A chiasm is a widely used poetic structure in biblical writings, and here in this passage is one of the clearest we have. It is called a chiasm because the pattern looks very much like an X, in Greek, the letter chi – hence a chiasm. And the way that it works is that the first line mirrors the last line, the second line mirrors the last but one, the third line mirrors the third from last, and so on. Until, you come to the centre of the chiasm, and at the centre is the point that is being emphasised. Now, we turn to the text:
Verse 16 – he stood up to read, mirrors verse 20, he sat down. Back to the top, the scroll was given to him,- down to the bottom, he handed the scroll back. Then back to the top, he opened the book, down to the bottom, he closed the book. Then in verse 18, the Spirit of the Lord, is upon me; moving up from the bottom, the acceptable year of the Lord. Then, to proclaim good news to the poor, mirrors to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord, Then, he has sent me, to proclaim release to captives, mirrors that same word aposteilai, sent me to proclaim release to captives – (that bit doesn’t come out too clearly in translations) - But release to the captives mirrors setting at liberty in Greek, the release of the oppressed. So right here at the centre – what is emphasised is the recovery of sight to the blind.
That lies at the heart of Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God throughout the Gospel of Luke. The last time I was in the States was 10 years ago, when I came out from Oxford where I was a student on placement to a church in Virginia, and while I was there, I worked my way through the entire Gospel of Luke looking at every reference to the kingdom of God. And it really was quite remarkable that more often than not, references to the kingdom of God were related to an emphasis on seeing. Just think about it: There are some who will not taste death before they see the kingdom of God (Lk 17); Seek ye first the Kingdom of God; Joseph of Aramathea was looking for the Kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God is already present in the person of Jesus, and much of the ministry of Jesus is spent opening people’s eyes. And I put it to you that as the ministry of Jesus to Israel, so the ministry of the church to the world, much emphasis lies on opening the eyes of the blind. But the blind often do not want there eyes open – those of you who have read Plato might well agree. People often do not want their eyes open. It is as true for us, if not more so, than it was for first century Jewish folk. Comfortable modern westerners hate hearing stuff they didn’t already know: and for all the language of being challenged – actually don’t want to be:
The people of Nazareth would, I am sure, be people that wanted to be challenged -
So let me ask you: Have you ever preached a sermon that got you into trouble? Probably not this much trouble! A friend of mine working in California, just after the nine eleven bombings, noticed that everywhere they looked, there were signs that read, “God bless America”. And my friend, who is a good Texas man, simply argued this. That if you desire for God to bless America without seeking at the same time, for God to bless our enemies, then that claim of blessing will turn into a curse! The result of that sermon, was that one third of his congregation walked out, never to return.
Well, if you ratchet up the intensity of that event just a few notches, then what we see is something very closely akin to the incident that Luke is reporting. Jesus has returned to his home town, and he has been invited to preach at a synagogue service. And the people who know this young lad are quite keen to see what he has on offer. But how much do they really want to see. And on the surface, it looks very much as though everyone was quite impressed. But something seems to happen that changes their minds altogether, and the synagogue becomes a lynch mob! What happened?
Well first of all, it looks as though they were most impressed by the gracious words that fell from the mouth of this young prophet. And that is usually how it is translated, - The NIV for instance has, “All spoke well of him, and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips – isn’t this Joseph’s son, they asked.” Well that all sounds very complementary, and the crowds seemed amazed at how well this local boy could speak. But there is another way of translating these words which I suggest is more likely:
The word for speaking well of him, is bearing witness – and can also mean to bear witness against – a hostile rather than a favourable response. The same ambiguity is also to be found in the words, were amazed – the word for wonder can also denote hostility as well as favour. And why would they be hostile? Because Jesus was talking about grace! And why on earth should that be regarded as bad? Well it is worth saying a little about the theology of grace.
Grace – and its implications
Grace is often simply one of those words that we might throw into a prayer to prove that we understand one of the characteristics of God. And many of us will already have a basic definition of grace – you may have heard – that grace is getting what you don’t deserve, but mercy is Not getting what you Do deserve. The thinking is that as sinners, none of us deserves forgiveness – but God graciously and lavishly bestows it upon us, but as sinners – we all deserve to be punished – but we are not -it is Jesus Christ who has suffered in our stead. Grace is getting what you don’t deserve, and mercy is not getting what you do deserve. And that describes the biblical concept of grace from a particular angle. But let me suggest another dimension, one that unpacks the way that grace is used more specifically in Luke.
You may know that in Greek the word for gift and the word for grace have the same root – Charis. It is where we get words like ‘charity’. Now, some French philosophers have in recent years been playing with this word for the Gift – and have noticed something deeply important about it: it is like a counterfeit coin! That is not to say that there is anything false about it. Rather it says this:
That our daily life, our habits, our transactions, our ways of relating – all of these things that constitute our daily life are like an economy – and again – strictly speaking, in Greek, economy simply means the rules by which you run your household. And so we have our economy of life, habits, relationships. And a genuine gift, true grace, enters Into our economy from beyond it, just like a counterfeit coin enters into an economy from outside.
In fact, during the second world war, the German military attempted to flood the British economy with counterfeit money, because they knew that it would cause utter disruption to the economy and the entire war effort. And that is what counterfeit money does – it enters into an economy from beyond it, and disrupts it. That is precisely how Grace functions in scripture – it enters into our world, our life, our relationships, utterly from beyond ourselves, but it brings with it disruption. Now when you encounter grace, when you encounter the counterfeit – one thing is for sure. It can never be absorbed by the economy – we can’t just take grace for granted – Grace comes to us from beyond and it stops us dead in our tracks. That is the Grace of God at work.
Now the philosophers can get a little snooty here, but it is worth listening to them. They say that much of the time, what we presume to be a gift, what we presume to be grace, is nothing of the sort. In Britain, we need only think of Christmas -someone buys you a Christmas present – and you have no choice but to buy one back. You get me a gift, I’ll get you one in return. Job done – now we’re even. Well, that is not giving a gift – that is just a mere transaction. Think of the embarrassment that comes on Christmas Day. One year, I bought my uncle a cheap tie. That same year, I opened my present from him, and it was a Digital Camera. Oops! What can you do about it! Do I have to go out and buy something more expensive to clean the slate and make us even.
Or think of the horror of opening a Christmas card, on Christmas eve, from someone that you did not send a card to! What are you going to do! If you just rush to go and get one in return – there is no grace in that, it is just how the economy works – transactions.
A true gift is very difficult to accept, because if you rush to respond immediately with counter-gift, you have not accepted it as a gift. It has become just another transaction – you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. The moment you feel endebted to the giver, and compelled to go and offer payback to put you back on an equal footing, you have resisted grace. That’s how the economy works! Grace is a very difficult thing to accept. So we must either embrace it, and allow it to do its work upon us – or we must reject it. This section of Luke’s Gospel is about how God’s gift is rejected.
Why was it rejected? Well, we are back to the text. Now it is often assumed that the Jews hated Jesus because his was a message of love and grace, and they were into judgement and condemnation. But that is quite unfair. What I have tried to show is that grace is a beautiful thing, but very, very hard to accept. If any of you listen to U2 they capture brilliantly how we all long to encounter grace, but when it comes to it, we can’t – “You thought you’d found a friend, to take you out of this place, someone you could lend a hand, in return for grace.”
Now, this is all quite theoretical and worth, I think, so perhaps we should pause here to pray: “Lord, forgive us when we hide from your grace – when we don’t want to encounter your grace because it threatens habits, or privacies or possessions that we treasure. Forgive us for taking refuge from your grace, by hiding behind slogans, or doctrines, or busy-ness or pride. Forgive us from hiding from your life changing grace, by holding on to the familiar, creating the right impressions with people, refusals to be honest. Lord, forgive us, and help us to be open to your loving grace, that we truly might be God’s gift to the church, and that the church might be your gift to the world. May we truly encounter your loving grace afresh in our lives.”
How easy it is, when we encounter grace, when we encounter something that comes to us from utterly beyond ourselves and our community, simply to try to fit it into our economy, so not allowing it to challenge us at the deepest level. That is what we see at work here in this sermon and its response:
So, back to the sermon. We can now translate that verse afresh: Instead of “all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. Isn’t this Josephs’s son.” We might rather say something like, “Everyone was livid, and were offended at the logic of grace that fell from his lips. Isn’t this just Joseph’s Son?” In other words – nice try Jesus, talking about grace, talking about this gift of God that comes to us from beyond! But how can you talk to us about anything from beyond, how can you bring us anything from outside? You are merely one of us. You are just Joseph’s son – we’ve always known you.
Well, Theophilus knows already, that Jesus himself can embody grace, and that he is not – in fact – the Son of Joseph, but the Son of God! He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, that is from beyond our economy – and he enters into it so as to transform it.
I have three young sons and a daughter. When my oldest was 5 and his little brother was 3, and they misbehaved, we had a particular way of administering discipline. Many people in Britain do this. You count to three! And if you get as far as three, then all parties are aware that there will be a gentle but swift application of unwanted physical contact! Now, if this is to work – you have to be very strict, and follow through on your promise just once or twice. But after that it can become quite effective, and so it had with our eldest son!
And one day we were sitting at the dinner table, and the time came to administer a little discipline. Willem, sit back at the table now – 1, 2, … by that stage, Willem had complied with my request, and all was well in the world. Unfortunately, Lewis – his younger brother – had thereby been robbed of an entertaining episode, so quickly shouted 3 – before applying physical contact to his older brother, entirely by his own authority! Maybe we should have named him Jonah!
Now throughout Israel’s history, there had been many, many Jews who regarded themselves as God’s favourites, and thought that the day of the Lord, or the coming Kingdom of God, would be the time when God comes to punish all those nasty foreigners – and of course, he would never dream of punishing us. This has always been a trap for the people of God, and is one that our churches today are falling into left, right, and centre -and I mean that religiously and politically, left, right and centre.
This is precisely the attitude we see in the synagogue, and we are now in a position to understand more fully the nature of the rejection of Jesus, as the rejection of his whole model of what it meant to be Messiah. Remember we are right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he is about 30 years old. He is in the synagogue, and is invited to read and comment on the passage. So the scroll of Isaiah is handed to him, and he unrolls it to read. It turns out to be a prophetic text, from the book of Isaiah, speaking of the new era that would be ushered in by the long-awaited Messiah. So far so good, although there would have been a few eyebrows raised because Jesus actually finishes the reading mid-sentence. And then, as soon as Jesus begins to comment on it, it all goes downhill.
“Today”, he says, “This Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” This construction worker in a synagogue in a nowhere town, claims to be the means by which God’s kingdom is coming. That was quite a claim – and it did not go down well. Well, it was quite clear that Jesus was going to be talking about grace, because he deliberately omits an important portion of the Scripture reading he was giving.
He was not being biblically sound! Because as he reaches the end of the reading, he stops mid-sentence – “he has sent me to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord … - and he does not continue, as he should, with the words – “and the day of judgement of our God”. Before Jesus begins to preach, everyone would already be getting hot under the collar.
Now, a prevailing attitude amongst many, many Jews in Jesus’ day, was that pagan hoards were occupying the promised land, horrible foreigners in the country God gave to us, they are oppressing us, the economy had gone up the wall – and anyone who is waiting for God to act should jolly well know that these people deserve to be punished! The message of Judgement for the enemies of Israel, is what many, many people wanted to hear. Think back to yesterday, about why people shouted for Jesus to be crucified, and for Barabas to be released – Barabas was an agent of God’s judgement! That is what the people shouting Hosannah, liberate us, demanded. But that is not the game that Jesus is playing. He does stops short of judgement.
And Jesus stops short of it, and upsets everyone because instead of talking about judgement, he is talking about grace. He is claiming that this Scripture has been fulfilled in their hearing, and yet – he refrains from talking about judgement and talks instead about grace. Now Jesus was really beginning to infuriate people, and so they say – in effect, who is this Jesus to teach us about grace – he is a carpenter’s son, what does he know about grace?
And what follows is even worse. Jesus has been doing mighty acts in Capernaum, so why should he be doing God’s work there instead of here! There are plenty of problems to address on your own doorstep – what on earth are you doing in Capernaum? Physician, heal yourself – look to yourself, to what’s on your own doorstep before rushing off to heal outsiders. So Jesus says, ‘Look, no prophet is accepted in his own country.’ And he tells the stories of Israel’s two greatest prophets going off to heal foreigners when there was great need in Israel. Israel are not God’s favourites, and the foreign nations deserve God’s mercy as much as Israel.
Well, we know the story – everyone is livid! Jesus, the wishy-washy liberal talking about grace instead of boldly preaching a message of judgement. So the synagogue is transformed into a lynch mob. It was as though Jesus had counted, 1 … 2 … and the synagogue had intervened and shouted, 3 – before attempting to administer their own judgement! And here, in one of the most dramatic moments of Scripture, Jesus walks through them! If you’ve ever seen a lynch mob, you’ll know that it’s victims do not simply walk through the middle of them. How cool was that?
But something significant happened after that. Jesus stopped preaching! Every time Jesus speaks from now on, he speaks in parables – his first sermon was also his last. Instead he tells these dark and enigmatic stories, and by the time his listeners have understood them, by the time the penny has dropped, Jesus has moved on beyond their reach. And the reading concluded by saying that Jesus went on his way!
Jesus had been talking about grace – whereas what people expected was a message of judgement. Grace is always going to be disruptive. Whenever a person encounters real grace, there are only two responses. You either accept it, and allow it to enter into your life, into your world, into your system of habits and routines in such a way as to allow it to remake your entire structure of engaging with the world. But that option is long, and slow, and painful. Much easier, just to reject grace when you encounter it. When grace embodied preaches in the Nazareth synagogue, when he declares, today, this scripture has been fulfilled, the natural response is to reject grace. In just the same way as when you see a bright light, it seems natural to want to protect yourself from it. The rejection of grace is the refusal to see.