Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
This Sunday’s Gospel gives us the conclusion to the gripping story we heard last week about the Jubilee Year. Last week, Jesus read from Isaiah about bringing good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, and proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor – the year of Jubilee. More than that, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” It has been fulfilled NOW. And NOW. And NOW.
We discover that the year of Jubilee, the year of the Lord’s favor, isn’t only the Jubilee as we have it from Jewish law, where debts are forgiven and an unjust society is reordered, ever forty-nine years. When Jesus proclaims the word has been fulfilled, the Jubilee becomes now, and every moment. The Jubilee is constant.
Last week’s Gospel ended on that joyful note – but this week’s Gospel presents those same words – “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” This week, we experience some of the effect of what it means to say that the Jubilee is now, and always.
The tone of the crowd is especially telling in today’s gospel. At first, “all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came out of his mouth.” “Awww, isn’t that nice,” they’re thinking. “Little Jesus – I always knew he had a special something.” They want him to do all the things – the miraculous things they’ve heard about from Capernaum.
But Jesus doesn’t do all the things and he doesn’t stop with the gracious words. He is not here to make nice – perhaps he has in mind today’s reading from Jeremiah, where Jeremiah is afraid to speak because he is a youth. God commands him to have courage and to speak God’s words – regardless of whether they are gracious words (as sometimes they will be) or ungracious words, as Jeremiah’s words most definitely are.
Jesus’ next words are decidedly ungracious words, unwelcome words. For Jesus describes two situations with downtrodden people: a widow, and a leper. “There were many widows in Israel” he notes – but God didn’t come to them, God came to a foreigner, a widow from Sidon. “There were many lepers in Israel” but God came to a leper from Syria and healed him instead.
In other words, Jesus may indeed be proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor in Nazareth, and he may be proclaiming that it is now – but he is also and offensively saying that while the Lord’s favor is now, the people God favors are not necessarily the people we expect God to favor.
As with many scriptures in recent weeks, these scriptures remind us yet again how much God favors the alien, the stranger in the land, the person who has no homeland and needs one – but here the scriptures go one further. The woman is both stranger and widow; the man is both leper and foreigner. These are people whose lives feature double the marks of injustice.
The issue here, however, is NOT that God pits cases of injustice against each other. The issue is that the Nazoreans clearly see themselves in the Isaiah passage as the people needing the justice (which they do!)– and then they take it one step further. They are the people in need of God’s justice – and therefore they are the good ones. Perhaps they even think this with a bit of smugness. Thus, what should be a proclamation about God and God’s goodness to those in need, becomes instead a proclamation about the goodness of people, at least as the Nazoreans would have it.
We can easily see, then, why “all spoke well of him” in one instant but in the very next instant “they were all filled with fury” and ran him out of town. Jesus was calling them out on their own smug sense of goodness.
Jesus words’ are not very welcome at all. Surely, just as then, Jesus’ words sit uncomfortably with us today.
Christians, just as much as others, have a temptation to reify goodness even above God, to become smug and self-complacent about ourselves especially if we perceive ourselves as fitting into the “good” crowd of whom God must surely approve. Sometimes there becomes a hierarchy of perceived goodness in Christianity – the ones who feed the poor are clearly better than the ones whose lives of goodness are less apparent – perhaps the hidden lives of goodness, the ones who, as the Gospel says, did not know they were serving Jesus as they went about their lives.
To accept today’s gospel reading is to recognize – though hopefully with better spirit than the town of Nazareth did – that even our own perceived goodness isn’t going to ensure God’s gracious action in our lives. We can and should have faith in what Jesus proclaims – that God is present and stands for the poor, the disabled, the widows, and more. God is with us. God stands against injustice.
But it is no faith-filled claim to say that I am that person who is poor or disabled or so forth – and therefore “the good one.” Indeed, to say that shows a lack of faith.
God is different from us. God does not seek a relationship with us because we are good (or think we are) but because, well, we’re simply us, and God loves us. We do not have to try to be the widow or the leper that we hope God will save – because God already seeks and loves us as we are.
Today’s epistle reading reminds us of the sheer strangeness of God’s love: “Love is patient and kind.” “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.” I know so many relationships that have reached a breaking point precisely because one or another person tried too hard to endure all things, believe all things, hope all things. Paul’s letter shows instead what perfect love is – and especially reminds us that this love must come from God. Whatever goodness we think we have – whatever tongues or gifts or visions – won’t do much at all without God who is love.
If we try too hard, try too much to rely on our own wisdom and goodness, we will meet with Jesus’ unwelcome words. But instead, Jesus calls us to a life of faith and love that does not make an idol out of even our own goodness. In this is rest. In this is simplicity. In this is the way of God.