January 15, 2016
The Truth Will Make You Mad
This week we will be inaugurating a new president in this country. Whatever we might think about the election, about who won and who lost, about what has been said or done or reported since November, the fact remains that we have a new president being inaugurated on Friday. And while it isn’t completely germane to my subject for today, I just want us to remember that we all—whether we voted for him or not—have the responsibility to pray for our president and his administration, because their actions and their policies affect us all, not just in this country but throughout the world.
After taking the oath of office, our president generally gives a speech, his inaugural address, the first time he speaks publicly as president. This has been tradition for many, many years.
One of our presidents actually gave an inaugural address that proved fatal. That was William Henry Harrison, inaugurated on March 4, 1841. Even though the weather that day was forecast to be cold and windy, President Harrison opted not to wear an overcoat, hat, or gloves at his inauguration. His inaugural address went on for an hour and 45 minutes, the longest one any president has given. That night he went to bed with a bad cold, which turned to pneumonia, and he died on April 4, after serving only 32 days in office. His vice president, John Tyler, became president in his place.
Every president of the United States gives an inaugural address, in which he (one day it may be she, but it hasn’t been yet) lays out his vision for his presidency, and perhaps names some specific policies he hopes to get enacted. Oftentimes there is something in the address that everyone remembers, a memorable quote or, in today’s language, a sound bite: President Kennedy said, “Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.” President Franklin Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” In his second inaugural address, President Lincoln envisioned the healing of the nation after the Civil War ended, urging his fellow Americans to act “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”
While all three of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) report Jesus’ return to Nazareth and the difficulties he had there, only Luke has it happen at the beginning of his ministry. Our passage for today contains the very first public statement Jesus made, his inaugural address, if you will.
Luke does mention that Jesus has already done some teaching and healing in other parts of Galilee, and that word has reached Nazareth about him. But in our reading this morning we hear Jesus’ actual words for the first time.
Last week we noticed that after he was baptized, the first thing Jesus did was to pray. As we read through Luke’s Gospel we see Jesus frequently in prayer, and discover that it’s an essential part of his life. Today we see that Jesus’ spiritual life is not just private, but also public. It’s no accident that Jesus goes to the synagogue when he’s in Nazareth; it is his custom. He attends Sabbath services at the synagogue regularly.
We don’t know a whole lot about how synagogue services were conducted in Jesus’ time, but a few things seem fairly clear. One is that any Jewish man could be invited to read and comment on the Scripture readings for the day. By Jesus’ day there was an assigned Torah reading for each Sabbath day—sort of like our lectionary—and there may have also been an assigned haftorah reading, from the Prophets or the Writings, as well. So Jesus was called on to read from Isaiah and make some remarks.
The text he read was from chapter 61 of the book—although Luke has him include a line from chapter 58 as well. The first words Jesus is quoted as speaking in his public ministry, according to Luke, are from the Scriptures.
After that, Jesus’ very first word of public proclamation is “Today.” It’s going to be a word we will hear a great deal from Jesus in Luke’s Gospel, from beginning to end: “Truly I tell you,” he will say to the one crucified beside him, “today you will be with me in Paradise.”
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” The scripture Jesus has just read is about an event anticipated by the Jews, an event that was commanded in Leviticus 25 to happen every fifty years, an event that, as far as we know, never actually took place: the Year of Jubilee.
Nowadays we use the term jubilee as a generic term for a major celebration, so the observance of the fiftieth anniversary of a monarch’s reign, for instance, might be called her Golden Jubilee. But in Leviticus, Jubilee was about much more than a party. When the trumpet sounded on New Year’s Day of the Jubilee year, the people were to “proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.” The land got an additional year to lie fallow. Property sold in times of hardship was returned to its original owner. Those whose poverty had forced them into slavery were to be released in the year of Jubilee. The point of all this seems to have been to give the economy a regular reboot, to keep all the wealth of the nation from being concentrated in a few hands, while everyone else lived in desperation.
But, as I mentioned, there is no evidence that the Jubilee year was ever observed. It isn’t hard to imagine why. Jubilee is very good news for the poor and the captive. But it’s not good news for the wealthy or powerful; and in every human society, it is a fact that those who have wealth and power generally get their way when public policies are made and carried out. Those who benefit from the land and property (which was the source of Israel’s wealth) being concentrated in the hands of the few are not going to be inclined to proclaim liberty and redistribute the nation’s wealth.
Over the years after the conquest of Jerusalem by Babylon, when the Jewish people and their homeland were always subject to an empire—first Babylon, then Persia, then Syria, and Greece, and finally Rome—it became a common understanding that Jubilee would finally take place when the Messiah arrived. He would remove the imperial oppressors, re-establish Israel as an independent nation, and he—as the Son of David—would take his place on the throne God had promised to his ancestor “forever.” The land that had been taken from the Jewish people would be returned to them. It would be the year of the Lord’s favor.
And Jesus said, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
What the Nazarenes would have heard was this: Today begins the Jubilee. Today will see the end of Roman imperial rule of our land. Today the Son of David will re-take the throne and usher in a new Golden Age for us.
We, God’s chosen people, will be shown God’s special favor.
The congregation at the Nazarene synagogue was astonished, and pleased. One day, when all this has taken place, our synagogue will be memorialized as the very place where the Messiah announced our vindication.
But Jesus wasn’t done talking. He had more to say; and as in Bill Engvall’s shtik, “That’s when the fight started.”
Jesus said, wait a minute: I’m here with good news for all the people, not just you. Remember how, back in Elijah’s day, yes, that Elijah, greatest of the prophets, when God sent a famine over the whole land, the one widow and her son that Elijah saved from starvation were foreigners? Remember how Elijah’s successor, Elisha, even though there were lots of lepers in Israel, healed Naaman the Syrian—the foreigner?
If he had gotten the chance, maybe he’d have reminded his hometown folks that when God called Abraham and promised to make of him a great and blessed nation, the point wasn’t so Abraham and his descendants (including us, by the way, by adoption) could strut around crowing about how blessed they were. No, right there in the midst of the first words God spoke to Abraham, God said Abraham and his descendants would be blessed “so that you will be a blessing…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” It’s not bragging rights; it’s an assignment.
The Nazarenes, so thrilled by Jesus’ announcement that Jubilee was fulfilled “Today,” became enraged when he tried to expand their understanding of Jubilee as “good news…for all the people.” These folks who’d known him his entire life, decided that Jesus, who had just made his inaugural address, had to be stopped, had to be silenced, before he gives away all our blessings to all those others, who don’t deserve them. Jesus may have been telling the truth, but the truth offended them.
The controversial “Jesus Seminar” is pretty much done now, I think. Its founder has died, along with at least one former member; and many of the others have moved on to other pursuits.
At its height, the Jesus Seminar got some rather sensational press attention whenever they would publish their latest findings. Their work was often trivialized as “voting on whether Jesus actually said the things he’s quoted as saying in the Gospels.” Obviously their work was a great deal more complex than that. And even if you don’t agree with what they were doing or with the conclusions they reached—and I don’t agree with all of them, myself—it’s worth looking into their methodology, how they reached their conclusions, what presuppositions they brought with them as they approached the Gospels, and so on.
Whether or not you agree with the Jesus Seminar, one of their guiding principles is worth paying attention to, and maybe even incorporating into our own thinking as we learn more about and seek to follow Jesus. “Beware,” the Jesus Seminar warned, “of finding a Jesus entirely congenial to you.”
It is very easy—I’d suspect I’m guilty of it sometimes, along with just about everyone else who has spent any time at all with Jesus—to remake Jesus in our own image, to assume he wants what we want, shares the same opinions we share, has the same likes and dislikes we have. But as Jesus’ fellow Nazarenes discovered, sometimes the truth—the good news—Jesus came proclaiming is going to make us mad. It might well make us mad enough that we want to stop listening, want to turn away from Jesus, want to remove him from our lives altogether.
But yet it is the truth, and we dare not stop our ears because it has given offense. Even if the truth makes us mad, there is something in it that we need to hear.
What might it be, for us, today?
 See http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/harrison-dies-of-pneumonia for more information. Some historians think Harrison may have had hepatitis as well as pneumonia.
 The Avalon Project at Yale Law School has collected great speeches and other documents and made them available online. President Kennedy’s inaugural address may be found on their site at http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/kennedy.asp.
 FDR’s first inaugural address may be read at http://avalon.law.yale.edu/20th_century/froos1.asp.
 The entire address may be read at http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/lincoln2.asp.
 Contrast this with Matthew (4:17) and Mark (1:15).
 Leviticus 25:10
 Genesis 12:2-3
 Most of this background information can be found in their seminal work, The Five Gospels.