January 26, 2007 1 Comment
4 Epiphany Yr C, 28/01/2007
Rev. Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Pastor of Grace Lutheran Church, &
Chaplain of The Good Samaritan Society’s
South Ridge Village, Medicine Hat, Alberta
“Jesus in Nazareth”
A man wrote into Reader’s Digest with an embarrassing story about his former boss. This gentleman was just stepping out of the shower one evening when his wife called and asked him to run down to the basement and turn off the iron she had accidentally left on. Without bothering to grab a towel or robe, the man headed down to the basement. Just as he reached the bottom stair, the lights came on and a dozen friends and colleagues jumped out and shouted, “Surprise!” His wife had planned a secret party for the man’s 40th birthday. 1
This kind of surprise is indeed a shock to the system, is it not? If I were that poor fellow, I’d have been very embarrassed about such an incident. If I were a member of that party crowd, I’d also be rather surprised and shocked, at seeing that poor fellow in his birthday suit.
A similar type of surprise and shock was what that synagogue crowd most likely experienced when their hometown boy, Jesus, read the Isaiah scroll portion from chapters fifty-eight and sixty-one, and then said: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” According to Luke, they seemed rather impressed with this Jesus. Maybe he read or chanted the text without flaw; with right emphasis in the right places, in a pleasing modular tone, and so forth. At first, hearing those words, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled…” the people perhaps felt proud of themselves and that Jesus was complimenting them, something along the lines of “We are the greatest!” However, when others said “Wait a minute, this Jesus is Joe and Mary’s son, he’s no big deal, why are some of you so taken with him?”
To add insult to injury, Jesus agitates the crowd more with his witty proverbs saying ‘Doctor cure yourself!’ and accusing them of doubting him and only looking for an entertaining miracle show, further quoting the proverb of rejection “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” If that wasn’t enough to get everybody’s wig out of joint, Jesus goes on to remind his audience of an Elijah story and an Elisha story, from the books of Kings. In both stories, he tells them, “don’t you remember that God sent Elijah to help a Gentile widow and Elisha helped an enemy Gentile army general.”
Now this was too much for his hometown audience. How dare this Jesus, this hometown boy preach like this to us! Who does he think he is? Him the Messiah and fulfiller of Isaiah’s prophecy? No way! He’s only a mislead carpenter’s son turned into a crazy preacher! What’s all this stuff about God accepting the Gentiles? Doesn’t he know that we’re God’s chosen people? If the Messiah comes, he’s coming for us. He’s going to favour us, not the Gentiles. He can’t be the Messiah; he’s not even a true prophet. Away with him!
As we consider this story are there truths that apply to us? I believe the answer is yes. For example, with regards to the proverb ‘Doctor, cure yourself,’ I remember the story of a doctor that was aired on a television program several years ago. The program focussed on skin cancer and the dangers of sun tanning. One medical doctor knew a lot about the high risks of skin cancer and sun tanning, yet she knowingly exposed herself to the sun because she wanted a tan. Sadly, the inevitable happened, she was diagnosed with skin cancer and died of it. This proverb, although a rather cynical remark in the context of today’s gospel, is quite true to real life. Some of you may also know of other medical doctors who, although are in the health care profession and experts in their field—yet, they sometimes sadly fail to care for their personal health. The same on occasion applies to other professions and trades as well. For example, the lawyer may focus so much on the wills of his or her clients that they neglect to make out their own will. The mechanic may be so busy fixing everyone else’s vehicles that they neglect their own. Is this proverb also true of us? However, in the case of Jesus the proverb is not true in that he modelled perfect health for others. He was full of divine energy, abundant life; he lived life perfectly to its very fullest. He epitomised health and well-being, from him flowed the perfect peace of God.
In the second proverb, “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown,” I have observed this truth on more than one occasion. Here’s one example. Recently, my seminary in Saskatoon organised a search committee to facilitate the process of choosing a new seminary president. At least one or two or possibly more Canadian born candidates applied for the position. However, the search committee did not make a decision. Some time later, the search committee reconvened, advertised again for the position, and chose someone who was not Canadian born. Why is it that we—and I don’t think this is limited to Jews of Jesus’ day or contemporary Canadians!—humans reject the person from our hometown? Are we not the same as that crowd in the Nazareth synagogue who rejected Jesus? Does, as the old saw puts it, familiarity breed contempt? Perhaps. When I think of all the pastors I know, I cannot recall one who has been called to her or his hometown parish.
Is there not a great irony here in our gospel story? On the one hand, “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” On the other hand, Jesus’ message by citing the two stories of Elijah and Elisha emphasise the importance of God’s grace for the Gentiles. Jesus did not come only as the Messiah of the Jews. Rather, Jesus is the Messiah of all peoples, every race, and each ethnic background. God loves and accepts outsiders as much as insiders. This offends those who believe they are the chosen people and because of their being chosen therefore deserve to be privileged. Are we not better than those non-Christians or non-Lutherans? Jesus is saying that we are all God’s children and equal in God’s eyes. God loves and has chosen us all, regardless of our background. I love the following story.
During World War I, a Protestant chaplain with the American troops in Italy became a friend of a local Roman Catholic priest. In time, the Protestant chaplain moved on with his unit. The enemy killed him. The priest heard about his friend’s death. He asked the military authorities for permission to bury his friend’s body in his church cemetery. The army gave permission. But the priest ran into a problem with his own Roman Catholic Church authorities. They were sympathetic, but they said they could not approve the burial of a non-Catholic body in a Catholic cemetery. So, the priest buried his friend’s body just outside the cemetery fence.
Years later, an American veteran made a sentimental journey back to Italy. He knew what had happened in the village. He visited the old priest who was still the pastor of the church in that place. The first thing the veteran did was to ask to see the grave of the Protestant chaplain. When they walked out to the cemetery, the veteran was surprised to find the grave was now inside the fence. “Ah,” he said, “I see you got permission to move the body.” “No,” said the priest. “They told me where I couldn’t bury the body. But nobody ever told me I couldn’t move the fence!” 2
Jesus came into the world to “move the fence.” He’s still “moving the fence.” He would like everyone to be inside the fence. Whether we are insiders or outsiders, Jews or Gentiles, male or female, rich or poor, we are all chosen by God. God loves us and offers us his grace to one and all. For that, thanks be to God. Amen.
1 “Life in These United States,” Readers Digest, Mar. 1997, p. 84.2 Emphasis online.