Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Hometown Prophet

Jesus' first stop after his baptism and testing in the wilderness was a quick whistlestop visit to his hometown of Nazareth (Luke 4). It didn't go very well. Ever wonder why the synagogue there ended up wanting to push him over a cliff?

Was it because he made the startling claim that he was the fulfillment of Isaiah's Delivering Servant, the Messiah? Hardly.

The synagogue members actually found that initial claim exciting and thoroughly appealing. Potential would-be Messianic figures, of whom there were many, were Jewish red-blooded heroes who prompted hope for Israel's liberation from Roman tyranny. Who wouldn't want the true Messiah to come from his hometown, especially a place like Nazareth.

Look closer. The reason lies elsewhere. The key is in what immediately follows. For what Jesus said next was bound to make any good first-century Jew mad as hell. It was the 'unkind' remarks he offered about the foreigners and the homeboys that got their shorts in a knot.

Unpopular as it might have been to hear, Jesus pointed to the times in Jewish histsory when God favored foreigner enemies, even an enemy general, over Jews. In effect, Jesus was saying 'God is more likely on the side of the enemy (i.e., the Romans) than on yours, so you better not become too proud of me after all.' How abrasive, but Jesus was, if anything, also a prophet, one who spoke unpopular messages. Not likely, he insisted, that they'd accept his messianic credentials now, even in --and especially in-- his hometown. Obviously, he knew the danger he might face. Strangely, he escaped their notice in his leaving them behind.

Jesus' bad behavior would be tantamount to a member of the KKK celebrating the virtues of black people. Or, closer to home for most of us, it would be like standing up at a 'God and country' rally in Red America and reading some old story about divine compassion toward an Iraqi army officer, named Nahiim, in Saddam Hussein's elite guard unit. The result may not stop at a few boos from the crowd; it would likely get you killed.

'Officer, we don't know how this guy ended up at the bottom of that cliff! Looks like he slipped.'

What might God be saying to American Christians through these subversive words of Jesus? I have an idea, but I have little doubt that Jesus is bound to be as offensice now as he was two thousand years ago.

Today, a kind of Islamaphobia (fear of Muslims and their religion) seems to be gripping the church. That's understandable, but such fear and frustration is nothing new. Others have lived under the onslaught of oppression, and even terrorism. For centuries, believers have often endured living in tension with the enemy. How enemies were treated in response is where the crucial lessons lie.

Long ago, the contemporaries of Jonah feared Ninevah, the capital of the Assyrian empire, and for good reason. The Assyrians had committed unspeakable acts of terrrorism against Israel. They were some of the most fierce and fearsome people in the ancient Near East. Yet, God had compassion on them, sent Jonah to call them to repentence, and ultimately turned from his judgment that they so clearly deserved. The book of Jonah was a reminder, a sign that God is full of surprises. Like people say, 'we are probably going to be surprised at who is in heaven and who is not.'

It was not for nothing that Jesus compared himself to Jonah. His own story was a reminder that God's compassion was remarkably unpredictable.

Jews of the first century hated their Roman occupiers and despised their ancient rivals, the Samaritans. An accurate understanding of the Gospels must reflect these political realities. When Jesus spoke of openly of enemies (echthroi) and how to properly 'resist' their often violent opposition, everyone knew he was referring to. The setting was not simply limited to personal enemies, but had primary reference to political and military enemies. These are not generic, abstract references to any and all enemies, but to the very concrete domination by Roman rule, Roman authorities, and Roman soldiers. These same enemies, Jesus predicted, would lay seige to the city of Jerusalem (Luke 19: 43). To suggest, as Jesus did, that the Jews were to love these enemies and exercise patient generosity toward them, helps us more fully understand the growing antipathy toward his message.

Jesus commaned his followers to love such enemies, turn the other cheek, not seek revenge, and employ strategies of reconciliation and peacemaking. The controlling idea was that unless we do these things, we shall become like them, and forfeit what it means to bear the image of the Father. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the sons of God (Matthew 5:9).

What made this especially hard to grasp, no doubt, was that the something different was expected under the Mosaic tradition of handling enemies. That tradition extolled and celebrated the instances of holy war, military resistance, and principles and actions of what has come to be called the lex talionis (i.e. punishment in kind: an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, life for life).
Jesus' remarkable change of emphasis represents a radically new direction, a complete paradigm shift, a new commandment. Instead of hatred and self-preservation, it embodied enemy love, voluntary suffering, and cross-shaped discipleship.

Just as scandalous, were Jesus other teacheings and parables. They emphasized the upside-down nature of God's rule and reign in the world. The long-expected inbreaking kingdom of God would contradict the normal expectations of who's in and who's out. The last, the lost and the least would inherit the kingdom. Pagans would rise up and call their one-time victims blessed. Outsiders would enter the end time banquet while insiders would be banished. Remarkably, Jesus uses a story of a Samaritan as the model of loving neighbor.

Jesus was radically counter-intuitive. The difficult problem is that he has called us who would follow him to a similar 'political' stance. The Christian community is to be a city (polis) set on a hill for the watching world to view. Discipleship in this community trumps lesser loyalties that are grounded in our ethno- and geo-political roots. How then shall we live?

When Christians abide in political fear and promote social xenophobia, they further the climate of distrust and division in the world. They do not resemble the Father above.

On the other hand, building a relationship with the 'enemy' is infinitely more Christlike than spreading religious fear and hate. Being a bridge maker in the present political climate requires our most imaginative and ambitious efforts and prayers. It means self-sacrifice, love of and forgiveness towards our worst enemies. It may mean new tasks for our churches both locally and around the world. How we reach out to our enemies will define who we are.

I remember the true story of how some American missionaries serving in Asia were threatened by some local Muslim radicals. To their great astonishment, several of the caring Muslim neighbors surrounded their house in order to keep them safe. They risked their lives for these Christians.

The stories of Jonah, Jesus, and the Good Samaritan were not about tensions with people who believed and worshiped like they did. It was about people who believed and worshipped completely different than the normal in-group.

Jesus' commands to his followers were to 'love your enemies,' carry the soldier's pack an 'extra mile,' and 'turn the other cheek.' These were issued in the context political conflict, the clash of cultures, torture, and oppression. They cannot easily be watered down to the level of church disputes, family feuds, or falling out with neighbors. The regular practice of doing so is the biggest domestication of Jesus and discipleship ever foisted on the church.

Obviously, Christian discipleship and peacemaking is a risky undertaking. It could get you killed by your 'enemies'----and just as likely by your 'friends.' Jesus was the victim of both.