Reaching Outside the Lines

Luke 4:21-30     

Dear Readers,

Quick question, and please be honest.

Are you hearing any prophetic words, seeing any prophetic justice-action these days that are reaching across lines of difference, welcoming the marginalized, and standing up to hate and injustice and privilege? Are you? If so, please share in the comments.

And now…Luke’s version of Jesus’ prophetic voice taking flight….

Jesus of Nazareth had just read from the Isaiah scroll, which said: The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because it has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. I’ve been sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Then Jesus just sits down, drops the mic in the synagogue and says that this is fulfilled simply because the people heard it.

Hearing is an intimate thing.  You gotta lean in. You gotta pay attention. You have to notice body language and expression. The words you hear literally come all the way inside your body where they are then “processed” and understood through your neural connections. If your language is ASL you hear just as intimately, by noticing so much more than words, but intention.

So the crowds of people hearing this were amazed. Wasn’t this Jesus bar Joseph from Nazareth? Wasn’t he the same kid from their small town?

But Jesus wasn’t fooled by their amazement. They wanted Jesus to do some miracles or something—prove that he was magic or could do the stuff they had heard about him. More importantly, they wanted their own personal blessing—for the families, for their town, for Jesus’ hometown. Hey Jesus, homeboy, spread the love to us!

Jesus knew his hometown fans were definitely fairweather fans.

Image result for fairweather fans

They could turn on him at any moment, especially if they found out that this justice and freedom and acceptance wasn’t specifically for them, but was for all those who were oppressed, imprisoned, poor, or marginalized.

Jesus then provides two examples, well-known in Israel, of the prophet coming to the aid of outsiders:  the Zarephath widow and Elijah, and Elisha and Namaan the Syrian (1 Kgs 17:8-24, 2 Kings 5: 1-19).  In both cases, a prophet came to the aid of a gentile when other people in Israel could have also used the help. 

Luke’s author wants us the readers to know that the widow was on the margins of society and undoubtedly poor.  Naaman, though powerful as an army commander, suffered from leprosy, so he was unclean. 

In both cases, a prophet reached out to them on the margins [Elijah and Elisha]. See, Jesus was being prophetic by telling his hometown that they weren’t going to get special treatment.

This of course didn’t go over well. The people of Jesus’ hometown turned on him. Not only did they want to throw him out of town, they wanted to throw him off a cliff! Yeah, that’s not good. But somehow, in Luke’s version of this story, Jesus is able to get out alive, without the people getting to him, thus recalling to mind the scene from A Christmas Story when the leg lamp is broken and Ralphie’s father heads out to the store to get some glue to try to fix it and in his frustration, he can only utter: “Not a finger!!!” Yeah, they couldn’t lay a finger on Jesus.


But I digress.

This story is pretty clear, especially in today’s context. Look, I’ll be frank. Christians [especially the U.S. brand] deserve all the bad press they get. Honestly, American Christians have earned the bad reputation. I’ve been in rooms, halls, sanctuaries and in public spaces with self-proclaimed Christians who quote all manner of scripture they claim is holy and the word of God, but do they hear any of it? Because after they read it they say horrific things about gay, lesbian, and bisexual people and then deny the existence of transgender people. Then, they call immigrants “Isis” and Muslims “anti-Christian” and “against Jesus.” They camp out in the alleyways of Planned Parenthood near the back door so they can heckle doctors, social workers, and any women who receive services. They hold up incredibly triggering and hateful signs using words I won’t utter here [and not because I’m PC, but because they are hateful words]. They say they know who’s going to hell [not them of course] and who Jesus loves and who Jesus hates. They say they are “hearers” and “doers” of God’s Word, and well, I [and most of the rest of the world] call BS.

They are chasing Jesus out of his own town, hoping to throw him off a cliff.

Because Jesus of Nazareth doesn’t bless them like they want to be blessed. Jesus doesn’t favor them. Jesus sees their privilege and their hate and their greediness. Jesus reads from the justice prophet, Isaiah, and the Christians don’t listen or hear or care. They have their own agendas. And anyone outside of those agendas either is against them or doesn’t exist.

And this, my friends, is why Jesus of Nazareth gathered people to his side who would follow him to do justice and to love those on the margins. This is why Jesus even rejected his own town and his own religion so that he could be part of something good in the world. This is what we are prophetically asked to do. Religion has failed us. It’s okay to admit it, because we don’t need to be loyal to a religion.

The way of justice and love is not tied to a religion, a country, or even a sacred book.

Doing justice and loving others across lines of difference is a choice we make. It is a difficult, but I argue, a compassionate and wonderful choice. And yes, sometimes this means we’ll have to leave behind religious ideology or traditions that keep us from doing justice and loving others.

As a general rule, I look at any religious practice or ideology and ask: does it exclude people, separate them out, marginalize them? Then it doesn’t come from anything sacred.

Then I ask: does it reach out to those who are hurting, on the margins, oppressed? Does it take no issue with their nationality, orientation, gender, language, or color of skin? If not, then it’s worthwhile, it’s sacred, it’s useful, it’s prophetic.

So I ask you: how will we listen to the prophetic voices and be inspired to do justice and to love people as they are, to reach outside of boundaries and borders and differences? And how will we be prophetic in our words and actions?

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Josh grew up in Indiana and Iowa before completing a Masters of Divinity [M.Div.] at Princeton Theological Seminary [NJ]. He has worked in a variety of settings, including the Presbyterian Church (USA) and United Church of Christ (UCC) in Philadelphia, Hawai’i, Mexico, and Michigan. Currently, he serves as pastor of Love in Action United Church of Christ, a progressive, Christian, LGBTQIA+ affirming and interfaith community in Hatboro, a suburb of Philadelphia. He also holds a Bachelor of Arts in Theatre/Speech from Northwestern College (IA). Josh has worked with youth and young adult programs for 25 years regionally, nationally, and in Latin America. He is also a trained actor and performs regularly with the dinner theatre company, Without a Cue Productions, LLC. He has developed theatre arts curriculum for use in worship, youth groups, education, and group-building. Josh is also committed to promoting religious pluralism and partnering with people of all faiths and those who identify as atheist or agnostic to build bridges of shared values and cooperation. He is honored to work with the Interfaith Center of Greater Philadelphia as a Fellow and a Consultant. Focus areas include: University alternative spring break and summer programs that incorporate faith encounters and service-learning for students; workplace diversity programs that promote understanding in organizations, corporations, schools, and hospital settings. Josh also enjoys playing basketball, strumming on the guitar, traveling, learning language, or making strange and funny faces. He lives in Center City Philadelphia and thinks vegan cheesesteaks are amazingly good.

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