11th February 2010
Rev Dr Max Champion at St John's UCA Mt Waverley (Sunday 31 January 2010)
Lessons - Psalm 10:12-18; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; Luke 4:21-30
And Jesus started by saying to them, 'Today this scripture has been
fulfilled in your hearing.' (Luke 4:21 RSV)
This verse links last week's reading to this week's. It reaffirms Luke's conviction that 'God was in Christ' preaching good news to the poor, release to captives, sight to the blind and freedom to the oppressed.
Christians through the ages have been challenged by this passage to get involved with mission among people with very different beliefs and practices from their own. It has stirred them to leave their comfort zone to work among the neglected and the despised to bring the Gospel. It has been the catalyst for work with groups like Aborigines, migrants or asylum- seekers to bring healing, compassion and hope.
Here we see that the Spirit of God, supremely embodied in Jesus, doesn't ignore the plight of those who are poor, oppressed, outcast, persecuted or unbelieving. To the contrary, it is God's will that they be included in the Kingdom of God. It is noteworthy in verses 18&19 that, in quoting from Isaiah 61:1-2, Jesus omits reference to 'the day of God's vengeance' and includes hope for the blind and oppressed drawn from Isaiah 58:6. No-one is beyond the reach of God's mercy. Beware, he says, that in looking for God's judgment on human evil you miss the expansive reach of the Gospel!
What is it that offends Jesus' fellow worshippers at Nazareth? They weren't blind to the need to do works of charity; they knew that Israel was called to be a 'light to the nations'. However, they had come to understand their calling, not as a sign of God's unmerited grace to them, but as an exclusive privilege. What offends them is Jesus' refusal to limit the breadth of God's love.
Jesus exposes their arrogance when he says: 'Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, "Physician, heal yourself" (so that) what you have heard I did at Capernaum, I will do here also in your own country! (v23)' In effect they argue that, because 'charity begins at home', Jesus should do for them what he is reported to have done for others. After all, 'You have to look after your own.'
Despite their initial acceptance of his 'gracious words' (v 22), they soon expose their pettiness (about the blessings received by other Jews) and then their resentment (towards blessings received by hated foreigners).
Jesus doesn't justify himself but reminds them of two well-known stories in the book of Kings which show that 'God has no favourites'.
* The first tells how, in a time of famine and drought in Israel (in the
corrupt reign of King Ahab), the prophet Elijah provided food and drink
to a woman who was not an Israelite but a 'widow of Zarephath in
Sidon' (1 Kings 17: 8,9).
* The second tells how the prophet Elisha, against the orders of King
Jehoram, cures Naaman (a military commander in the Syrian army which
had defeated Israel) of leprosy. (2 Kings 5:1-14.)
The widow and the commander were outsiders to Judaism but insiders to the mercy of God!
Jesus makes it plain that with God 'charity' begins wherever there is need. Thus he undermines the exclusivism which can be found in every area of life. No wonder that the townsfolk were 'filled with wrath' (v28 RSV) at the suggestion that the benefits of the kingdom extend beyond the 'people of God' - and may bypass them. No wonder, after a brief period of enthusiasm when he was 'glorified by all' (v15), they want to do away with this prophetic trouble-maker. (v29)
Most of us don't see this episode as particularly remarkable. What Jesus says is commonsense. There is no place for religious and political bigotry. We all belong to the human family and must uphold universal principles of dignity. To deny help because a person or community doesn't share our culture, ethnicity, sex or religion is intolerable. As Jesus says, there is no place in society for neglect of the poor, the sick, the oppressed, the persecuted or foreigners who don't share our religion. On that point most decent people agree.
Perhaps Jesus' teaching about 'Christian values' has so filtered into our consciousness that we think that they are thought to be more or less the same as 'Australian values'. After all, we pride ourselves on our basic fairness - notwithstanding our horror at attacks on Indians, our ill-ease among non-Anglo migrants and indigenous people, our suspicions about 'queue jumping asylum-seekers' or our different ideas on how our values are to be achieved and maintained.
The process of assimilating 'Jesus values' to 'human values' is nearing its historical end. Most people now think that being 'Christian' means being fair and tolerant, as Jesus taught. It is now common to separate what Jesus says from who he is - to focus on his 'universal values' and forget that the anger caused by Jesus (then and now) is not simply by what he teaches but who he is. We mustn't separate 'Christian principles'
taught by Jesus from his embodiment of God's grace and goodness.
Otherwise, we misrepresent the Gospel. It is not the universal values alone that are important but the fact that Christ embodies God's love for our strife-torn world.
The real scandal is when Jesus says 'Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing' (v21): that in him alone is the fullness of God's goodness and mercy (v18) for all. This ultimately is the reason for their murderous rage (v29) and his rejection throughout his ministry on the way to the Cross. Jesus doesn't look after his own 'chosen people' but calls them into deeper, broader communion with all - including the poor, the oppressed, the persecuted and even the enemies of faith.
Despite what many critics of Christianity say, it is a great blessing that Western cultures like ours have benefited from the universal message of grace in Christ. Now though we must ask whether Christianity has a future in the West. Isn't what Jesus says here about charity now basically accepted by all humane people - by all who believe in universal values and human rights?
* It is no accident that the major influence in the formation of Western
civilisation is the Christian tradition. The development of political,
legal and social institutions that (albeit imperfectly) protect the
dignity of all and minimise the worst effects of human corruptibility
is unthinkable apart from belief in the mercy and righteousness of God
embodied in Christ. Faith in Christ which is responsible to God has
been the basis for affirming and upholding human dignity.
* Today, however, this rich tradition to our great cost has lost its
relationship to Christ. Now, more and more, human dignity is determined
by whether or not our needs and desires are fulfilled. We hear a lot
about the right to (individual) self-fulfilment and (collective) self-
determination, but not much about our calling to mission beyond our own
* Thankfully there still is a residue of 'universal charity' where,
regardless of belief, people respond generously and sacrificially to
human need in the spirit of Christ's teaching, e.g. Haiti, Indians,
fires. If, however, we forget that the One who angered his fellows (by
his claim on their charitableness) was the very embodiment of God's
righteousness and mercy, then we shall become proud of our own innate
goodness and moral progress and deaf to God's judgment on our high
It is absolutely crucial, therefore, that the Church reminds our leaders, fellow-citizens and ourselves of the integral connection between Christ and the universal values that we now largely take for granted. While acknowledging the often flawed history of the Church, we must argue with those who think it is a good thing to be rid of the 'inhumanity of Christianity'. If that were to happen, we would be ridding ourselves of the one tradition of faith, hope and love that promotes and defends human dignity in the image of God and is also utterly realistic about our capacity to distort even the highest motives.
For example, without being connected to Christ, a value like tolerance will lose its ability to encourage respect for those with whom we really disagree and will become a means by which beliefs and practices hostile to God's mercy and righteousness come to be accepted and then enforced as tolerable.
The Church's mission involves much more than being tolerant of others'
values. It is a seeking of their well-being as sons and daughters of God and brothers and sisters of Christ. It is the expression of faith in the One who embodies the fullness of God's reconciling love, displayed in the whole of his life, death and resurrection for the benefit of all, including 'outsiders' who may yet come to know the magnificence of grace.
Our prayer must be that we and our fellows may see the reality of God in Jesus so that, like so many folk in Luke's Gospel, we shall be glad at the breadth and depth of God's love and committed to protecting human dignity wherever it is abused.
Rev Dr Max Champion is minister in the St John's Uniting Church, Mt Waverley, Victoria, Australia. Dr Champion is Chair of the Assembly of Confessing Congregations within the UCA.