Over the edge

The lectionary text from a few Sundays ago was the one where Jesus preaches in his hometown of Nazareth, and what he says enrages the crowd so greatly that they try to push him off a cliff. It’s a strange story, one that has long puzzled me. But my husband’s sermon illuminated some parts of it I had never really noticed before.

First, Jesus is preaching about the work of God, that of ministering to widows, setting the oppressed free, healing the sick. And at first, the people are amazed. The passage says Jesus admits he knows the crowd want him to do this right there in Nazareth, for his own people.

But then he flips everything around. He says that while there were many widows in Israel during the time of Elisha, he was sent instead to one in Zarephath. She was a foreigner. And though there were many lepers in Israel during the time of Elisha the prophet, it was only Naaman the Syrian — again a foreigner — who was cleansed.

This is what makes the crowd furious. They’re angry that “those people” got the blessing, got the miracle, got the goodness instead. What about me? What about mine? I deserve it more, you can almost hear them saying.

And sadly, it’s still the refrain of so many in today’s world. Why should we help refugees from other countries instead of taking care of our own? Why do the poor get handouts when I had to climb my own way to the top? It isn’t fair! It’s not right! We look at human rights as a pie, and we think if someone gets a bigger slice, then there’s going to be less for us.

I’ve heard people say these things. I’ve seen how angry they get. And it’s a tale as old as time, narrated right here in our ancient scriptures.

Jesus, remember, came to reveal what God looks like, acts like, thinks like to the world. So this passage makes it pretty clear from the get-go that the very heart of God, his care and concern and primary focus is the groups of people that we tend to other. The ones on the outskirts of our society. Liberation theology calls this God’s preferential option for the poor. In the words of Gustavo Gutiérrez, regarded as the movement’s founder, “God demonstrates a special predilection toward those who have been excluded from the banquet of life.” Does this mean God cares less about other people? No! But it does show his special consideration for those on the margins. People say, “God helps those who help themselves” and that’s just not true. The marginalized cannot help themselves. But it is to them that God goes first.

This is the Good News. This is hope. This is how we are meant to live, looking to others first — not me first, or mine first, or even America first. If we really claim to follow Jesus, we cannot simply ignore this story because it makes us too uncomfortable. We can’t just read and interpret the parts of the Bible that make us feel good. Paul tells us in II Timothy that scripture is for instruction and doctrine, yes, but also for correction.

God, it would seem, is speaking. Do we have ears to hear?