suffering the most.
But the good news again is that God never gives up on us – God has called each and every one of us to be agents of God’s love: to be agents of the love that we ourselves have received and to show that love to the people whom the world loves the least. We are called to dismantle systems of oppression and exploitation in favor of God’s justice. We are called to be co-creators with God of a better world.
Thanks be to God that the God we serve is not some distant, impartial observer of human events! God is involved and up close, deeply invested in the well being of all humanity. God is a champion of the poor and the marginalized, bound and determined that ALL the world should know God’s love – and it doesn’t matter how many cliffs God has to get thrown off of to do it!