3rd Sunday after Epiphany
- Epiphany 3.22 “The Scandal of Particularity” Luke 4:16-30
It went so well—at first. The hometown boy made good. They’d heard what we heard last week, what he did at Capernaum, just down the road a bit, turning water into wine—amazing wine, really great wine, best ever, 180 gallons. So the whole town’s turned out in the synagogue, hearing “Jesus is back—in the house!” It seems like it’s been a while since Jesus actually lived in Nazareth. Notice: Luke doesn’t say “Nazareth, where Jesus was living” but rather “he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up.” No one really knows where Jesus spent his time from age 13-30. Lots of legends about travels to Arabia, Persia, (even India), but nothing solid.
Anyway, he’d been at a family wedding in Capernaum the week before and did the whole water to wine thing which now everyone has heard about. They look for him in the synagogue because Jesus is recognized everywhere as a Rabbi, a presider over synagogues. This was theological training/credentialing that the Pharisee sect oversaw. How Jesus was trained, or when or where, is never explained anywhere, just like we don’t know where he was age 13-30.
Anyway, they recognize him as a Rabbi, and in those days, a visiting Rabbi would always be invited to preach (which is how Paul got to preach in so many different synagogues). Jesus was handed the scroll of Isaiah (probably the assigned lectionary reading for that day) and read “The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, because he has anointed me [the word “anointed” is literally “Christ” in Greek and “Messiah” in Hebrew] to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor.”
Jesus rolls up the scroll, gives it the vicar, and sat down (the pastor would sit for the sermon in those days and the congregation would stand, something that didn’t change in Christendom until the late middle ages. The word “cathedral” is is from the Latin word “seat” in which the bishop sat to preside and preach at Divine Service). And Jesus begins, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” And gracious words (not reported; I’d love a complete manuscript of what he said!) poured from his mouth and everyone was amazed and spoke well of him.
Like I said, it all started lovely, very well. Until someone went, “Hey, isn’t this Joseph’s son?” Which is to say “How can this guy be the Messiah? We know him. He grew up here. And he was nothing special and certainly his father was nothing special.” And grumbling and murmuring begin. And Jesus says: doubtless you will quote the proverb, “Physician, heal yourself.” What we heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well. See: they just came for the Bud Light, or should I say the Chateau Montrechet ’87?
And Jesus (with a bit of a tone, I’d wager) says, “No prophet is acceptable in his hometown. But, in truth, I tell you there were a ton of widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, starving, and he was only sent to the one widow in Sidon (not part of Israel) to do the flour and oil never running out thing. And there were boatloads of lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian general.”
And that fired up the crowd! The cries of hate began. The lynch mob formed and they brought him to the hill on which the town was built to throw him over the cliff. But “slipping through their fingers” miraculously (apparently) Jesus went his way.
So, they got a miracle. “I’ve got him. No, I don’t! You got him! No, you don’t. He’s s slippery bugger! Where did he go?” Just like he would pass through the stone of the tomb and the locked door of the upper room. A miracle I, personally, would love to see—even more than the water to wine thing. But because it was not the miracle they wanted, they don’t seem to recognize the miraculous when it’s right under their nose and they go home mad. So, the gracious words go in one ear and out the other…
And what shall we say of these things? What is the takeaway for us, today?
My old teacher Horace Hummel (who passed away just last month in his mid 90’s, peace be upon him) called this the “scandal of particularity”. Hummel figured it is the main reason for unbelief, then as now. Because we want our truth objective, general, impersonal, abstract, reasonable. We do not want Truth subjective, particular, personal, concrete, or confusing.
For example: the Greeks and all ancient people were happy with a truth that was in the heavens and in our heads that we could simply look and grasp—objective, not tied to particular people or places or ways. But God came to the Hebrews, a particular little tribe of semi-nomads in the hill country of the ancient Near East. And he only came to a few of them: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and a few prophets and one or two kings of theirs, like David.
And he didn’t come with a general, objective truth everyone could verify for themselves by scientific observation and repeatable experiments. He bound himself to a particular teaching given only to Moses, to a set form of liturgical worship in a tabernacle with an ark (whose current location only God and Indiana Jones know 😉 properly placed only in Jerusalem. Three times a year, all Israel would go to Jerusalem, to the temple. and only there, in that way, would God meet them. It was subjective, particular, personal, limited to certain places, people, and ways—concrete and confusing.
By the 1st century AD, Israel had gone kind of Greco-Roman and philosophical. They expected the final revelation of the Messiah to be objective, general, abstract, written clearly in the heavens and on each person’s heart in the same clear and reasonable way to validate each for him or herself.
But the carpenter’s son from Nazareth (who knows where he’s been or what he’s been doing the last 17 years?) shows up and says “Ta-da! Today’s your lucky day. Your Messiah is here to save you oppressed, blind, slaves, just like Isaiah promised.” And that sat poorly with them. “Who you calling oppressed and blind, bub?” And who are you to save? You talk pretty, but turn some water into wine and then we’ll have something to really talk over.”
So, the miracle of slipping through the angry mob’s fingers is lost on them. Because it’s not the miracle they wanted.
My takeaway’s “the more things change…” old Hummel was right: the scandal of particularity still scandalizes. That God should come and free us only by a set liturgy conducted by a certain group of [not generally impressive] men, in ways that don’t necessarily suit modern sensibilities—not abstract, general, rational enough; too subjective, particular, concrete and confusing—still annoys!
We want Jesus to come to us in clean, safe, sensible ways; to a tune we compose. But he comes with unwashed hands and unsanitary practices (drinking his blood from a common cup!) and with sing-talking that is off-putting. It reminds us that he alone is King. We are all mere subjects. And, if we won’t have Jesus his way, we simply won’t get him at all.
Many today are starving for meaning in life. Many are sick unto death. But only by the liturgical word and sacrament of the church catholic—in a scandalously particular, concrete, confusing way—Jesus comes. To you. To me. Here. Now. Don’t let him slip through your fingers, and Peace, surpassing all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.