By Alan Bean
If you can’t trust Jesus, who can you trust?
Unfortunately, you can’t trust Jesus.
Unless, that is, you are open to shocking new ideas about God, a counter-intuitive take on the created order, and a topsy-turvy understanding of the human condition.
When Jesus arrived in his hometown of Nazareth, everybody wanted to be impressed. When a local boy makes good, small towns announce their association with the local-boy-made-good for the edification of passing motorists. “We might look like just another hick town,” the sign suggests, “but Bob Wills grew up here.”
Even if you’ve never heard of Bob Wills, you can’t help being a little bit impressed.
Immediately after his wilderness encounter with the devil, Matthew tells us, Jesus took up residence in the little fishing village of Capernaum, on the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, (or the Sea of Tiberias as Herod Antipas insisted on calling it). From there, he moved into the surrounding communities, eventually arriving at his home town of Nazareth.
By this time, Jesus had acquired a reputation as a teacher with, it was widely rumored, the power to heal. Nobody was thinking “Messiah” or “Son of God” at this point; but Rabbi was a distinct possibility. Which explains why, when the hometown boy showed up for Sabbath worship, he was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and asked to read a passage of his choosing.
Turning to what we call the 61st Chapter (there were no chapters or verses in his day), Jesus intoned a startling message that, like the Lord’s Prayer, had been domesticated by frequent repetition.
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.
Then he handed the scroll back to the attendant and sat down.
Folks were impressed. “He reads very well for a kid from Nazareth,” some thought. “Good intonation, not too fast or too slow, and he fills the synagogue with his voice without appearing to shout. Not bad for a rookie.”
“Today,” Jesus said, his legs crossed before him, “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
A nice touch, people thought. “All spoke well of him,” Luke reports, “and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, Is not this Joseph’s son?”
There is a hint of criticism in these words. But you get the impression from Luke that everything would have ended well if Jesus had just left well enough alone.
Before we consider what Jesus said next, we need to get a feel for the context of the scene. Before he tells us about Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist, Luke informs us that John would soon be arrested by Herod the Tetrarch (aka Herod Antipas). Matthew makes it clear that Jesus withdrew to the remoteness of Galilee because he wasn’t ready to share John’s fate. “Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee.” (Matthew 4:12)
When Jesus arrived in Nazareth, in other words, the town was still buzzing with the dreadful news of John’s arrest. The words from Isaiah jangle ominously when silhouetted against the stark backdrop of John’s arrest and imminent execution:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me . . .
This was messianic talk. The Spirit of the Lord had been with John as well–and just look what happened to him!
To bring good news to the poor . . .
Again, this was John the Baptist talk. John taught simple living because the pursuit of wealth inevitibly got you enmeshed in the Roman world–and in John’s mind, that was spiritual death. John sided with the poor because they were spiritually unbound.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives . . .
This is where things get scary. There was no mass incarceration in the ancient world. People were locked up only if those in authority hadn’t decided what to do with them.
If you were a petty criminal, you might be flogged and released.
Political prisoners were occasionally released in a good will gesture (remember the fortunate Barabas), but this was a rarity.
If you were a member of the governing class like Herod Antipas or Pontius Pilate, you might be exiled to the furthest reaches of the Roman empire (which is precisely what happened to Herod and Pilate after the death of the emperor Tiberius).
But most of the people languishing in Roman prisoners were destined for the cross. John the Baptist would have gone to the cross had Herod’s wife not demanded his head on a platter.
In a world like this, you couldn’t preach “release to the captives” without dabbling in subversion. Sure, all the people wished John the Baptist well; but nobody was prepared to discuss his plight in public.
. . . and recovery of sight to the blind.
Try as you will, you won’t find this phrase in Isaiah 61; Jesus just stuck it in on his own authority. Blindness was widely viewed as a divine punishment in Jesus’ day. In John, when Jesus and his disciples encounter a man born blind, the disciples ask who sinned, the man, or his parents. It had to be one or the other. In many of the eschatological texts exhumed at Qumran, it is explicitly stated that the blind will not inherit the messianic kingdom.
Like John the Baptist, Jesus came preaching (in Clarence Jordan’s sassy translation) “the kingdom of God is impingin’ upon ya.” But it is doubtful that even John the Baptist placed the blind within the kingdom circle.
. . . to let the oppressed go free . . .
This too was dangerous language. By announcing that Isaiah’s prophecy had been fulfilled that day, in their hearing, he was actively fomenting a social revolution. What would Herod Antipas make of that, especially after the arrest of John the Baptist?
. . . to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
The reference, as everyone in Nazareth knew, was to the biblical Year of Jubilee. The Old Testament makes allowance for indentured servanthood (selling yourself to a debtor), the sale of family property when the bills couldn’t be paid, and the regular, planting-to-harvest rhythm of agricultural life. But after a sabbath of sabbaths (7 years multiplied by 7 = 49), the rams horn would sound, all debts were wiped off the books, all the slaves were returned to their families as free men and women, all land confiscated from the poor is returned to its ancestral owner, and the fields were left fallow.
It’s hard to square the Year of Jubilee with laissez-faire capitalism, which explains why the Christian Right has abandoned the Jubilee concept to the liberals (who, tragically, don’t know what to do with it).
But Isaiah’s vision of the kingdom incorporated the Jubilee principle, a radical concept which Jesus embraced with joy.
His listeners weren’t so sure. Unlike us, they weren’t ideologically opposed to the Jubilee idea. Still, it was indelicate, indeed dangerous, to speak of such things in the wake of the Baptist’s arrest and impending execution.
But none of these references, however radical, was enough to get Jesus in trouble with the hometown crowd. People were willing to make allowances. Jesus was a homegrown prodigy after all. Jesus could have setted on these terms. Instead, he pressed beyond Isaiah, beyond John the Baptist, into the uncharted regions of the Spirit.
“Remember the widow of Zarephath?” Jesus asked. She lived in a Phoenician town on the coast of the Mediterranean. She lived outside the circle of God’s chosen; and yet God came to her aid in a time of famine.
“And what about Naaman, the Syrian soldier who suffered from leprosy?” Jesus continued. He too was a Gentile, yet God healed him.
So, now the Jew-Gentile distinction is gone? Is that it? If you want to free the captives and set the oppressed free, have at it. If you think the Day of Jubilee is just around the corner, I hope you’re right. But nobody opens the door of our synagogue to Gentile sinners and lives to tell about it.
Remember that scene from Blazing Saddles where the black frontier sheriff get the attention of the Klan by hollering, “Hey, where are the white women at?” Jesus hooked a similar reaction, and for good reason. Distinctions and divisions, whether they deal with race, religion, gender or nationality, don’t have a chance when Jesus comes preaching the kingdom.
John the Baptist took his carpenter’s pencil and drew a big fat line between the sinners and the saints. Now Jesus is taking his eraser and obliterating all the familiar lines that give shape to our lives. The Kingdom of God is here, he cries out, and NOBODY is excluded.
Except, of course, those who can’t handle this kind of Jesus. They join the elder brother in the outer darkness where men shall weep and gnash their teeth.
Even Isaiah, the most inclusive prophet in the Old Testament, wouldn’t go as far as Jesus. Here’s the passage following on the heels of the portion of Isaiah Jesus read on a Sabbath morning:
Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks,
Foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines,
But you shall be called priests of the Lord.
But now, Jesus says, we won’t serve the Gentiles and they won’t serve us; we’ll all be priests together.
The home town crowd rose as one, Luke tells us, and drove Jesus “to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.”
Jesus is a familiar presence in our American life and we associate him with all sorts of mean-spirited heresy.
We imagine Jesus standing with us at the anti-immigrant rally waving a “what part of illegal do you not understand” placard.
We imagine that Jesus is down with mass incarceration, capital punishment and the casual depredations of free enterprise.
For centuries, we’ve been telling Jesus what to say and we have no intention of stopping. He’s our boy. We bought him with our tithes and offerings. If we want to ignore the lion’s share of his teaching, whose gonna stop us? He’s our home town boy.
Jesus passes through the midst of us and goes on his way, unhindered, undomesticated, undaunted.
He ain’t your home boy!