We all know the adage, “Familiarity breeds contempt” - a saying that goes back as far as Publius the Syrian, in 2 BC. The entire caption reads, “Familiarity breeds contempt … while rarity wins admiration.” Not to be upstaged, Mark Twain drolly added: “familiarity breeds contempt … and children.”
That seems to sum up the mood, it seems, by the end of our passage today from Luke. Our reading today picks up from last week. If you recall last Sunday we heard how Jesus, preaching his first sermon in Nazareth, reads a passage from Isaiah, a passage the congregation would immediately associate with the Messiah. The Messiah who brings good news to the poor. The Messiah who brings recovery of sight to the blind. Who brings release to the captives. The Messiah who inaugurates the year of God’s favor, God’s jubilee, upon the people.
The people are spellbound. They have heard of all the amazing things Jesus has been doing in the countryside and even at Capernaum. Miracles. Healings. Surely word has reached them from Cana that Jesus makes a pretty mean batch of wine. So, the people wait with baited breath. If Jesus did all these incredible things for strangers, surely, surely, he would pull out all the stops for them. King Messiah would bring fame and fortune to their backwater town. The pavements will be paved in gold. Money will rain down from the sky. King Messiah would heal all their sick, kick out the Romans, put all the nasty gentiles in their place to boot. Most of all, the Messiah will hire all the locals for all the new jobs that will be opening up to run the court that Jesus would establish right there in downtown Nazareth. Jesus, the local boy made good! Who would have guessed this of Joseph’s son? Tickled pink, the townsfolk just want nothing more than cashing in on a piece of the action.
Unfortunately, Jesus puts the kibosh on all these dreams. He doesn’t let them down gently either. Jesus stuns them by citing two stories from the Hebrew scriptures, stories that seem vague and elusive to us, but to Jesus’ listeners, would surely have carried a stinging wallop. Jesus first tells the story from 1 Kings 17, how during a 3 ½ year famine in the land the prophet Elijah was sent not to Israel’s widows, but to a foreign widow, a widow in Zarephath, in the region of Sidon. Sidon was known for its opulence and wickedness. Sidon’s idolatry and pagan practices even led Israel to copy its sins (Judges 10:6–16; 1 Kings 11). To a Jewish audience in Jesus’ day, Sidon was synonymous with wickedness. So, in our passage from Luke Jesus alludes that his blessings were not going to pour out on the good folk of Nazareth but on evildoing, idol-worshipping pagans.
Jesus doesn’t stop there. He rubs it in even further. He next gives an example from 2 Kings 5, from when Elisha the prophet healed the great commander of the army of Syria, Naaman, of his leprosy. Weren’t there enough lepers in Israel that Elisha could have healed? Syria, or Aram, as it is called frequently in the Bible, fought viciously with Israel for centuries. Syria was a canker sore that never healed. Syria was a burr in Israel’s side. Jesus just had to remind them how the great prophet Elisha healed the mighty Syrian warrior, Naaman. Another slap in the face.
Needless to say, the good townsfolk of Nazareth do not take kindly to the gist of what Jesus is saying. The blessings of the messiah aren’t going to be manifested exclusively in Nazareth and the Jewish people, but also in foreign lands, foreign peoples, known for centuries for conflict and sin. How more scandalous could Jesus be? Predictably, the community is up in arms. They want to run him out of town on the proverbial rail, tarred and feathered, and leave him for dead at the bottom of the cliff! And you should see the bottom of those town cliffs in Israel. Often, they are garbage dumps. They want to hurl him into the garbage dump, amongst the fires and the ashes that are always burning down there.
Jesus, in his startling way, shows his hometown folk that the work of the Messiah is not to limit God’s love and care, but to expand it to all peoples. The select examples of mercy shown to the widow of Zarephath and to Naaman the Syrian are now, under the messiah’s reign, going to be commonplace for Jew and Gentile alike. God’s love is universal. It is for all people. Not just for the hometown folk.
Paul’s letter to the Corinthians puts meat on the bone of Jesus’ message. Paul writes to a squabbling community, with a lot of internal conflict. Paul wrote these immortal words to stop the infighting and encourage them to take the high road: "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails." 1 Corinthians 13: 4-8. Indeed, Love endures all things.
What makes this a radical, scandalous message is that Jesus declares, what Paul spells out, that we are to act lovingly to all our neighbors. Not just the neighbors who look like us. Not just the neighbors who speak the same language as us. Not just the neighbors who hold the same religious or political views as us. Neighbor is now redefined as all of God’s children. Imagine being patient with someone who intensely frustrates us. Imagine not being rude to the person who just cut you off in traffic. Imagine not keeping a record of wrongs against someone we might consider a nemesis. Imagine now, seeking the healing, the restoration, bringing light to people we are on the outs with. Jesus boldly teaches us that we are not just to show favors to the hometown folk. But to all.
What he said that day in Nazareth is just as true today: Live the life Isaiah proclaimed and Paul describes so eloquently. Love. All the neighbors in our midst. I think of police officers Jason Rivera and Officer Wilbert Mora, who were gunned down in New York City last week while investigating a domestic violence complaint. Both officers were in their 20s, and had joined the force to make a difference, to change the attitudes toward police, to change how policing, and to care for their communities. In their memory, let us continue their dream of being peace makers, striving to better our communities, willing to face conflict to bring healing and justice where it is needed. To bring mercy and care where it is most needed, regardless of nationality, race, or ethnicity. This is how we will become a Beloved community of King Messiah. As the old hymn exhorts us, “Blest be the binds that tie our hearts in Christian love.” Indeed, this is the Love that endures in us and always. Amen.
Sam Levenson, You Don't Have to Be in Who's Who to Know What's What.