Fall in Love with the World and You Can Never Go Home

Posted: January 31, 2019 in Uncategorized

Luke 4:21-30

Fall in Love with the World and You Can Never Go Home

Over the last couple of years, I have become increasingly aware of just what it means to be saying things close to home, especially those things that can be taken and distorted or used against one when the need arises. So, the challenge in our text is to choose your words carefully if you preach to the people back home!

Towards the end of his second year of ministry, according to our storyteller Luke, Jesus found this out when he decided to go home to Nazareth for a while. Luke is a great storyteller. And this liturgical year we will hear plenty of those stories. So, while this may be a ‘plus’, we also need to acknowledge it can also be a ‘minus’. Why is it a minus? Because, the storyteller’s role is not to preserve historical reality, or facts. A storyteller has a different role. And we meet this in the story today.

When we explore some of the territory around this Lukan story, we find a number of questions that set the scene so to speak. The first is what was happening in Luke’s community for this story to be told? Our experience in life is that there is no such thing as an original thought and that without a context or a reason we are less likely to interpret what the story is about. The second is what is happening in our own stories – family, church, nation – for us to hear and connect with this story? We know that we come to all things with a subjective position. We cannot extract ourselves from anything and out response is always out of what and who we are at the time.

When we apply this thinking to the text, we find that a number of biblical scholars suggests there is no reason to doubt that Jesus visited Nazareth from time to time during his public ministry (GJenks. FFF, 2007). It also seems clear that Jesus made Capernaum, a fishing village on the edge of the Sea of Galilee, his “operational base” (GJenks. FFF web site, 2007).

On the other hand, Luke’s knowledge of the area, having never been there himself, was sketchy at best. He says Nazareth was built on a hill. Well, if it was, it has been moved!
Actually it’s on the slope of a hill.

“It was a tiny village clinging to the edge of its one small spring. There was no cliff over which the villagers might throw Jesus. Of course, having never visited the place, Luke was not to know that; just as most of his readers ever since have been unaware of the actual geography of Nazareth” (G Jenks. FFF web site, 2007).

We may conclude, then, this story is the product of Luke’s imagination “rather than a memory of some actual event passed on to him by others…” (G Jenks. FFF web site, 2007). So, let’s remember when we engage with this text that Luke is writing theology rather than geography or history.

Luke’s Jesus decides to return home. When he did, his people, many of them cousins and near relatives – those whom you would normally expect to be welcoming and accepting – listened, and indeed liked what they initially heard. A local boy made good. This could be good for the local tourist trade! But when they read between the lines and listened some more, especially when pushed a bit, they decide they can’t accept what he has to say. So, they react. This ordinary bloke, one of us, has great potential. But he comes making unrealistic demands, disturbing our fragile village comfortableness.

His story, his claim is much more challenging than we thought. He is actually advocating tat we turn our religious understandings upside down, he is even advocating huge changes to out political, social and economic reality. And really! His views do not match our ideas of ‘God’ or ‘religion’. So, who does he think he is! Or more important: who the hell does he think we are!

The religious institution is alarmed and in response it defends itself. Better the domesticated Jesus at our personal disposal than the challenging Jesus let loose, perhaps even out of control! Sounds very post-modern, it needs to be questioned.

You might remember a few years back when Pauline Hanson appeared on the Australian political scene. Apparently, a political analyst of the time suggested the rise of ‘One Nation’ (as a conservative political party) had a lot to do with the global movement of a ‘politics of anger’. He said that “People are feeling so powerless against forces that seemingly cannot be controlled. Confused by the culture of change, no longer able to recognise the world they once knew, people are turning in anger against their politicians, against their leaders” (KSuter, quoted by R Wiig 1998). With all the changes that the world is facing and the influence of social media all suggest that there is a global disquiet or a loss of hope in a settled world that permeates peoples collective thinking today.

So. were the actions of those in Luke’s story shaped by a ‘politics of anger’? Perhaps.  Or the more important question: what was happening in Luke’s community for him to decide this imaginative story was important for them to hear? How were they acting when faced with new or different ways of thinking and believing and shaping community? The challenge Jesus was bringing the world they knew was huge and life changing. The Romans of Jesus time knew this, the religious leaders of Jesus time knew this so what where the readers of Luke’s time thinking?

Again, to be honest, we can only speculate. Luke is a storyteller not an historian, and he doesn’t help us much. But it could have been something like… What we can suggests is that the people of Luke’s community, just like the so-called people of Jesus’ hometown, were puzzled and disturbed and anxious by the demands of a new and challenging vision of God’s domain. We think that Luke was probably writing in the latter decades of the first century, probably in a thoroughly Hellenistic environment. Scholars speculate on whether the gospel was written in Antioch, which would have been a significant Hellenistic city, or in Asia Minor, in places like Ephesus or Smyrna. In either case, Luke would have been in touch with, and very heavily in dialogue with, Hellenistic culture broadly conceived.

One of the major concerns that the composite work of Luke and Acts addresses is whether Christians can be good citizens of the Roman Empire. After all, their founder was executed as a political criminal, and they were being associated with the destruction of Jerusalem, and some people would have thought of them as incendiaries, as revolutionaries. And Luke in his portrait wants to show that Jesus himself taught an ethic that was entirely compatible with good citizenship of the empire. And that despite the fact that one of the heroes of the Book of Acts was himself executed, namely Paul, although that was a serious mistake and had nothing to do with the political program, it wasn’t in any way dangerous…. The difficulties for the gentile world were the same as for the Jewish Roman world of Jesus.

It was populated with outsiders, with outcasts, with exiles! And it would have contradicted their normal notion of who belonged and who did not, of who was in and who was out! In other words, it discerned the holy or the sacred in the everyday! But Luke’s Jesus continues to nudge and persuade: God’s love is inclusive and embracing and universal, not exclusive.

And no one, not even the so-called ‘God’s people’ should ever think of themselves as privileged. But were they ready to hear this? Or were their reactions going to be shaped by a “politics of anger”? Likewise, an important question in the even broader expression of this story: how are we to be church and express being an inclusive community, today?

How are we the Presbyterian Church in Auckland going to deal with the fact that we are an aging church, that we are becoming smaller? Will we try to ensure the institution survives by redistributing the assets or shifting the governance power towards the center? Will we plan strategies that ensure the survival of what we are and have? Will we engage in a politics of anger based in our fear of disappearing or will we change the world of the poor, destitute and hungry? Not only in the sense of a goal of equity but a transformation of thinking. How are we to be a community driven by an abundant love? What do we need to do to influence a global transformation in the interests of compassion?

And let’s be honest that right now there are many puzzled and agitated people expressing their viewpoints, and sometimes anger, on that broader issue right now! That is the question that we as a congregation are grappling with. How can our expression of community – church or family – as a congregation help in this global debate? This is our acute up-front mission field.

Returning to our text we find that Luke’s story suggests a universalism underpinning life.

This immediately raises a problem for us in that we very quickly relate universalism to assimilation, sameness, suppression of the individual and a dictatorial socialism. In recent years we have seen societies attempt to find a way through the global refugee issues, the breakdown of nationalisms and dare I say it Trump is an example of an attempt to preserve a nationalism that works. Our own country seems to be experiencing a move away for a neo-liberal experiment by introduction of a well-being approach that uses the best of other ideologies. Is it perhaps an attempt to find a workable universalism? More importantly is what does the gospel have to say into this context? What does the Jesus story have to say to us? What would Luke write today?

Luke’s audience seems to be a much more cultured literary kind of audience. His Greek is the highest quality in style of anything in the new testament. It reads more like a novel in the Greek tradition, rather than Mark’s gospel, which has a kind of crude quality at times to the Greek grammar. So, anyone on the street of a Greek city picking up Luke’s gospel would have felt at home with it if they were able to read good Greek…. He’s often called Luke the physician which means he’s portrayed as a kind of educated person from the Greco-Roman world….

When we get to the environment, he is writing into we see that the concerns of Luke’s gospel are a little different. There are political as well as social concerns that we see in the way the story is told precisely because it’s writing for this much more cultured kind of audience. We perhaps can make a connection with this in our time and situation.

Luke’s audience seems to be predominantly gentile…. when they talk about the story of Jesus there’s more of an emphasis on the political situation of Jesus in their day. Jesus is less of a rabble rouser, and so is Paul, for that matter, in these stories. And this suggests something about the situation of the audience, that they are concerned about the way that they will be perceived, the way that the church will be perceived by the Roman authorities. It’s sometimes suggested that Luke’s gospel should be seen as a kind of an apologetic for the beginnings of the Christian movement, trying to make its place in the Roman world, to say, “we’re okay, don’t worry about us, we are just like the rest of you: we keep the peace, we’re law abiding citizens, we have high moral values, we’re good Romans too.” … This suggests that the story may not be directly applicable to our situation given that we live in a larger more complex and diverse global culture.

But maybe Luke would still write that his idea of universalism or “extravagant welcome – to all persons” whether in the church or in our wider community really is the only way to experience abundant life and be all that we can be “in our pluralistic and polarized age” (BEpperly. P&F web site, 2007).

Indeed, such a universalism could be called, falling in love with the world! So, maybe Luke’s challenge and blessing, to and for us is just that. If we can hear it amid all the other seductive calls and demands in our own New Zealand backyard, at this time and in our day. Maybe when we face the church pressures to comply with institutional survival and with compliance with measurement and standards and control being imposed by an institution in decline, we might hear Luke’s call to find the collective, the collaborative, the including way of being and doing. Amen.

Sacks, J. The Home we Build Together. Recreating Cociety. London: Continuum, 2007.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.