When Grace Runs Headlong over the Cliff of Entitlement

(Luke 4:21-30)

The wall. I’m not sure what else there is to say about it at this point. The geniuses in Washington shut the government down for 35 days, just to make the point that building a wall is necessary.

“We need a wall,” the argument goes, “because it would act as a physical barrier to people coming to our country without proper documentation.” But perhaps just as importantly, in everybody’s minds, the wall would stand as a symbol that people who weren’t born here aren’t welcome here—unless and until they can prove that they can provide some benefit to us … who rightfully belong here.

Well, at least “rightfully belong here” now. The fact that the overwhelming majority of us were forced to come here or came here uninvited is conveniently glossed over. The important thing is, we’re here now and we deserve to be here. Other people who aren’t from here bear the burden of proof as to why we should allow them into our country.

“We’re not a charity after all. If you don’t have borders, you don’t have a country. Why should we pay for their kids to go to school? Why should they get to use our healthcare system—which belongs to us (or at least to our insurance companies and pharmaceutical manufacturers anyway)?”

You’ve heard the pro-wall/anti-immigrant arguments, right?

What do you notice about those arguments, though?

Here’s a clue: Listen for how many times “we” and “us” is set against “they” and “them.”

Though walls aren’t always good at keeping people on the other side of them, where we think they ought to be, walls are really good at communicating who belongs and who doesn’t—which is to say, who we think deserves to be treated the same way we are, and who doesn’t.

Walls are good at showing who the hometown heroes are, and who has no business claiming the same rights we take for granted are our birthright.

That which used to stand as a symbol of American self-understanding—the Statue of Liberty, displaying the poem by Emma Lazarus: ”Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free/The wretched refuse of your teeming shore./Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,/I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” has been replaced by a wall with a sign that reads merely: “Keep out! We don’t know who you are, but you’re not welcome here.”

That’s a pretty lousy shift for a country’s messaging strategy, let alone its identity—but it’s a deadly shift for people who follow Jesus to try to make—you know, Jesus the troublemaker who said, “All you who are weary and heavy leaden, come unto me.”

Franklin Graham and Robert Jeffress notwithstanding to the contrary, there’s no way to make that kind of xenophobic hatefulness square with the Jesus of the Gospels or with the Hebrew prophets.

Heck, you can’t even make dry old law-abiding Leviticus speak that kind of loathsome nonsense: “When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God” (Lev. 19:33-34).

If Jesus makes anything clear, it’s that any politics that concerns itself first with who we have to take care of, who we have to welcome, who we have to treat like one of us is a politics at odds with the new reign God is ready to unleash upon the world.

It’s a popular criticism that religion and politics ought not to mix, that Jesus was only ever interested in the spiritual. I understand that sentiment. I grew up with it. Unfortunately, as I’ve grown older and read the Scriptures, I can’t get past sermons by another preacher I’ve grown fond of: Jesus.

Look at the sermon he’s just finished preaching prior to our passage for today—one of my favorite passages in the Bible. Jesus says in his first recorded sermon in Luke:

>‘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.’   >And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.

In his first sermon Jesus goes right to the heart of the inherent link between religion and politics, between religion and economics: How are the poor, the imprisoned, the disabled, and the oppressed treated by those who hold power over them? And what does God have in mind for those who always seem to be stuck on the other side of the wall from the folks who’re sure everyone’s already right where they deserve to be?

As New Testament scholar Richard Horsley reminds us, “Religion as separate from politics and economics is a peculiar modern Western concept and phenomenon. In the ancient Roman Empire, as in most other times and places, religion was inseparable from political-economic life” (Christian Origins, volume 1).

Interestingly enough, preacher Jesus doesn’t lose his audience by turning a Thanksgiving taboo into a homiletical moment … at least initially. It didn’t take long, though.

As we pick up our text for this morning, Jesus has just sat down after delivering his foray into the messy intersection of faith and politics. Luke tells us that “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him”—which, from our perspective as modern Western readers, is a great place for a cliffhanger, am I right?

What’s going to happen?

I mean, Jesus has just delivered a prophetic call to the Bible’s version of a political and economic “get-out-of-jail-free” day.

What do I mean?

First, he literally talks about getting out of jail, setting the stage for a new reign of God in which those who’ve been imprisoned and oppressed, who’ve been exploited and ignored by the powerful will be liberated to lives where their dignity and flourishing are at the top of the menu.

Second, Jesus also mentions “the year of the Lord’s favor,” which is a reference to the Year of Jubilee in the Hebrew Scriptures—a year of economic freedom that was supposed to happen every fifty years to rebalance the scales of economic justice for those who’d experienced financial misfortune—a period every fifty years that canceled all debts, and returned land to its original family owners who’d been foreclosed on or forced by hardship to sell to keep their heads above water. It was a sort of ancient Near Eastern social safety net.

So, after Jesus preaches all the expectant eyes in the synagogue are on him. What will he say?

All the political and economic liberation in his sermon suddenly becomes pressing and urgent, because Jesus says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

That’s pretty bold, isn’t it?

How is the hometown crowd going to take it? Jesus is putting himself forward not only as the herald of a new world, but as the initiator of it.

Well, much to everyone’s relief, the hometown fans are thrilled: "All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’”

Not bad, eh? They spoke well of him, and found grace in the words that came from his mouth. The boy everybody remembered from high school, complete with zits and awkward social skills, shows back up on the scene—and he wows ‘em.

But we’ll see shortly that their enthusiasm for Jesus and his message of political and economic liberation stems from their belief that he’s talking about them. They think that the local boy must be talking about the favored status of his hometown tribe—because why wouldn’t he? These are his people. Why shouldn’t they assume he’s talking specifically about their liberation?

But then Jesus—in a foreshadowing of the way he will—throughout his ministry—keep talking when he could save himself a heap of trouble by keeping his mouth shut—keeps talking.

> He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage (4:23-28).

Now, you may be wondering, “Why did the hometown crowd get all worked up over that? Jesus doesn’t say anything particularly offensive, does he?”

At first glance, you’re right. What’s the big deal, really?

But here’s the thing: In those few verses, Jesus tells the people he grew up with that he’s not there to give them back stage passes to the reign of God he’s just got up on stage and announced. They get no special treatment, just because they knew him when.

That’s a hard word to hear for the Nazarenes to hear. What good is having the hometown boy make good, if he doesn’t share the spoils first with the people who knew him when?

Shouldn’t there be some privileges they’re rightfully owed?

But that’s not the worst of it. He talks about how these privileges have been doled out indiscriminately ... to people who’re supposed to be on the other side of the wall.

The folks in Nazareth have apparently heard tell of Jesus and his miraculous exploits up the road in Capernaum … and they’re convinced that if Jesus did all those signs and wonders just up the road for strangers, he’s probably going to bust open the whole piñata for them.

But Jesus pops everybody’s balloon by telling them that there is no hometown discount, no special privileges available just because of who you are or where you were born. In this new world Jesus talks about—the one with the released captives and the liberated oppressed—nobody’s entitled to anything … and all the walls erected to keep “those” people out, have been torn down.

Jesus makes matters worse by talking about the global nature of this amazing reign by suggesting it’s open to everybody—even those “awful” gentiles from Phoenicia and Syria. Not only do other Jews have as much claim to God’s justice and mercy in this new religious/political/economic landscape … so do even the reprobate gentiles.

Not only do the hometown fans not get any favors, Jesus as much as tells them God loves gentiles as much as God loves the children of the covenant.

Whoa! The people heard that, and they were ready to throw Jesus off the Empire State Building.

Maybe the sense of entitlement of the Nazarenes sounds a bit self-absorbed to us modern people who’ve long ago dealt with our own privilege. But let’s be honest, isn’t that always what happens when God’s grace confronts people’s sense of entitlement?

People, generally speaking, like the idea of God making things right … at least in theory … except when the people receiving the benefits aren’t me, but people who I feel somehow superior to—way deep down, hidden in a place even I can’t touch—although I dare not say it out loud—even to myself.

Jesus comes on the scene, proclaiming that God’s going to rebalance the scales for those who’ve been living on the margins—which is good news … until the pillars of the assembly hear that the beneficiaries won’t necessarily be exclusive to them, but the very people the folks from Nazareth are certain don’t deserve it.

Jesus’ hometown neighbors think they ought to have a leg up on any blessings being handed out, if only because they they think they’ve got an in with the boss. When they find out that they’re not invited to sit in the front row, they’re infuriated.

Coming to terms with our own privilege is a tricky thing. In my experience, most people resent the idea that they’ve somehow been given a leg up. But the problem with our privilege has less to do with what we’ve been given than with what we’re willing to sacrifice so that others can have the same advantages we do.

From God’s perspective, from the perspective of the new world Jesus is painting as he begins his ministry, the walls have been torn down so there’s no “us” and “them,” no “insider” and no “outsider,” no “hometown folks” and no “aliens.” There are only God’s children and the joy of the responsibility of announcing liberation from the tyranny of our own sense of entitlement.

For everyone who feels entitled to their entitlement, to a special privilege available to them because of who they know or where they were born, this may very well sound like bad news.

But to everyone else, I suspect, it sounds like nothing less than the year of the Lord’s favor.