GETTING PAST THE SCANDAL
On a popular preaching and worship site, textweek.com, the picture symbolizing the theme for this week is a deteriorated ancient sandal. At first I thought it was some kind of metal sculpture, but then I realized it was something found by archaeologists, a sandal very worn from use, perhaps ready to be discarded, but still incapable of being replaced. Perhaps it was a sandal like one worn by Jesus or his disciples who were always on the road.
The issue is not so much that they had to do a lot of walking in a culture before formal means of transportation. It is much more profound than that. With Jesus' walking there was the unrelenting goal to confront lives and to share good news. If one town prevents you, Jesus would tell his disciples, shake off the dust on your sandals, and go on to the next village. That's what had happened in our text and that helps us see the scandal involved here, close up.
Finding the scandal in your community
Sometimes people heard Jesus gladly. In last Sunday's text, a synagogue ruler's daughter was healed, to the astonishment of those present, and a woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years fell at Jesus' feet after she had been healed. But now Jesus and his disciples come to Nazareth, and the story changes. What is there about a prophet and his home town?
The challenge to a prophet was known already in the ancient stories (today's Old Testament lesson). Ezekiel is sent to confront the northern kingdom of Israel with God's judgment because they were rebellious, obstinate and stubborn. Ezekiel knows there will be trouble when he is encouraged by God not to be afraid of the briers, thorns and scorpions (all symbolic references to the negative crowd awaiting him). In fact God will so empower his message that whether or not it is received, the people will know that a prophet has been among them! That is a great line. No one may claim they accept what you have to say, Ezekiel, but be sure, they will think about it. Let's hold on to that line for a while as we return to the Gospel lesson.
As was his custom, we are told, Jesus went to the synagogue on the Sabbath, read a lesson, and shared a commentary. If only we had a record of what he said! What we do know is that this was his home town, these were people he knew, and they included his sister and brothers, James, Joses, Judas and Simon? Do you think much about Jesus' family and what they must have thought about him? In Chapter 3, we hear that his brothers and sisters had to go and take charge of him because they thought he might be losing his mind. He was saying things and doing things that were entirely inappropriate from the standpoint of their traditions. And here we read that they were scandalized by him ("took offense" from skandalizein). And Jesus clucks his tongue and says, "Only in his home town, among his relatives and in his own house is a prophet without honor." Surely there is some sarcasm in his words, a good dose of humor, and a real feeling of disappointment. What had Jesus said to bring out this reaction?
When people are scandalized, they are threatened at their core. All that they stand for and believe in is shaken. We know enough about Jesus' preaching and healing to know that the fundamental traditions and perspectives of Jewish leaders and even the common people were under attack. Healings took place on the Sabbath. Attention was given to the needs of societal outcasts, the morally reprobate (e.g., prostitutes) and the physically unacceptable (e.g., lepers). Samaritans and women were regarded positively and sinners were shown in a better light than Pharisees. Why were Jesus' hearers scandalized? It was because Jesus was saying in his parables and healings that God was concerned with everyone, especially those whom the religious leaders tended to ignore. God, said Jesus, was himself scandalized with what the religion of the day had made acceptable, namely that piety and self-aggrandizement earned God's favor. Such commentary was taken as judgment. Whether or not people accepted it, they knew that a prophet was in town! "Where does he get these things?" they asked. "How can this be?"
We should wonder today, should a prophet appear in our midst, what challenge might be levied at the essence of our communal life, our views of right and wrong? What do we cling to as truth and value that Jesus himself might brand as falsehood and worthless? If he were to appear at a shopping mall, a place of government or even a church, what would he say to us that would give offense, scandalize us? For it is clear in our text that it was not individual sins or personal peccadilloes that Jesus was challenging, but rather false directions and improper focus in the society as a whole. Who do we consider the morally acceptable in our society, the ones whom God probably loves? And who do these same people tend to condescend to, to write off or judge too quickly? I know the names of some whole categories of such people, and even some individuals. Perhaps you do too.
And what might Jesus be calling us to do right now as we consider our options? Our own acceptance by God or in the community? Have we recognized a prophet among us today? Are Jesus' words still scandalous to us today as he calls us to reach out to those from whom we distance ourselves? Or have we ourselves become the scandalous?
Finding a new opportunity in Jesus
A person that I know rather well has found a new opportunity in life in running a church pantry. Once a week, donated items from the government and from church members are distributed to people who are standing in line to receive a box including meat, produce, canned and packaged goods. If the recipients are very efficient, a family of four can do fairly well for a week with this gift. The person who runs this ministry has made it a passion and has done it for years. To the outsider, there are serious questions. Why does the government have all this surplus? Do our taxes pay for this? Does anyone check to see if the recipients aren't just freeloaders? How do we know that the recipients don't sell for a profit what they receive and use the money to buy drugs? Wouldn't it be better to work at providing jobs for these people?
I don't know the answers to those questions and I confess that I myself have asked some of them. But I suspect that the Pharisees in Jesus' time asked them as well. I also know that the love and sense of service felt by this man in charge of this church pantry is clearly the love of Jesus for people. The remarkable thing about his love is that having accepted God's love in Jesus himself, he got beyond the scandal which the poor and disenfranchised can represent, and found a new opportunity to give meaning to his life.
This is the heart of the matter for us as Christians. We all know, of course, that the major scandal in the Christian story is the scandal of the cross, the very idea that the God of the universe should condescend to reclaim his fallen creation by himself accepting the burden of their failure, of their having missed the focus in life. Yes, it is the very idea that when you have missed life's opportunity by focusing on yourself and your advantage, the God of the universe should allow you to reject his mission of love and mercy and crucify it in a lowly and demeaning way! And to those gathered at the foot of the cross, Mary and John, and you and me, he invites us to consider what we have done and to walk away from it, forgiven and empowered, to choose new opportunities in life.
The new life to which we are invited beyond the cross is one in which the yoke is easy and the burden is light. It is a life in which we celebrate our acceptance by God and our opportunity to accept all others as well. It is a new beginning, which takes place step by step, but leads to a freedom from old condescension and judgments that seemed so right, but were totally off the mark. How can we expect this to happen to us and to others to whom we bring a witness?
I sensed the answer in a Buddhist student I have been teaching in a class in Christian Theology. She entered the class by saying that she didn't believe in God (Buddhists don't need to) and she hated this class, but it was a required subject. She raised numerous questions and found herself trying to answer some of them from a Christian perspective. As they discussed things in small groups, I overheard her telling confused students that you didn't need to be re-baptized and that the resurrection of Jesus ended the power of death. By the end of the class, it would have been difficult for students to see her as the same person who began by saying she was an atheist. I make no judgment on her current understanding, but her example makes it clear that it is possible to move beyond seeing things as scandalous and offensive. It is possible, although it may take some time, to refocus and begin again. This is true whether one is talking about religion or anything else. In our own situations, we may be far indeed from the feeling that a rejection of our prejudices will introduce a new focus in which the "yolk is easy." On the other hand, change can happen in the twinkling of an eye. It can happen when we know that Jesus, his suffering and his death, are no longer a scandal for us, but an opportunity to see life in new and refreshing ways.
Of course, this is good news. We Christians are all missionaries of one sort or another and we are called to help others find with us the new beginnings that take place beyond the scandals that we have erected for ourselves. The fact that God is at the heart of the change process is made clear by that picture of the deteriorated sandal with which I began. The first missionaries did not go out with PowerPoint presentations and CDS of the tabernacle choir, but a walking stick and sandals. No bread, no purse, no money, no extra shirt. Pretty basic stuff. And, of course, some words about extravagant love, avoiding stereotypes and invented prejudices, and seeking opportunities to live a burden-free life.
I'm not sure how I will work through all of these reflections today, but I've already decided that the next time somebody appears at my door with a walking stick and sandals, I'm going to ask myself whether it's the prophet or my own prejudices that are the real scandal. How about you?