"The Lord's Favor Doesn't Play Favorites" – Luke 4:21-30
Then he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, "Is not this Joseph's son?" He said to them, "Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, "Doctor, cure yourself!' And you will say, "Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.' " And he said, "Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet's hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian." When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him 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.
The nutshell translation of this Gospel story is that Jesus had presumably been doing his thing around Galilee – preaching, teaching, healing, perhaps, turning water into wine, and whatnot – and he had made a name for himself because of it all. So when he shows up back home in Nazareth, those people who knew him from back in the day are glad to get some face time with good ol’ Joseph’s son. When we pick up the story today, he had just read for them from Scripture and reminded them of the prophet’s promises about good news for the poor, about release for the captives, about recovery of sight for the blind, about freedom for the oppressed, and about the year of the Lord’s favor. And they like what they’re hearing.
And Jesus knows they’d like more than just to hear about these things. They’d like to see some of his best work, too, which is why he kind of teases them with that old proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself.” That’s why he says what he knows they’re all thinking, “Jesus, do something for us – your hometown family and friends – like we’ve heard you’ve been doing out there in the world. Release some captives, here. Heal some of us who are sick. Give some of that Lord’s favor to those of us who know you best, now that you’re home. If you’re doing it for them, surely you can do it for us, too.”
But Jesus reminds them that this “Lord’s favor” the prophets spoke of wasn’t about playing favorites. The Lord’s favor, isn’t about playing favorites.
He reminds them about how – during a famine once, way back in the day – when all of Israel – God’s chosen ones – could have used a little release and recovery and favor, that Elijah was sent outside the fold, to help some widow in Zarapheth of Sidon. And he reminds them about how, during the good ol’ days of the prophet Elisha, there were plenty of Hebrew lepers who could have used a cleansing, but that Elisha was sent to an outsider – some guy named Naaman from, of all places, Syria.
And Jesus’ homies lose their ever-loving, God-blessed minds. “You mean this grace and favor and recovery and release stuff isn’t just for us?!” “You mean we aren’t supposed to look out for number one?!?!” “You mean we don’t take care of our own, first, and then – with the left-overs – pick and choose who we think might be worthy?!?!?” “You mean this ‘recovery’ and ‘release’ and ‘freedom’ is for them, as much as it is for us?”
See, to begin to grasp what was so upsetting and unsettling to Jesus’ hometown crowd, we need to be reminded about the significance – or the insignificance – of these widows and these lepers about whom he was preaching. They were at the bottom of the barrel as far as social standing was concerned. They were outcasts. They were unclean, unworthy, unloveable, and unwanted by the rest of the world.
So, for Jesus to proclaim grace to lepers and widows was a pretty big deal. But that wasn’t all. Not only was he talking about the outcast, the sinner, the shamed and the shameful, he was talking about people outside of the Jewish circle. Jesus was saying that, just like the prophets Elijah and Elisha had showed, foreigners to Israel were welcome to the grace of God, too. Not only was God’s grace for losers – like lepers and widows – but it was even for (and especially for) Gentile widows and Gentile lepers, to boot. Which seems to imply that there wasn’t anyone beyond the reach of God’s love, or beyond the reach of his own ministry, as a result.
So, besides the fact that Naaman, that Gentile leper God loved, was from SYRIA, of all places, does any of this sound familiar? Could this be any more timely a lesson for us, in this day and age? If Jesus walked into the midst of his “homies” today – Christian churches on Sunday morning or the latest Presidential debate, perhaps, filled with those of us who call ourselves, friends and family and brothers and sisters in Christ – what would he find, and what would we do, if he reminded us about the likes of Naaman, the Syrian?
I’m afraid the truth is, too many Christians are too busy looking for cliffs whenever the message of God’s grace and love and mercy and favor gets too wide and too mighty and when it refuses to play favorites the way we pretend it should. And Naaman, the Syrian, and that widow in Zarepheth of Sidon, are just First Century examples of our 21st Century reality, it’s sad to say.
Have you heard about the Episcopal Church USA being effectively hurled off the cliff by the Anglican Church? The former has chosen to share grace with gay and lesbian children of God in ways, the latter isn’t convinced yet that God’s grace is to be extended. So, it seems, gays and lesbians have merely taken the place of widows and lepers when it comes to the pecking order of God’s favor.
And have you heard about Larycia Hawkins, that Christian professor at Wheaton College, a Christian school in Illinois, who tried to support and stand in solidarity with her Muslim friends, neighbors, colleagues, and students? Never mind cleansing a leper, she crossed her line by way of a Tweet on Twitter (144 characters or less) and by donning a hijab/head scarf in the school’s chapel. But it was too much – and enough, surprisingly – to get her disciplined and threatened to be fired. Again, Muslims seem like the 21st Century version of Gentiles in Jesus’ day – “other,” “different,” “un-worthy,” “to be feared, mistrusted, mistreated,” and so on.
And, speaking of Christian universities – bastions of higher education, free-thinking, open-minds; presumably places of wisdom, understanding, council, and might – the "Christian" Liberty University has been doing its best to live in opposition to Jesus’ example in today’s Gospel.
In the name of this Jesus, the Prince of Peace… this Jesus, who turns the other cheek… this Jesus, the Lamb of God who lays down his life for the sake of sinners… this Jesus, the lover of enemies… Liberty University’s president has preached fear and welcomed weapons and talks of “getting them before they get us.” But God's love doesn't insist on its own way, remember? It isn't arrogant, boastful, or rude. I’m not sure Namaan, the Syrian, would feel safe or free or love-able on Liberty’s campus.
So the questions for us are the same as the questions Jesus’ friends and family were wrestling with in Nazareth that day. Who are the 21st Century “widows” and “lepers” among us? Who are the unloved, the unloveable, the unworthy or the unwanted as we sit here today? Even more, who is outside the circle of God’s grace as far as Christians in the Church are concerned?
Is God’s grace big enough for the Jew and the Muslim? For the Protestant and the Catholic? For the married and the divorced? For the soldier and the terrorist? For the bigot and the bully?
How about the non-Lutheran, the non-baptized or the non-tither? What about the un-Christian, the un-churched and the un-repentant? And what about Hillary and The Donald, for crying out loud?
This morning’s Gospel reminds me – and what all of these questions force me to realize – is that none of this is for you or me to determine. None of this is for you or me to decide. The grace of God is just that – it’s God’s grace. It’s not for any one of us to dictate or deny. All we can do is celebrate and share it.
Sure, we can try to say who wins and who loses; who gets saved and who doesn’t. We can try to limit God’s grace or draw lines in the sand or keep it for ourselves. We could even try to silence the truth by hurling the messenger over a cliff or by running him out of town or by nailing him to a cross – but we have been there and done that.
And it’s the resurrection that reminds us that God’s grace will be shared – no matter what. It will bring good news to the poor. It will release the captive. It will restore sight to the blind. It will set the oppressed free. The Lord’s favor will be proclaimed – whether you and I are on board or not.
Because what I’m always convicted by when I hear about Jesus’ near death experience that day in Nazareth, is the invitation to get out of God’s way and to get with the program. What I hear is a call to the Church – our church at Cross of Grace and the larger Church as a whole – to not be left standing on the cliff like the people of Nazareth, only to find that Jesus has passed through the midst of us – untouched. What I don’t want any of us to find is that he’s continued on his way sharing grace, doing justice, and offering God’s blessings to a world so desperate for it, and that we were too busy or too angry or too self-absorbed or too selfish and scared to join him in that work.