God’s Priority List
At one time or another, I think we’ve all wanted something from God. I think we’ve all had that one thing we wish God would do for us. Or maybe even a list of things. Or maybe in a moment of doubt we’ve just wanted God to show us some small sign to reassure us that God really is with us and on our side. A lot of these wishes, especially the smaller ones, go unspoken. But when we’re honest with ourselves—and with God—I think almost all of us have that something we’d like to see God do for us.
I suspect that there was something like that at work in the hearts of the people who came to hear Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth. They had heard great stories about their hometown boy made good—stories about healings and exorcisms. They had heard that he spoke with authority, eloquence and wisdom. Some people were already calling him a prophet. So when his hometown people came to hear him speak in his hometown synagogue, it was only natural that they brought their hopes and expectations—their unspoken wish lists—with them. And when Jesus read the passage from Isaiah that starts with The Spirit of the Most High is upon me, it must have just heighted their expectations.
They knew that passage from Isaiah. I’m sure many of them were silently saying the words with him as Jesus read them. God has anointed me to proclaim good news to those who are poor. God sent me to preach liberation to those who are captives and recovery of sight to those who are blind, to liberate those who are oppressed. To proclaim the year of the Most High’s favor. They knew those words. And the way Jesus was speaking them, it sounded like a proclamation he was making about himself. And then, as if to remove any doubt, the moment he sat down to teach he said Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
He owned the prophecy. He claimed it.
I can imagine a buzz of excited conversation in the synagogue. People’s hopes were high. Hard to believe this is Joseph’s son. Remember that time he got separated from the caravan coming back from Jerusalem and his parents couldn’t find him for three days? But look at him now!
Luke doesn’t tell us everything Jesus said as he was teaching. But at some point he must have said something that they heard as a criticism. Maybe he said something about their failure to fully embrace the kin-dom of God and help bring it about on earth as it is in heaven. Maybe he criticized their lack of imagination or their unwillingness to take any risks on behalf of what God was trying to accomplish. Maybe he criticized their hopes that God was going to fulfill their wish list, when Isaiah wanted them to understand that they were being invited to fulfill God’s wish list and that the Spirit could empower them to do it.
Somewhere in there, also, Jesus made it clear that the miracle shop was closed for the day. He wasn’t going to do any exorcisms or healings. It was the Sabbath, after all, and doing works of power—healing, exorcisms, that kind of thing, was better left to another day if wasn’t urgent. It’s a bit ironic, really, because at other times in other places people got upset with him for healing and casting out demons on the Sabbath. And isn’t that just human nature in a nutshell. There’s always someone who’s looking for a reason to be upset.
Jesus watched their expressions change as the shadow of disappointment and irritation fell across their faces. He could see that his criticisms didn’t sit well with them. He could see that they were starting to formulate their own criticism of him in response. So he beat them to it. Of course you’ll all quote me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” and you’ll all say, do the things here in your hometown that we heard you did in Capernaum!
We shouldn’t be too hard on the people of Nazareth. I think we might have felt the same way. Don’t we deserve a few miracles, too? Come on, Jesus, this is your hometown! We knew you when! You’re one of us!
Jesus was a master at reading the human heart. He could hear all the words that weren’t being said. He could feel their sense of entitlement. So he reminded them that neither he nor God were bound by their expectations. He reminded them that there were times and stories in their own tradition when their prophets brought the power of God to others, to “outsiders,” even though there were needs and wish lists right here at home. Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in their hometown. But I speak truth to you all, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were closed three years and six months, and there was a sever famine over all the land. Yet, Elijah was sent to none of them, rather to Zarephath in Sidon, to a widow woman. And there were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”
That was the spark that set them off. They felt they were being disrespected. It was a slap in the face! It offended their sense of privilege. Jesus was one of them, after all. If anyone had a right to experience his amazing works of power, they did. They should come first.
And here’s the thing. Jesus was not telling them that he didn’t love them or that God didn’t love them. Jesus was not telling them that God wasn’t going to meet their needs. He was just reminding them that God had already set an agenda, and that God’s agenda was his agenda, too. He was reminding them that long ago God had spoken through Isaiah to tell them that those who were hurting the most would be attended to first. He was reminding them that his mission was to proclaim good news to the poor, liberation for captives, recovery of sight for the blind, and liberation for the oppressed. That was his first order of business.
They didn’t like to hear Jesus so bluntly telling them that their wishes were not God’s top priority. It confronted their sense of privilege, and they exploded in rage. They shoved him out to the edge of town and were going to throw him off the cliff. And that’s when he finally did a small miracle for them, though I doubt if they saw it that way. He stopped them from doing something that would have scarred their consciences and damaged their souls for the rest of their lives. He passed through the midst of them and went on his way, leaving them standing there as the anger and adrenaline seeped out of them.
We love to be told how much God loves us. We love to be reminded of all the ways that God has provided for us and is looking out for us. And we usually don’t mind being told that God loves others, too, although we sometimes bristle when we’re told that God loves and cares for people we don’t much like. Anne Lamott said, “You can safely assume that you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
And that was part of the problem in Nazareth. The god in their heads, the god in their hearts ran headlong into the God of their scriptures when Jesus began teaching them what that beloved passage from Isaiah really meant. God’s favor does not privilege home or nation, but it does prioritize those who are hurting most.
There’s an old story about a little girl who was outside playing with her two brothers when she fell and scraped her knee. Her mom heard her crying and ran outside, scooped her up and brought her in to the bathroom to clean and dress her wounds, and while her mom was sticking a big Band-Aid on her knee, the little girl asked, “Mom, which one of the three of us do you love the most?” Her mom looked at her for a moment, then kissed her forehead and said, “Whichever one needs me the most.”
We all want to hear good news. But the ones who need it most are the poor. We would all like to be liberated from one thing or another, but the ones who need it most are those who are really held captive. We all would like to see the world more clearly. But the ones who need it most are blind in one way or another. We all would like more autonomy, more real freedom and justice in one way or another. But the ones who need it most are people who are actually oppressed.
Over the past few years as protestors responded to the alarming number of incidents of black people being killed in circumstances that highlight the racism inherent in much of American life, the slogan Black Lives Matter began appearing at protests and on social media. When that slogan, Black Lives Matter, first appeared, a lot of white people responded with All Lives Matter.
All Lives Matter. Well, yes, that’s true, of course. But it’s beside the point. All Lives do Matter, but it isn’t All Lives who are dealing with profiling and bigotry and discrimination. It isn’t All Lives dealing with the heritage of neighborhood redlining that creates ghettos and a kind of economic bondage that perpetuates poverty. It isn’t All Lives who need to have The Talk with their children about how to stay safe and come home alive if you get pulled over by the police because your tail light is out. Saying Black Lives Matter is necessary because Black Lives have too often and for too long been treated as if they don’t matter. We can’t say All Lives matter until we’ve made it clear that Black Lives are included in the All.
Many white people have reacted negatively to Black Lives Matter. They have responded from the blindness of White Privilege, and it upsets them to have someone suggest that such a thing as White Privilege even exists. They may be quick to point out that their lives don’t feel privileged, that they have had their struggles, too. What they say is true, but it’s beside the point. White privilege doesn’t mean your life hasn’t been hard. It just means that the color of your skin isn’t one of the things that makes it harder.
When Jesus had finished reading that powerful passage from Isaiah, The Spirit of the Most High is upon me. God has anointed me… he followed the reading by saying Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Those last three words are important.
In your hearing. Are we still hearing him? He was announcing that he had come to restore vibrance and equity to our world. He was announcing that he was going to start where his attention and love and transformative power were needed most. If we are his followers, then we have the same mission. In our baptism we have received the Holy Spirit, too. If we stand with Jesus then we, too, should say, the Spirit of the Most High is upon us. God has anointed us to proclaim good news to those who are poor. God is sending us to preach liberation to those who are captives and recovery of sight to those who are blind. God is calling us to liberate those who are oppressed. God is calling us to announce that now is the time of God’s favor. The kin-dom of God is within reach.
Now is the time of God’s favor. Now is the time to change the world. Now is the time for liberty and justice and fairness for all… starting with those who need it most.