The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
Speaker: The Rev. Matthew Hanisian
The Reverend Matthew Hanisian
January 30, 2106
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church
But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, 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.
How do we participate in this enigmatic story? Jesus proclaims that God goes not to those who are the believers but to those who are the outsiders, to the unclean, even to the enemy.
What Jesus is saying is that God passes over the widowed Episcopalian who goes to church every Sunday, who tithes, and serves her church every week and INSTEAD, God chooses to ease the suffering of the starving unwed mother of four in Southeast D.C. who has never set foot inside a church. Jesus is saying that God chooses NOT to cure the faithful priest of the Diocese of Washington who lives with, and dies of, cancer; INSTEAD, God chooses to cure a soldier fighting in ISIS’s army.
The examples of the widow at Zarephath in Sidon and the leprous Syrian commander Naaman are hard words to swallow. And, for the congregation in the synagogue in Nazareth, to hear that God’s blessing and mercy would be given to non-Jews, to their very enemies was an outrage.
The examples I just gave should make us equally as uncomfortable. Before you go and try to throw me off this holy hill, let’s unpack some of what Jesus was saying because there is Good News here…for us all.
There are two ways to look at these words from Jesus that enrages the congregation in the synagogue. We can look at this through the eyes of the world--which is very easy to do. Or we can try to look at this through the lens of faith, which is far more difficult…but in the end worth the effort.
If we read this passage the way the Jews in the synagogue in Nazareth did—through the lens of the world—we have to start with three assumptions: 1) God rewards the faithful; 2) God’s salvation is always and only made for a select group…the select group to which WE believe we belong. And 3) we have to take into consideration another truth of the world which says that if someone ELSE gets the bigger portion of the pie that WE were promised—or even if they get the whole pie—we might not get enough or even ANY at all.
To read the passage through this lens means the gospel of scarcity is in control, and that fear of scarcity propels most of the world. The gospel of scarcity proclaims: things will run out because there is only so much to go around. The gospel of scarcity says fight to get what we THINK we DESERVE—because there will be an end of whatever we feel we are entitled to receive…USUALLY because we’ve worked hard to EARN it.
The stories Jesus recalls to the congregation in the synagogue are interpreted as God having a special “good while it lasts” sale of healing and wholeness and they aren’t even allowed in the building, much less able to stand in line to receive any while the outsiders, non-believers, non-chosen-ones, and even enemies are allowed jump to the front of the line.
This attitude of scarcity is the wrong way of looking at the nature of God. This scarcity has never been what God is about.
In last week’s gospel Jesus tells this same crowd that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him; that he has been anointed by that same Spirit to do the following: to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, give the blind back their sight, to let the captive go free and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:18-19).
Jump to today’s gospel passage. Sensing the unbelief of the congregation, what stories—from the entire canon of the Jewish Scripture—does Jesus choose to compare the nature and recipients of his mission and ministry? Which two stories does he choose to help him reveal who will get to receive the gifts that he will bring? The prophet Elijah and his student Elisha.
Now, as a prophet Elijah is second only to Moses in importance in the Old Testament. And Elisha asks to receive a double portion of Elijah’s spirit as Elijah is whirl-winded into heaven…and Elisha RECEIVES that double portion. Jesus is bringing out the heavy hitters here, and chooses figures that were as well known as the stories associated with them.
And what do Elijah and Elisha do? Elijah goes to a foreigner—a non-Jewish widow and her son who are about to die of starvation during a massive famine and gives them the miracle of God’s grace in abundance with a jug of oil and container of flour that never run out during the famine.
How about Elisha? Even worse—Elisha gives directions on how to cure the leprosy of a general in the army that is hostile to the Israelites. THE ENEMY receives the mercy and healing of God’s messenger, Elisha. The unclean foreigner-woman who by all rights should have died in the famine receives sustenance and God’s mercy.
To whom does God go? To whom does Jesus say that he is going to go? Who are the ones that are worthy of receiving their sight, being let out of their captivity, having the good news brought to them, receiving the favor of the Lord? The ones who deserve it, right? The ones who came to temple and prayed, right? The ones who are a part of the inner circle who God had called his chosen, right?
Jesus says that because he was not accepted he is going to give those gifts of mercy and compassion to the outsider, the foreigner, the other, the lowly, the enemy…exactly NOT the people that one would expect. But, what happens to BOTH of those who receive God’s mercy and restoration to wholeness through Elijah and Elisha? The widow says, “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.’ (1 Kings 17:24). Namaan proclaims: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.” (2 Kings 5:15b).
And that brings us to the second way we can view this gospel passage, through the lens of FAITH. Faith holds no truck with the gospel of scarcity that is terrified about what we won’t receive, focusing on the LACK of something we want and believe we need. Instead, faith grasps onto and holds tight to the gospel of abundance…that God will provide for those who believe, in ways that sometimes we cannot even ask for or imagine.
Faith focuses on what God is doing in the world, whatever that might be and with whomever God chooses and says, “I am going to rejoice that God is alive and present in the world and I want to be a part of that.”
Jesus says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus is quoting Isaiah’s words. And in using that “has been” Jesus is using the perfect tense, which denotes ongoing action. This means not only that Isaiah’s words have indeed been fulfilled, but that the effect of those words is ongoing…in Isaiah’s time, in Jesus’ time...in our time today. We are NOW, and WILL be experiencing the fulfillment of Isaiah’s words through the example of Jesus’ life and his actions.
We are now, and will always be, invited into this fulfillment of the scriptures. We are in the midst of this action: we are invited to continually participate in the new creative forces of God at work in our world. We are invited to be partakers in the release of the captives, in the blind recovering their sight, in giving the prisoners their freedom…and even participating in the favor of the Lord.
This is miraculous that the created are invited to be a part of the ongoing creator’s work. And, look around you…look deep within yourself…there have been moments when WE have been blind—blind to the suffering of the world, blind to the beggar at the gates, blind to the damage that we can cause with our thoughts, words and deeds.
There are moments when WE have been held captive, captive to our own sinful ways, captive to additions, captive to systems that we participate in which make others captive as well. There are moments when we have been held prisoner, and CERTAINLY moments when we have been aching to hear that GOOD NEWS of God’s favor and mercy. Through our faith in Jesus, our belief in a God that goes after those who are the lost, the little and the least…and even US, we can be bold in spreading the news that today the scripture IS BEING fulfilled in our hearing.
Through our faith we are continually invited to bring these words of Jesus’ mission to life. We are CONTINUALLY partakers in Jesus’ ministry and mission which is the duty of each of us as Christians. In doing so we will help fulfill the continual in breaking of the Kingdom of God…giving these gifts to all, to the whole world in the name of Jesus our Savior and Redeemer.