Homily delivered at the annual Downtown Knoxville Lenten Ecumenical Service, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, March 2, 2016. The scripture readings for the service were 2 Kings 5:1-15b (Elisha and Namaan the Syrian) and Luke 4:24-30 (Jesus' rejection at at Nazareth).
Like a contemporary political candidate, Jesus returned to his home town to launch his campaign. By campaign standards – ancient or modern – Jesus’ first speech was not a success. A modern-day pundit would say he had stepped on his message and would wonder whether he would ever be able to recover momentum. In fact, Jesus did recover; but that’s another story for another day.
So why was Jesus’ speech such a failure? No doubt his audience had started out expecting to hear great things from him. Instead, he reminded them of some embarrassing incidents in their own history – how in the past God had ignored the categories and distinctions that are so important to us, and had so expanded the range of his kingdom to include even foreign outsiders like the widow at Zarephath in Sidon and the leper Naaman the Syrian. Not having heard what they expected to here, we are told, they were filled with fury.
Jealousy and anger come easily, and fury follows naturally. Lots of people are angry about all sorts of things, and so fury fills our world. Usually when we feel strongly about something, our leaders cater to that. If we are angry – as lots of people are nowadays – we expect our leaders to affirm us and cater to our anger. But Jesus offered his hearers – and through them offers us – an alternative. That alternative is nothing less than the kingdom of God, in which all the categories and distinctions that matter so much to us – being rich instead of poor, being healthy instead of sick, being thin instead of fat, being young and good-looking instead of old and ugly, being a citizen instead of a foreigner - all the categories and distinctions that matter so much to us don’t matter at all anymore. No wonder Jesus’ audience were filled with fury.
But the problem is that, while jealousy and anger may make us feel better for a while, ultimately they leave us feeling unfulfilled – like the mob abandoned by Jesus on the hilltop. How much better to come inside, to join Jesus in God’s kingdom. How much better to imitate Namaan. He too at first stormed off in a rage. But,unlike the Nazarenes, he was willing to listen. So his anger was cooled, his leprosy was healed, and he found fulfillment in God’s kingdom. Jesus asks the same of us. Lent challenges us to do it now.