What do we really know?

Epiphany 4
Luke 4:22-30
Marian Free

In the name of God who desires that we open our eyes so that we might truly see. Amen.

Imagine that it is time to elect a world leader and that your vote is crucial in the final decision. There are three leading candidates and you have the following information about each. The first associates with crooked politicians, and consults with astrologers. He’s had two mistresses. He also chain smokes and drinks 8 to 10 martinis a day. The second was kicked out of office twice. He sleeps until noon and he used opium in college. Every night he drinks a quart of whisky. The third is a decorated war hero. He’s a vegetarian, doesn’t smoke, drinks an occasional beer and hasn’t had any extra-marital affairs. Which of these would be your choice?

If you chose the first, you would have elected Franklin D. Roosevelt. The second would have allowed Winston Churchill to rule the world. Had you voted for the clean living, war hero – number three – you would have voted Adolf Hitler to a position of world domination. Of course, a short quiz such as that is not a fair way to assess your ability to judge someone’s character or leadership abilities, but it is a reminder that some of our judgements of other people are not always based on all the possible available.

It is human nature to make decisions about other people based on limited information. At the same time, we are biased by our own backgrounds, our prejudices and our needs. We give ourselves permission to overlook the faults of those whose achievements we admire and we allow familiarity to blind us to the qualities and the achievements of those closest to us. We have a tendency to let past experiences determine present perception such that some people can never outlive our bad opinion. The result is that we do not always see clearly to assess either the gifts or the deficits of the people around us.

Today’s gospel begins half way through a story which we began last week. It is the account of Jesus’ preaching in the synagogue in his home town of Nazareth. You will remember that Jesus takes the scroll and reads a portion of Isaiah 61 – a classic text of liberation. Then takes his seat and with the eyes of all fixed on him he says: ‘‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’

One might expect that the congregation would be indignant that Jesus was daring to make such an outrageous claim, but their immediate reaction is very positive. We are told: “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” Indeed they evince a certain amount of pride: “Is not this Joseph’s son?” (In other words: Isn’t he one of our own?) It is Jesus’ response to this praise that is puzzling. Instead of humbly accepting the recognition and respect of the people, Jesus, deliberately sets out to antagonize them. First of all he quotes a well-known proverb: “Doctor, cure yourself.” Then he anticipates what they might say to him: “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” He implies is that they will want to keep him to themselves as their own prophet and miracle-worker. So he uses the Old Testament examples of Elijah and Elisha to remind them that his ministry cannot be confined to a single place.

No wonder those in the synagogue are enraged. So far as we know, their reaction to Jesus has only been positive and his response is to insult them – to accuse them of intentions which they haven’t even verbalised. It’s not at all surprising that they are so incensed that they want to drive him out of the village and off a cliff.

So what is really going on here? What on earth is Jesus thinking? What is he trying to achieve? The members of the synagogue are not part of the religious hierarchy. They are in fact simple peasants, the very people who respond most positively to Jesus and his message and who make up the bulk of his followers. Why, when Jesus’ reception in his home town has been so positive, would he insult and offend them?

It appears that Jesus has discerned that the villager’s understanding is superficial and self serving. Blinded by familiarity, they see not Jesus the son of God, but only Joseph’s son –albeit a new and improved version. He is so well known to them that they do not, and possibly can not, see him for who he really is. They measure him according to known criterion. They know and understand the categories of prophet and miracle worker and can comfortably fit Jesus into one or both of them. However, their imaginations will not stretch to the point where they can see Jesus as the one who fulfils the words of Isaiah.

Jesus is right. The Nazarenes probably do have an expectation that they can appeal to him to do for them what he has apparently done elsewhere – perform miracles. They want him to be their local prophet. This is the reason that he cannot perform miracles among them. Miracle-working is Jesus’ primary function. His role, as the reading from Isaiah has made clear is to set the people free, to liberate them from their false conceptions and to turn their hearts and minds to God.

Jesus’ reaction is born of disappointment and frustration. Jesus’ apparent ungraciousness is his way of confronting their restricted vision and an attempt to open their minds to help them to see who he really is and what he is about.

Twenty centuries later, today’s gospel speaks to us. The reaction of the Nazarenes forces us to ask ourselves: Is our understanding of Jesus based on all the facts – the uncomfortable as well as the comfortable? Have we jumped too soon to a conclusion as to whom and what Jesus is? Are we so confident in our knowledge of Jesus that we believe that we have nothing more to learn? Do we believe in Jesus primarily on the basis of what we believe he can do for us? Do we treat Jesus as someone so familiar to us that we are no longer surprised by what he says or does?

Through his actions and his teaching, the Jesus of the gospels constantly challenges us to be open to new experiences and continually asks us to be willing to give up our pre-conceptions so that we can truly understand who he is and who we can be in relation to him. We have a choice, we can like the Nazarenes, choose to push Jesus away, or we can open our hearts and minds such that we are always ready to see what it is he wants to reveal to us.

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