10.31.2009

Jesus, Religion, Race, and Nationality


One morning personal Bible study this week, I got to what I thought was a familiar passage in the gospel according to Luke. Jesus has just returned from being tempted in the wilderness, and, being a good Jew, goes to synagogue. As is the custom, he takes his turn reading from the Scriptures. But the passage he chooses, and the way in which he reads it, immediately draws the attention of the entire room. He reads from the 61st chapter of the book of Isaiah, which speaks of the coming Messiah, upon whom God's Spirit rests, who will do great and redemptive works for God's people. With great dramatic flair, he closes the scroll, hands it back to the attendant, pauses for effect, and then says, "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

Shocking! Imagine walking into any synagogue or church today and doing this. I don't care how much charisma oozes out of you, or how booming your voice; this sort of antic would be met with either irritation ("get this clown out of here!"), indignation ("how dare you make such a claim!"), or, I suppose if your congregation is a more sympathetic one, concern ("oh dear, it appears our guest has lost his marbles!").

My memory of this passage was that the reaction Jesus actually got was rage: they rushed at him, dragged him to the edge of a cliff, and desired to throw him off the side, although somehow he was able to escape and walk away. But in reading this passage earlier this week, I realized that reaction doesn't happen until several verses after Jesus is done reading. In fact, the synagogue members' immediate response to Jesus' dramatic reading can almost be described as bemused pride: Luke records that they spoke well of him and wondered, "say, isn't this Joseph's son?" Close your eyes and imagine the pleased looks on people's faces and the happy tone of people's voices as they all say or think, "Well, this is simply delightful; our hometown son thinks he's the Messiah!"

So apparently Jesus' audacious and irreverent claim to be the Messiah and to speak Scripture not as one just reading it wasn't cause for sharp rebuke or deep ire, although I hope you can concede why my faulty memory might erroneously make that connection. So what was it that caused the audience to fly off the handle and forcibly remove Jesus to a high place where they could throw him off a ledge?

Apparently it was not so much religion as race and nationality. In his sermon, "Jesus is the End of Ethnocentrism," Pastor John Piper notes that Jesus responds to the crowd's favorable reaction to his bold reading with two very controversial and bothersome stories from the Old Testament. Both stories are pre-cursors to the more expansive view of who constitutes the people of God that the New Testament is more known for, which will start with Jesus' own ministry and then expand greatly through the work of such early believers as Peter, Paul, and Silas. Both stories, in other words, are reminders that this more expansive definition of who can be a child of God will not be a new concept starting with Jesus, but will be very much consistent with the wishes and purposes of God dating all the way back to Old Testament days.

The first story notes that though there were many needy widows in Israel during a particular time of famine, they were left wanting while the great prophet Elijah was sent to help a Sidonean widow. The second story notes that though there were many needy lepers in Israel who were in need of cleansing, they were left untouched while the great prophet Elisha was sent to help a Syrian king who was a leper.

There isn't much context that Jesus provides as far as why he conjures up these two Old Testament stories out of the blue, but the message is clear nonetheless: you may see me as your hometown son, but as the Messiah, my ministry will reach well beyond you to encompass people from other races and nationalities. The response is immediate: "And all the people in the synagogue were filled with rage as they heard these things; and they got up and drove Him out of the city, and led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city had been built, in order to throw Him down the cliff."

To be sure, outside the walls of our religious gatherings, the audacious claims that Jesus makes over and over again - that He is the One, and that there is no Truth, Life, or Way to the Father but through Him - are often cause for rage among those who find such claims the height of arrogance, narrow-mindedness, and intolerance. I am scared, though, to consider two things about those of us who reside inside the walls. First, have Jesus' audacious claims lost their effect with us? Instead of realizing just how brazen His statements are, and adjusting our lives based on the fact that they are actually true, do we respond with a pleasant, "Well, isn't that special?"

Second, do we also become enraged at the thought that Jesus is brashly and somewhat abruptly pushing against our notions of who are the people of God, stretching it outward to encompass more races and nationalities? Does it bother us when we are reminded that the true work of God sometimes bypasses "us" (as we define it) for a season to bless "others" (again, as we define it)? Would we rather throw this Jesus off a cliff and make a new one up in our image, which takes care of our own and keeps those different from us away?

Or, are we constantly astounded by Jesus' words and behaviors, realizing how jarring they would be today as they were back then, determining that yet they are true and thus perhaps our own lives ought to be more provocative and bold? And, are we choosing not to fight against Jesus' more expansive understanding of who's in His tent, and instead working cheerfully and eagerly to break down barriers and push out walls so that others of different races and nationalities can be included?

Again, I am scared to consider which it is. Because I have done a little soul-searching and I don't like all I see inside of me. But I am trying to turn it around. And, by God's grace, perhaps we Christians can also turn it around. Thankfully, despite any past wounds we have wrought and any past prejudices we have kept, God is still able to work in spite of us and through us to do a great work of reconciliation and Kingdom-building. People can believe whatever they want to believe, so if you want to make Jesus into your own image, that's your choice. But if you want to say that you truly follow Him, you have to get used to Him making bold religious claims about His kingship, and doing bold work to push the boundaries of that kingdom past racial and national boundaries. And you have to decide that, yes in fact, this is the One that you are going to call Lord and Savior.

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