It always feels like a missed opportunity to me that the gospels for this week and next week, “part 1” and “part 2” of the same story, aren’t read on a single weekend. In a sense, I can see the wisdom of being able to preach on jubilee, the word of God being alive right now and “fulfilled in your hearing” this week, and then go into the consequences of believing that, of announcing that the jubilee is for everyone, including one’s enemies, and the hatred and abuse that engenders in people whom you thought were your friends, the following week. But the story really only makes sense when it’s read together, the change in mood and irony only congeal when one hears the entire section of Luke 4 read at once. I’m sure that Luke wanted us to hear how the message of “good news to the poor,” which sounded good on first hearing from the local boy, the “favorite son,” suddenly turned sour when he tried to get them to see with God’s eyes and outside their parochial boundaries. “Led by the Spirit,” Jesus was not about to mince words: he drew two stories from his tradition, that of the widow of Zarephath (1 Kgs 17:7 ff.; in Sidon, a Phoenician state) and the leper Naaman, a Syrian (2 Kgs 5: 14ff), both of whom were beneficiaries of God’s goodness even though they were not Jews. The mood in the synagogue goes in a minute from admiration to murderous rage as the good news of the jubilee, thought to be the birthright of the chosen, is extended to the world. We’re meant to get a sense of foreboding, because this first sermon of Jesus’s nearly gets him killed, and for the same reason that he eventually will be killed: the proclamation of a God whose love is without boundaries, and whose love places upon the community of believers a responsibility to care for strangers and even enemies in the way that God does, as beloved children.
That same Spirit is the Spirit Paul says gives all the gifts to the Church that make it the body of Christ. These gifts are given freely to all. They all different, but do not detract from the unity of the body, because they are all given for the good of the whole. Anyone who’s ever had a migraine, or a toothache, or a backache, knows exactly what St. Paul is talking about when he tells us to respect the gifts of others and our own gifts with openheartedness and gratitude; as, for that matter, anyone does who has ended a perfect meal with a crème brûlée and a cappuccino:
“But God has so constructed the body as to give greater honor to a part that is without it, so that there may be no division in the body, but that the parts may have the same concern for one another. If (one) part suffers, all the parts suffer with it; if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.”
The sermon in the Nazareth synagogue is good and bad news. Good news for everyone who waits for the day of God's favor: the poor, the indebted, the prisoner, the indentured servant, sharecroppers, all those who are on the margins of the economic and political power grid. It’s bad news for all who are content to amass, hoard, accumulate while others don't have enough. It's bad news for anyone who is threatened by a God who is for everyone, for freedom, for equality.
Gospel life is dangerous work, no less dangerous for those who work for it now than for Jesus and those who have followed his path through the centuries. But the same Spirit that made Jesus “Christos,” the anointed one, the Messiah, is sent upon the Church today, upon us, to make the same proclamation that Jesus made, which was the same as Isaiah before him, about the jubilee of God:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.
When we remind ourselves and each other that those “poor” might be migrant obreros living illegally in the United States, that those captives might be in Guantanamo Bay, that the blind might be children in Africa suffering from AIDS, that the “oppressed” might be those working for slave wages in sweatshops in China and Indonesia for profitable multi-national corporations, or Palestinians waiting for a homeland, then there may be some uneasiness and hostility in receiving that word. “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free persons, and we were all given to drink of one Spirit.”
Like the infancy stories we heard during the Christmas-Epiphany cycle, this gospel is a microcosm of the Paschal Mystery as it unfolded in the life of Jesus. He is the incarnation of the Paschal Mystery that is the life of God. The rest of his public ministry is one sign after another, very often concretized by meals shared with prostitutes, tax collector/collaborators and other “sinners,” that God's blessing is not visible in religious “orthodoxy” or financial status but freely given by God to all who receive it with gratitude and humility. May the same Spirit give us light as we reflect this year on this gospel, grapple with the sin, inequality, and scandal in our own lives, in the church, and in our civilization. “Now you are Christ’s body, and individually members of it.”
“Your words, O God, are spirit and life.”