Sometimes it happens that when you start to pray, you find you can pray well. At other times, even when you have expended great effort, you may find your efforts frustrated. This experience is to make you learn that you must exert yourself constantly, for having once gained the gift of prayer, you must be careful to keep it safe (29. Philokalia 1:179). — Evagrios of Pontus
A beginning note: The lectionary disassembles an episode in the ministry of Jesus this week and next week. Jesus walks into he synagogue in Nazareth and all does not go well. This week’s half of the episode leaves off before the conflict happens. I chose not to separate things this week or next week. So, you will hear that Jesus’ sermon is not well received even though Sunday’s text does not quite get there this week.
It is texts like Luke 4 that give rise to the idea that Luke writes a social justice Gospel. That notion is really hard to argue with since it is generally held that Luke writes into a rich community and since his stories seem to, in part, want to answer the question: “How can a rich man be saved?” The rich fool and Lazarus give details.
The themes in the reading that Jesus is given to speak on in the synagogue are not new to us. They are contained in the canticles of Mary and Zachariah from chapter 1: Restoration and redemption, and both canticles anticipate or announce the imminent presence of God and Messiah. We, the readers of Luke’s Gospel, already know that Jesus is that Messiah. His birth came with angels’ song and his baptism with the very voice of God.
Speaking of the voice of God, Alan Rickman just died. Long before he played Snape in Harry Potter he got to be the voice of God: Metatron, in the movie Dogma, but that is another story. But still, his best line is: “All who are not dead or from a parallel dimension do well to hold their ears right about now,” right before the true vocalization of God makes the banished angel Bartleby’s head explode.
In a way, Jesus should probably have prefaced his sermon in Nazareth in Luke 4 with Rickman's/ Megatron’s line. In a way, it made his listeners’ heads explode. How could he claim the words of ancient prophecy, of ancient lore, to be referring to himself? How dare he! But then, remember, that you and I are by now of a parallel dimension. We know, having read the first 3 chapters, who Jesus is. Nazareth, on the other hand, is deaf to this.
Ancient words read by the faithful have a function in the faith where they are treasured. They serve as a voice of wisdom, history, identity, and, yes, God. We ponder them and rearrange and reset our lives and our living by what they say to us. We hear them and rebel against them too, as a matter of fact, that seems to be the more common response. We find ways to shield ourselves from the voice. We hold our ears so to speak, so that the true awesome creating and killing voice of God can somehow not get to us.
Yet there are certainly times when we have taken our hands away from our ears — maybe to scratch our nose — when it suddenly intrudes and when that happens, all manner of things get wrecked like moneychangers’ tables in the Temple; and some things get healed as well.
In Nazareth, God was about to do an old thing, that is God was about to fulfill the words of ancient prophets, a fulfillment that really ought to have been looked forward to. Unknown prophets like Simeon saw it and said so. (2:29ff)
Is the fulfillment of God’s promises something we actually wish to see or are our spirits quietly whispering the refrain of Melville’s Bartleby: we “would prefer not to?” Melville’s Bartleby dies a much less fantastic and much less messy death than Dogma’s Bartleby. Melvin’s Bartleby starves, he preferred not to eat.
Do you prefer God and God’s plan or do you prefer them not? When God’s great plan is read do you prefer it not come to be in your sight? If God’s voice sounds from the promises of prophecy do you prefer not to hear?
“Of course not! That would be silly,” you say. And everyone in Nazareth agrees with you. But they still try to take Jesus to the cliff.