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Posts tagged ‘A Christmas Story’

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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Giving to Receive

Malachi 3:1-3; 10   The Message [MSG]

“Look! I’m sending my messenger on ahead to clear the way for me. Suddenly, out of the blue, the Leader you’ve been looking for will enter his Temple—yes, the Messenger of the Covenant, the one you’ve been waiting for. Look! He’s on his way!” A Message from the mouth of God-of-the-Angel-Armies.

But who will be able to stand up to that coming? Who can survive his appearance? He’ll be like white-hot fire from the smelter’s furnace. He’ll be like the strongest lye soap at the laundry. He’ll take his place as a refiner of silver, as a cleanser of dirty clothes.

Bring your full tithe to the Temple treasury so there will be ample provisions in my Temple. Test me in this and see if I don’t open up heaven itself to you and pour out blessings beyond your wildest dreams. 

giveselfDuring Advent and the Christmas season, it is important for us to be mindful of our Western biases when it comes to the story of the birth of Jesus and also the characters in the drama we think we know so well. Specifically, it is a must for us to accept the fact that the Hebrew prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Malachi were not talking about Jesus of Nazareth, nor were they writing to a Christian audience. Those writings are much more ancient than the NT Gospels, and Jesus of Nazareth was not on anyone’s radar screen, of course. But in all fairness to the casual Bible reader, those who put the Bible together didn’t do us any favors. The order of OT books is set in such a way as to point the Christian reader to “aha” and foreshadowing moments that seem to draw connections for us between OT prophets [and other books] and the NT stories of Jesus.

Malachi is one such example. In the Christian Bible Malachi is the last OT prophet. This is not all the case in the Jewish canon. Obviously, the Christians who put together the order of their Bibles wanted Malachi last so as to draw connections between the OT prophecy and the birth of Jesus.

But I think it’s our responsibility to read the OT [as much as possible] through a Jewish lens, being careful not to jump to Jesus conclusions so easily. Why? First, because it’s honest and truer to the text. Secondly, because by doing so we can glean even more meaning from the text and not settle for cookie-cutter, Christmasy conclusions that limit our understanding of an ancient culture and religion. Okay, I’m off my soapbox.

What’s Malachi, and what’s it all about if it’s not about Jesus?

Malachi, not a name, but the actual Hebrew words “my messenger” is a book about the corruption of religion and the need for change. The priests in the Israelite temple of Jerusalem [the rebuilt one] are apathetic; there is corruption in the temple. Many scholars think that Malachi was written somewhere around 450 B.C.E.

Malachi’s audience, if that date is correct, is pre-Babylonian exile, and post-second-building of the Jerusalem temple. So basically, the people had ample time to get apathetic and lax in their treatment of people and their worship of Adonai. Yes, they had the big temple and their religious rituals, but as people they weren’t all that impressive.

So Adonai [the Lord of Hosts] is coming, and who can stand when Adonai appears? Adonai will be like a refiner’s fire, and a harsh soap [reminds me a bit of Ralphie in A Christmas Story].

Ralphie-SoapAdonai will help the people be the best people they can be, on the inside, and in their worship.

But that is not enough.

The refining and the harsh soap serve to remind people of what is important. Are they talking smack behind people’s backs? Are they ignoring the oppressed workers? Are they looking away from the widows, the orphans, and the refugees? For Malachi, it’s not enough for the priests and the people to be good, religious people, doing the right kinds of rituals in the right way.

Worship of Adonai must be paired with good behavior in the world.

How the Israelites treat people is more important. Otherwise, their worship is false.

Malachi is, as Professor John Holbert states, more than a mere warm-up act for the main stage appearance of Jesus.[1] He is a truth-teller rather than a predictor. And all of us would benefit from hearing this message. What would it be like if instead of focusing on the birth of a little baby boy, we actually focused on how we treat people in our community? What if instead we focused on the refugees, the lonely, the forgotten, the marginalized, and the oppressed? What if our worship was about being kind and compassionate to others?

You see, Adonai, the one who comes as a refining fire and cleansing soap–comes into our lives to help us realize our full potential. We are not limited to rituals or even religious practice itself, thinking that such things please God. Instead, we are refined in order to understand that we are so very capable of healing, caring, empathizing, and giving. The tithe acceptable to God [borrowing from Isaiah], is the giving of ourselves in the world. It’s not just money.

The tithe is our humanity, who we are.

Sometimes we forget that our humanity is such a gift to others if we share it with them.

When we give someone our time without distractions.
When we perform an act of kindness without expecting anything in return.
When share an honest, but difficult feeling we have with someone because we trust him/her.
When we listen intently and compassionately to someone going through hell.

Consider this:

What if God only cared about how much we truly gave of ourselves?
What if we focused more on that and less on everything else?
How would that change things for us as people?

[1] The Lord Is Coming: Look Busy! Reflections on Malachi 3:1-4, John C. Holbert, December 02, 2012.

 

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