On the fourth Sunday after Epiphany, the story of Jesus’ return to his hometown picks up where it left off.
The overlapping verse, the end of last week’s pericope and the beginning of this week’s passage, is 4:21, “Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,’” where “this scripture” refers to Jesus’ words quoting/paraphrasing Isaiah 61:1-2.
But, the promise of fulfillment from Jesus is not just today, in this moment, nor is it temporary and fleeting. Rather, that Isaiah’s words have been fulfilled in our hearing has indeed happened and the effect of that hearing is ongoing (perfect tense in Greek). What difference does this make? It brings us into the never-ending reality of how scripture is being fulfilled and invites us into making God’s reality possible. Our hearing plays a part in the promise of Isaiah’s words.
That is, we are in the midst of, in the presence of, and participating in proclaiming release to the captives, seeing to the recovery of sight to the blind, setting the oppressed free, and witnessing to the moment of the Lord’s favor. This is no small invitation at the end of the season of Epiphany. In part, we are asked to carry Epiphany into the dim, even dark months that are the season of Lent. We are asked to take seriously that we have a part in making the year of God’s favor a reality.
Home is Not Necessarily Where the Heart Is
This story does not give much hope to the seminary student, or even pastor, who returns to her home congregation to preach. It’s hard enough to live up to anticipated expectations. It’s harder still, of course, to meet up with unexpected rejection. There is a very human dimension to this whole story. When the hometown boy makes good, there are usually more than a few who resent the success.
Our text for today is the rest of the story, so to speak, and it doesn’t end well. But before we get to the “cliff-hanger,” there are a few details about Jesus’ words that are important to note, particularly for overall themes in Luke’s Gospel. Working our way backwards, that Jesus references the widow at Zarephath and the leper Naaman, the Syrian, reveals for whom Jesus has come — the widows, the lepers, the outsiders. Jesus’ whole ministry will be for the least of these, over and over again. Moreover, Jesus is for everyone. Both Elijah and Elisha take God into places where God was not thought to be and had no business being. It is these words of inclusion, Jesus’ own interpretation of his ministry, the real reason for God in a manger, that elicit a very quick transition from awe to rage for the hearers of Jesus’ words. Why is that?
The description of Jesus as prophet, along with Jesus’ reference to past prophets in Israel’s history, is a primary category through which Luke presents Jesus. Jesus is a righteous and innocent prophet as will be made clear by Luke’s account of the centurion’s words at the death of Jesus — “surely, this man was innocent” (Luke 23:47). Remembering the role of the Old Testament prophets is important for this passage. Prophecy is not about predicting the future, unless it means saying that the future is secure in God.
Rather, prophets tell the truth about the present and give hope to God’s presence. Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth is a prophetic message. Jesus tells the truth about the realities of our world, where the lowly are looked down upon, where the poor sleep in cardboard boxes under freeways, where the captives remain in their prisons, where the rich live exceedingly full lives. But reading — or hearing — between the lines, Jesus’ announces that God’s favor is upon us, upon all, imperceptibly here and now.
Yet, that Jesus knows no prophet is accepted in his or her hometown does indeed predict the very near future. That’s the culminating promise of Epiphany — that our God is near, is here. That our God is indeed revealing God’s very self even when it appears that everything God is for cannot always be perceived.
Luke’s Jesus is Real Life
As I write this, perhaps serendipitously past the contractual deadline, we are three days after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. It’s worthwhile to consider at this point if anything has changed since this national and yet most personal tragedy. More stringent gun laws? More concern for mental health? We might ask the same question of Christmas. Six weeks later, after God decided to become human and be born in a stable, are we any different? Has our outlook on life changed? Has our faith changed? Have we?
Because really, honestly, what happens when an event rocks our world? Stops us in our tracks? Makes our life out of control? We’d like to think that an immediate transformation takes place, that we have been forever altered, that life will never be the same again, and indeed there are those times when that does happen. Yet, all too often, the desire for normalcy outweighs the need for change. Our demand for constancy and predictability overshadows our correction. Our eschewing of difficulty results in complacency. And perhaps we don’t even recognize the moment for what it is and then choose rejection over the truth.
And so, we bring our dashed hopes, our suspicions, our fears, to the first cliff we can find so that by pushing them off the precipice we might ensure our own security, safety, and salvation. Yet, Jesus pushes through our walls of resistance, our facades of forbearance, and our determined denial toward that which will truly bring us peace, comfort and hope. It is a most fitting transition to the season of Lent.
Jeremiah’s first-person poetic account of God’s calling him as a prophet echoes in brief, elliptical form the narrative of Moses’ commission to lead the Israelite slaves from Egypt in Exodus 3.
God’s providential rescue of Moses as an infant eighty years before (Exodus 2:1-10) preceded his commission. God likewise refers here to Jeremiah’s prenatal calling (Jeremiah 1:5; see Psalm 71:5-6). Like Moses, whose many objections include his own ineloquence (Exodus 4:10), Jeremiah protests that he does not know how to speak (Jeremiah 1:6).
As with Moses, God does most of the talking, describing sending Jeremiah and giving him words to speak, though not yet mentioning that, like Moses, Jeremiah would be addressing rulers. Like Moses, Jeremiah is appointed the task of nation building (4:10). Like Moses, he is given a preview of the rough path ahead. As with Moses, a foreign oppressor will figure prominently in the story. But whereas Moses’ God fought the Egyptians to free the Israelites, in Jeremiah’s time God will use the Babylonians as tools in a conflict with the Israelites themselves. Ultimately, though, Jeremiah’s calling, like Moses’, serves to bring the nation to a better place.
This passage, placed on the fourth Sunday after Epiphany, accompanies the story of Jesus’ own announcement of his ministry in Nazareth, and of his near demise at the hands of townspeople (Luke 4:21-30). Like Jeremiah, Jesus is understood as a prophet (Jeremiah 1:5; Luke 4:24). Like Jeremiah, he is questioned and rejected by his own people, who attempt to kill him, though he survives to continue preaching (Luke 4:29-30). Like Jeremiah, Jesus gets into trouble over foreigners (Luke 4:25-27).
In short, Jeremiah’s calling distinctly echoes the story line of Moses, and is in turn echoed by that of Jesus. At least according to one prominent biblical stream, therefore, to speak prophetically is to follow God into a calling one would not necessarily have chosen, saying and doing things that anger one’s own neighbors, things that, though supported by God, will only be seen as fruitful later on, following trials and tribulations. No wonder Moses and Jeremiah hesitated.
Prominent change agents throughout history have encountered similar scenarios, whether they viewed themselves as sent by God or not, whether they would have retold their own beginnings in similar ways or not. Some more or less universal themes emerge among such leaders: their vocation as an outgrowth of early experience and sensibilities; a sense of humility before a task that is unwieldy precisely because it is innovative, precisely because it does confront entrenched but unjust societal norms, precisely because the job description cannot be found as such in any vocational counselor’s manual.
I cannot count how many times aspiring divinity students have related similar stories to me, often with direct quotes from God in dialogue with themselves as Jeremiah does here. The themes are usually the same — they wanted to do something else, but God dragged them kicking and screaming into ministry, over strenuous objections and sometimes after many years. Very few tell stories like that of Isaiah who, in stark and often unnoticed contrast to Jeremiah and Moses, volunteered with his hand held high (“Pick me! Pick me!” cf. Isaiah 6:8). Nor do they note that Jesus himself never raised any objections to his calling, nor did Paul, nor did Mary, nor did, before them, Noah, Abraham, Isaac (who really should have), Jacob, Joseph (who seemed to thrive on ambition), Deborah, Esther, or Judith.
I have often wondered what experiences, or perhaps anxieties, underlie these contemporary narratives. Does the belief that God overrode rational objections justify uprooting a young family or taking leave of a promising job or, perhaps, of one’s senses? Is the claim that this was God’s choice and not their own a no-fault clause in case things go badly? Or is it sincere deference to divine will and preparation to follow through in work that, like all work, will prove demanding? I like to think the latter. But though I rarely question their stories, I worry that narratives in which God speaks so explicitly — more explicitly, I must admit, than I have ever been talked to by God — may set some people up for faith crises when doors to ministry fail to open.
A major difference between the prophets Moses and Jeremiah and most of these aspiring pastors is, as I hinted at above, that the biblical figures were not called into any predetermined career path. They were called by God to break new ground with creativity, over objections, with no certainty except the word of God, with which they argued constantly not only in the beginning but throughout their lives. A further distinction between the biblical figures and most contemporary pastors is that they received no salary, benefits, and retirement for what they did.
Most people I have ever heard speaking of their start in vocations similar to those of Moses and Jeremiah begin not with a burning bush or an audible voice, but with a deep conviction that whatever else they may do, and no matter how they might or might not establish their 403Bs, it is the task itself that draws them in. Eula Hall, who describes herself as a “hillbilly activist,” an Appalachian woman with an eighth-grade education and a burning sense of purpose, told me many years ago how she came to found the Mud Creek Clinic in southeastern Kentucky to provide health care for the poor: “I looked, and I said to myself, ‘taint right like this, no medical service here, taint right. Somebody needs to act.’ I guess that somebody was me.”
Despite the limited number of verses included from this psalm in the lectionary, Psalm 71 nevertheless provides us with a unique opportunity to learn from the faith and life experiences of an elder psalmist.
Many commentators note that elements of this psalm are strongly reminiscent of the known use of the temple precincts as a place of temporary refuge for an accused individual to flee from his accusers.1 For example, there are close parallels between this text and Psalms 18 and 31. While the motif of the temple as protective sanctuary is certainly present, we do not seem to be dealing here with the memoirs of an alleged felon. Instead, we are more likely hearing from an aged psalmist looking back over his life and faith experiences, perhaps from the context of a current situation of distress (cf. verses 9, 17, 18).
From his advanced location in the course of life, this psalmist is able to impart several key lessons for the life of faith.2 First, a strong faith in and devotion to God is no fail-safe insurance against problems and complications in life. From the context of the complete psalm text, it seems this individual is one who has devoted his life to God, perhaps at the temple as a musician. Yet the very first verse of the psalm identifies God as a place of refuge for the psalmist. A place of refuge implies that there is someone or something from which refuge is desired, and thus indicative of a life that is not free from trouble.
Further, practices of faith and devotion to God may actually, at times, invite problems into one’s life. In addition to the highlighted needs for refuge, deliverance, and rescue in the first two verses of the psalm, verse 4 references “the grasp of the unjust and cruel.” While we do not have all the details of the writer’s life, it would seem that he is not merely speaking hypothetically, but instead has some concrete situation and/or persecutors pertaining to himself in mind.
Perhaps a psalmist does not seem as likely to provoke open, even threatening ridicule as a prophet, such as Jeremiah, or as Jesus himself in his hometown of Nazareth in the accompanying Gospel for this day. Yet, herein may lie the core of this lesson — any expression of faith brings with it the possibility of ridicule by the unfaithful.
Second, the psalmist affirms that it is God’s very nature to provide refuge, deliverance, and rescue to those whom he calls his own and to service in his name. In verse 2, for example, the psalmist appeals to the righteousness of God. This is not an attribute nervously hoped for in the divine, as if it may or may not be found, but one that is fully and confidently expected. Similarly in verse 3, the psalmist urges God to be his “rock of refuge.”
However, the role of “rock of refuge” is not something the psalmist hopes to be able to impress upon God and in some way create. Instead, the psalmist already knows God to be such a rock: “For you are my rock and my fortress” (verse 3). In verse 5 the psalmist goes on to confess trust and hope in the Lord since the days of his youth. This is a statement of experience from one who knows these things to be perpetually true of the God of Israel.
Third, we learn from the psalmist that we are wholly dependent on God. God is the only source of hope or support either mentioned or suggested in our text. Not only has the psalmist leaned upon God from birth, he even confesses that it is God who took him from his mother’s womb (verse 6). This realization of complete dependence on God is no doubt one that grew with the psalmist’s experience and age.
Generally speaking, the younger we are, the less we tend to be mindful of the interdependent nature of life. Furthermore, modern society has managed, in various ways, to continue reducing God’s necessity or even involvement in human life. Therefore, the significance of the psalmist’s witness to our dependence on God is difficult to overstate.
Finally, a significant aspect of our lives should be the praise of God. The psalmist declares, “My praise is continually of you” (verse 6). This is the only possible response to God’s steadfastness and grace. Even though the psalmist may still experience trouble and even persecution as a result of his faith, he will nonetheless maintain trust and hope in the same God we know to be our rock and fortress, and who is therefore worthy of our continual praise.
1See especially Hans-Joachim Kraus, Psalms 60-150: A Commentary (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989), 71-72.
2The writer of Ecclesiastes similarly offers sage advice from a later-in-life perspective.
The reading for this Sunday continues to build upon the vision of community developed in the previous two Sundays. Once again it will thus be helpful to read my comments for the Second Sunday of Epiphany with their introduction to the Corinthian themes that underlie the argument here.
So you think this is really something? It might seem that the imaginative and creative image of a many-membered body of believers caught up in mutual care for one another would be enough to imagine that we were already in heaven, or at least close. But Paul isn’t finished. He says, if you think this is something, let me pull back the curtain a bit and let you in on an even more fantastic vision of the Christian life as prepared for us by the Spirit of God.
At the end of this beautiful poem Paul will remind us that this vision of community is ultimately not about knowing or doing things, but is about knowing a person “face to face” and that living in such a community is merely a reflection of our having first been known and caught up in the love of God (13:12).
To begin with it will be important to keep in mind that this is poetry, and well-attested by use as easily one of the most beautiful and loved pieces in the New Testament. The task will thus be in part to rescue or recover a reading that has gained so close an association with weddings and married love. Its placement here as a culmination of the argument of chapter 12 makes clear that it is rather a vision of the love that characterizes the one body of a caring community that is the gift of the Spirit in Christ Jesus our Lord.
This is poetry. And part of its appeal is the effect of its overall conception coupled with the beauty of the structures of rhythm and repetition. These structures can perhaps best be sensed simply by reading the text aloud in any good translation, or perhaps several. However archaic the language, it is difficult to improve on the cadences of the familiar King James Version. As for the details of language and structure these may be pursued in the notes of a good critical commentary.
A Fantastic Journey
“And I will show you a still more excellent way” (12:31b). Though located in our text as part of chapter 12, this sentence is clearly transitional, linking the first stage of Paul’s argument regarding our oneness in Christian community to this second stage that now comes in the form of a poetic vision. Omitted in the reading for the previous Sunday, it will need to be added to the reading for this Sunday. “I will show you…”
The word choice here is intentional and significant in its pastoral wisdom. This is the language of Epiphany. In the end, the vision of community that Paul holds out for his Corinthian brothers and sisters as an alternative to the divisions that threaten them will come neither for them nor for us as either counsel or command but through a revelation. In the end, it is not about a project to be completed, but about a vision of a new reality, a new possibility, that captivates and motivates simply by the power of its conception and the promise God’s Spirit in Christ Jesus.
“A still more excellent way.” Though admittedly tricky to translate, the traditional translation here has not been the best. The Greek word used here has come into English directly in our word “hyperbole.” One could do worse than picking up those associations. This is ultimately a poetic vision; it is exaggeration that befits a reality that Paul imagines cannot be captured sufficiently only through argumentative prose. It is the same wondrous vision with which Paul has sought to tease these Corinthians earlier.
But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” — these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God” (2:9-10). It is revelation. Like the beauty of an opening flower, it comes as surprise and as a fantastic vision of the possibilities of life in the oneness of community that is the gift of the Spirit.
“An more excellent way.” The word used here — “way,” road,” or “path;” Greek hodos — has a rich history in the Scriptures and in early Christian reflection and practice. The invitation is to a journey, a venture of which the end is of course only known to God. And so it is ultimately to be cast back upon trust in the wisdom and promises of the God who is faithful and who has called us into this community (1:9).
An Unfolding Vision
The poetic vision of the chapter divides neatly into four “verses:” 1-3; 4-7; 8-12; with a climactic conclusion in verse 13.
In a fuller vision, infancy will be exchanged for full maturity (13:11); imperfect or shadowy vision will be exchanged for the full knowledge that resides in the recognition ultimately that it is not so much that I know things, but rather that I have been known by some One (13:12; the use of the past tense would seem to be an intentional allusion to the event of the cross and resurrection so important to Paul’s message to the Corinthians).
An Abiding Trinity
The concluding “verse” of the poem (13:13) is both a climax and an important turn. In a certain sense it marks a re-turn to reality from this fantastic vision. The familiar “and now” or “but now” of the translations might better be translated as “But now as the case actually is…”, and the fuller expression, as the present tense of the verb “abide” suggests, should be “But now as the case is faith, hope, and love are a present ongoing reality.”
The phrase imitates the same assertion of the reality of God’s action in 12:18 of last Sunday’s reading, and, as 1 Thessalonians 1:3 shows, it picks up a theme that belongs to Paul’s earliest preaching of the gospel. The reality of God’s love offers assurance that this vision of community is not just of things that will be, but a down payment already taking shape in a community that Paul can boldly say is not lacking in any gift which the Spirit has to offer (see 1:7).
The assertion that love is “the greatest” is certainly in part for rhetorical effect and by way of transition to the continuing argument about building up community in chapter 14. More importantly, the triad of faith, hope, and love are an important unspoken reminder of the Trinity and that all of this grand conception belongs to the Spirit’s gifts to the one body in a caring community of mutual responsibility.