What is Jesus talking about in today’s gospel? Why is everyone getting so angry? What are these Nazarenes so upset about? In order to get the whole picture of what Jesus is proclaiming in this week’s gospel we need to remember the whole story, which began in last week’s gospel. Not only that, but we need to remember where this story falls in the larger gospel narrative of Luke. This is the first act of Jesus’ public ministry following his baptism and temptation in the desert. This proclamation in the Nazareth synagogue, this reading and referencing of scripture, this whole episode is Jesus’ thesis statement that sets the stage for his whole ministry. It lays the ideological foundation for everything he will teach about the kingdom of God, and every action he will take along his way.
In the first half of this story that we heard in last week’s gospel, Jesus stood in the temple and read from the scroll of Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” These are amazing words, made only more powerful by the words he doesn’t read from this passage in Isaiah 61. See, the last verse is supposed to read “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God,” but Jesus leaves the second part out, rolls up the scroll and sits down. He does not proclaim the day of vengeance of our God. He proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor, and then goes on to say that these scriptures are being fulfilled. Not the day of vengeance, but the year of favor.
These Nazarenes are aware of their cultural history. They know what is supposed to come after the year of the Lord’s favor in Isaiah. It is a day of vengeance for all those who have harmed them. They are able to hold together their identity and hope with the knowledge that there are groups out there who will feel the vengeance of God, who are not chosen like them, who are not privileged in the eyes of God as they are. Their entire construction of God’s salvation and work in the world is one where if one group prospers another must suffer, if one group survives it must be at the expense of another, if one group receives favor another must receive vengeance. But Jesus leaves these words out, and so “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” And he says to those assembled, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” They recognize these words as gracious and are amazed at his teaching. But they still can’t fully buy in, because they can’t believe that one of there own could possibly know what Jesus knows, or be able to speak the truth of what Jesus is speaking. A dynamic that is only brought to even starker contrast when Jesus responds with his words in today’s gospel.
Jesus continues by citing two stories from Hebrew Scripture, one about the prophet Elijah in 1 Kings and another about the prophet Elisha in 2 Kings. He mentions these stories in reference to their questioning of his teachings, but unlike other parallels of this story in Mark and Matthew, there is nothing here about Jesus being unable to perform miracles because of the unbelief of those present. Instead, Jesus is using these scriptures to continue his teaching on the year of the Lord’s favor that he began in last week’s gospel. The stories Jesus references are not about a prophet’s inability to do the work of God within their home communities. They are about God intentionally calling those prophets out beyond that community to do work outside of their group, outside of Israel.
Jesus is using these stories to tell the people that there is healing and freedom being offered beyond the boundaries of their Galilean, Jewish group. Their revelry at his gracious words turns quickly to rage as they realize the ramifications of his teaching. Their discomfort is brought to unbearable levels as Jesus tells them that their zero sum economy of salvation is not the economy of the kingdom of God. This is a truth that they cannot handle. Their entire structure of hope and comfort had been built on the idea, now being shown to be an illusion, that favor for one must mean vengeance for another. But Jesus, in reminding them of their own history, quickly shows the truth of this false belief. Jesus knows that this gospel, this Kingdom of God, is bigger than one group, than one religion, than one race, than one class. He knows that the Hebrew Scriptures are Israel’s history, and that they hold the truth of the present and future as well as the past.
This month we celebrate black history in an attempt to highlight the people and voices that have been for too long oppressed and silenced in our country. We also are reminded of how far we have to go for there to be equality in our country. Too often, we highlight the parts of our history that make us comfortable, and look past those parts that don’t. But as Jesus calls out to the Nazarenes that the kingdom of God is something more than their zero sum economy, he calls out to us as well. As we enter into this month of celebrating black history and becoming aware of the work we still have to do in our country and our church, Jesus is calling out from these pages for us to “WAKE UP!” and to realize that this zero sum economy is not a thing of the past. This zero sum society is not relegated to the Israelites of Elijah and Elisha or the Nazarenes of Jesus. In this black history month, and for all the months that follow, we must recognize how this zero sum economy still pervades today. Not only that, but when we look at those parts of history that we would rather not, we must recognize that it is the foundation on which the entire country was built.
As a privileged person, and as a white privileged person, of which there are many in this room, Jesus is calling to me to stop pretending like we have figured it all out. He is calling to us to stop pretending that racism is a thing of the past and recognize that we have more work to do. In this gospel and in this black history month Jesus is calling out to those of us who recognize ourselves and white and privileged to stop putting the burden of race on the shoulders of persons of color as it has so often in the past. This, of course, is a massive and overwhelming undertaking. It comes with much discomfort and uncertainty. But, as Jesus is telling these Nazarenes in todays gospel, the kingdom of God cannot exist in any other way.
In a March 2018 interview, journalist and bestselling author Ta-Nehisis Coates was asked “What would incentivize the privileged to understand and actively work to reverse the injustices that not only built America but still plague America to date?” He responded, “The belief that it was so central to their interest that it just had to get done.” In a follow up to this answer he was asked even more directly, “What is the price that white America has to pay in order to actually change these underlying structures?” His answer? “A complete loss of whiteness and its suite of privileges.” When pressed for more detail, he began by referencing the seemingly static 20 to 1 wealth gap in the united states. “For every nickel that black people have white people have a dollar. It would require a loss of wealth, a massive redistribution of wealth. We would have to live together. Trayvon Martin would have to be more than just an abstraction to you. The way you define yourself of having some sort of place on the societal ladder is that there is some sort of bottom that you could not sink to. The promise of whiteness in America is that no matter what happens you will never be black.”
What Ta-Nehisi Coates is suggesting is a radical reorienting of our economic and cultural structures that begins with a recognition of how those systems which are in place today were built, how they are actively working to oppress persons of color, and then recognizing as a privileged white person that it is in my interest to dismantle and radically change these structures. But this task is near impossible in the face of current societal models, because it would require those of us in the privileged white spaces of America to actively work against our own comfort and security to invest in the comfort and security of persons of color. We have created a zero sum economy in a zero sum society, where the comfort of one person, socially and economically, is tied directly to the discomfort of another.
This is capitalism. This is racism. This is the system within which we live and move. My comfort as a white person is at the expense of the discomfort of a person of color. This is how our country was built. This is the truth we need to be able to look in the face for anything to ever change. This is what those Nazarenes wanted to throw Jesus off a cliff for pointing out. They were operating under the false belief that God’s salvation was a zero sum game as was their own prosperity and well being as a people. Jesus, in proclaiming the year of the lord’s favor, left out the zero sum game of the day of vengeance of our God. Not only that, but he showed them that God had moved in their history to bring salvation, prosperity and healing to those beyond what they believed to be their privileged group.
Jesus was at the beginning of his ministry and was only just getting started. Jesus knew the truth that the kingdom of God is not a zero sum game, and that the economy of the kingdom of heaven is not one either. And this truth cannot be silenced, no matter how big the crowd of silencers or how high the cliff off of which they hope to cast it. The kingdom of god is at hand, and we act against our own self interest and the interest of all people the more we take part in these social and cultural systems of oppression. The kingdom of God is not something we wait for, the kingdom of God is something that we have to actually work to bring about and we are not there. Just as racism has to be actively dismantled, the kingdom of god needs to be actively built up. And these two go hand in hand. As long as we are participating in zero sum systems that are built on and still feature oppression of certain people we are living removed from the kingdom of god. Participation is not passive. It is active. It requires something of us. We will not be there until the mountains have been made low and the valleys have been filled up and the way is made level for all people. We will not be there until we can get beyond the privileged comforts of color-blindness and token offerings and undertake a radical redistribution of wealth and comfort. We will not be there until the church we attend looks like the world within which it exists.
Black history month is vastly important, but we cannot take it as a sign that we have arrived. There are too many people of color living in fear, to many neighborhoods segregated and too many persons of color incarcerated to believe that we have arrived anywhere but where we started. Racism is not something that will just go away with time. We have to do something about it. We cannot just pretend to be post-racial, we have to be actively anti-racist. We have to be radically invested in the wellbeing of all people, educate ourselves and become aware of the ways in which we participate in white supremacist systems. Like those angry Nazarenes in the gospel, we have to recognize that our own comfort comes at the cost of someone else’s. That our own wealth comes at the cost of someone else’s. We have to recognize that we lose something when all the spaces we inhabit look like us.
Racism is sophisticated. It does not just go away, it evolves. It stops looking like slavery and starts looking like Jim Crow laws. It stops looking like Jim crow and starts looking like red- lining and mass incarceration. When we are the comfortable, the privileged, we can’t help but become defensive and enraged when our comfort and privilege are challenged and questioned, when our zero sum economies are challenged, but this is the gospel. This is the kingdom of God. This is the good news to the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and it is those of us who are privileged that are the blind ones, but we have another option. To open our eyes. To recognize that like Jesus moved on that cliff, the truth will move among us, through us, and in the midst of our anger, defensiveness, fear and turmoil. Not only that, but this truth will continue on its way like Jesus.
The question for the privileged, for those benefiting from the zero sum economy, is whether or not we will follow Jesus as he works toward the kingdom of heaven, work to look our racist past and present in the face, and work to actively dismantle the oppressive systems that exist both in the country and in the church. What is your work to do? Where will you go from here?