Lots of our public conversations these days relate to boundaries. In a presidential election year, with seemingly countless candidates and endless debates, it's hard to avoid the angry voices and fierce scowls.
There is so much arguing over boundaries. Should we welcome refugees from Syria, a nation torn by civil war and terrorism? How should our society respond to others who have immigrated here without government approval? Although immigration from our southern border has declined over the past decade, some public leaders applaud the contributions of undocumented Americans while others spell out the risks they bring. Do we consider immigrants likely contributors or potential criminals? When activists proclaim "Black Lives Matter," the counter-point "All Lives Matter" looks like an attempt to hush a legitimate complaint about policing and criminal justice. I catch myself needing some of those noise-canceling headphones.
Setting up boundaries amounts to a mechanism for coping with anxiety. Folks in our society just feel anxious these days. As columnist David Brooks describes it,
Less-educated voters are in the middle of a tidal wave of trauma. Labor force participation is dropping, wages are sliding, suicide rates are rising, heroin addiction is rising, faith in American institutions is dissolving.
A hollowing out is happening in American society. The middle of our society no longer expects long-term employment or steady progress. A Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis study points out that even if we keep up with our parents' achievements, few of us can maintain their security. Folks move great distances for education and work, pulling the fabric of extended family and friendship networks. It's no surprise lots of people feel the stress.
Our stress multiplies when we encounter threats like terrorism. The mass shooting in San Bernardino, the multiple attacks in Paris, and the New Year's Eve assaults on dozens of women in Germany have increased the temperature on our spiritual boiling pot. To be frank, neither political party owns a satisfactory response. Our political leaders find it more useful to put a megaphone on our anxiety than to appeal to peace and generosity. When we're feeling stressful, boundaries grow all the more important.
Our Gospel lesson this week has lots to do with boundaries - maybe something to say about stress as well. The passage, Luke 4:21-30, belongs to a longer unit that would begin at Luke 4:16. This scene is Luke's public introduction of Jesus. Jesus has met John the Baptist and submitted to his baptism. Jesus has also endured his wilderness temptation by the devil. We hear that by the power of the Spirit Jesus has begun teaching and gathering a reputation. But to this point we have heard none of Jesus' teaching. We've witnessed none of his healing miracles.
Now Jesus arrives in Nazareth, his hometown. Mark (6:1-6) and Matthew (13:54-58) also tell the story of Jesus in his hometown, but Luke's is different. In Mark and Matthew familiarity prevents the folks who know Jesus' family from believing in him. We hear nothing Jesus does or says; they simply reject him because they know his unremarkable family.
Not so in Luke. Here Jesus wins a warm reception with his first words (4:16-22). He reads a proclamation from Isaiah, news of good news to the poor and freedom to the oppressed. The hometown audience finds itself highly pleased: at the bottom of a long social ladder that works its way up from landlords to the local king to the emperor himself, they long for Israel's liberation. "All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth."
It looks like things are going well, but Jesus picks a fight. He, not they, brings up tendency for hometowns to reject their prophets. More incendiary yet, Jesus reminds his hometown audience of God's tendency to transgress boundaries. Israel had lots of widows in Elijah's day, but God sent the prophet to a Sidonian woman instead. Likewise, there was no shortage of lepers when Elisha was active, but God cleansed only Naaman the Syrian. That's all the hometown crowd wants to hear. Rising up in anger, they intend to throw Jesus off a cliff. Luke's explanation for Jesus' escape comes up short in details.
Jesus' message is shocking not because he extends the boundaries to include outsiders. His message shocks because it doesn't recognize boundaries at all. When we feel pushed to our limits, we build walls. Jesus' opening speech calls for liberation, but it recognizes no walls.
Bible Study Questions
1. Where do you perceive stress at work in our society today?
2. Do you believe Jesus' teaching on the boundaries of God's blessing holds relevance for our contemporary conversations regarding boundaries? Why or why not?
3. How can you cultivate peace and generosity in your own spirit?
For Further Reading
Brendan Byrne, S.J., The Hospitality of God: A Reading of Luke's Gospel
William R. Emmons and Bryan J. Noeth, "The Middle Class May Be Under More Pressure Than You Think." Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, 2015.
Letty M. Russell. Just Hospitality: God's Welcome in a World of Difference.
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