When Jesus began pushing boundaries, he also started pushing buttons, and the beginning of his ministry was almost the end of him. Nazareth’s favorite son had a pretty good reputation by the time he returned home – he “was praised by everyone” (Luke 4:15) – and he delivered a pretty good message. But popular opinion is fickle; it can turn on a sound bite.
He started well. When he read the scripture about “the year of the Lord’s favor” (v. 19), he reminded people of their greatest hope and deepest dream. He even talked about its coming true. People who in the darkest of times speak well of dreams coming true can be pretty popular on the lecture circuit. It’s how satans and saints are made – think of Jim Jones and Billy Graham. And when that happens, it’s easy to fall quickly into disfavor.
“Today your dreams and the promise of the ages have been fulfilled,” he said (v. 21). Then, if he had been a reasonable person, he might have kept his mouth shut, because that’s when everybody spoke well of him, amazed by the gracious words that fell from his lips (v. 22). But he goes on to press his point, explaining the implications of what he has just said.
If he had been a reasonable person he might have politely basked in the adulation as he glanced down to fumble with the fold of his robe or scuff the toe of his sandal on the synagogue floor. If he had been a reasonable person he might have waited for the right moment, the teachable moment, before gently offering his truth into the mix of opinions that swirled around him that day – if he had been a reasonable person.
“Reasonable people adapt themselves to the world,” playwright George Bernard Shaw said. “Unreasonable people attempt to adapt the world to themselves. All progress, therefore, depends on unreasonable people.” And so does growth in the reign of God. It depends upon people unreasonable enough to try to adapt life in this world to their vision of faith rather than let faith’s vision dissolve into conformity to the world – unreasonable enough to heed Saint Paul: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2).
But Jesus was not behaving like a reasonable person. He talked as if he trusted that the promise of God really had been fulfilled, despite what people read in the newspapers. Then, instead of leaving well enough alone, he started to tell them what implications that had for their lives, for their relationships with their families and neighbors, for their social norms and national politics, for their understanding of what God’s reign was really all about.
That’s when they got all worked up – “filled with rage,” the scripture tells us – and drove him out of town, where they tried to lynch him (Luke 4:28-29). That’s how the gospel offended polite society: “Push my buttons, and I’ll push you off a cliff.” God knows how he got away.
Jesus, the hometown boy whose praise was being sung throughout the country, returned home and delivered the news they had been waiting for and praying for. God’s kingdom had come and was theirs for the taking. And then he went too far and uttered the unthinkable blasphemy. Reminding them of times when God’s grace had been poured out upon Gentiles instead of Jews, he implied that the blessings of God’s kingdom were for everyone, whether or not they were among those who thought of themselves as chosen.
It’s easy enough to interpret what happened in the synagogue that day; it’s more difficult to face its implications for us. Jesus’ proclamation is still bad news, even blasphemy, for those today whose definition of self and personal worth depends upon keeping themselves distinct from others – protected from those who think and view faith differently; protected from those whose ethnicity is suspect because it is little understood; protected from those whose social and economic needs, if effectively addressed, would threaten the social and economic security of their current lifestyle; protected from those whose sexual orientation is different from theirs. For such people, the gospel still feels like bad news, even like blasphemy.
But if Jesus’ proclamation feels like bad news for some, it is good news for us. It means we are freed from every dehumanizing label or category that might exclude us, or put us and keep us on the fringe of true community. It means that no one here, regardless of your belief system or denominational affiliation, or your level of income or education, or your ethnicity or nationality or family of origin, or your sexual orientation, or your age or degree of advancement in discipleship, or the condition of your relationship with God – that no one here is excluded from the bountiful feast of God’s grace.
It also means that we are freed from the burden of determining who is in and who is out of God’s favor, freed to live in love with others, so that others never, for any reason, lose their value in our lives, never lose their value in the whole of creation, are never written off as worthless or hopeless. And in today’s world, that is good news indeed.