God’s Favor – a Precarious Thing

Last week, in Luke 4: 1-21, rising to his feet in the synagogue at Nazareth Jesus reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. This, he proclaims is his messianic manifesto – fulfilled in the here and now. He’s greeted with rapturous applause as his hearers – hearing in his words – a message of nationalist liberation. Today, Luke continues in versus 21-30 to show how quickly moods can change as Jesus seemingly goes out of his way to confront the congregation’s jubilation with two well-aimed inconvenient truths.

To get behind this gospel passage we first need to know a little Jewish history. Jesus lived at the tail end of a period that began around 140 BCE. This was a period that marked an astonishing, if final flourishing of an independent Jewish state, that is, until the the founding, of the modern state of Israel.

In 140 BCE, the Maccabean revolts having liberated Jerusalem and Judea from Hellenic-Syrian control established the Hasmonaean dynasty – initiating a period of Jewish reunification of the territories of the former United Kingdom of Israel and Judah prior to the fall of the Northern kingdom of Israel in 721 BCE. Yet, despite the successful reunification of former Hebrew territories stretching from the coast to beyond the Jordan, Jewish independence remained a precarious thing. Sandwiched between Hellenic mini-empires –the Seleucids in Syria and the Ptolemys in Egypt, the Hasmonean kingdom maintained itself as a political entity through alliances of convenience with the Roman Republic to the West and the Parthian Empire to the East.

But in 37 BC the last Hasmonaean king was supplanted by Herod the Great – the Herod of Biblical fame. Herod was not a Jew but an Ituraen – or using the earlier name, and Edomite. His accession marked not only the end of the Hasmonaean dynasty but Israel’s fragile independence. For Herod, despite some appearance of autonomy – was really a proxy for indirect Roman power. On his death the Romans interfered directly, dividing his kingdom into three Jewish protectorates under each of Herod’s three sons – Archelaus, Antipas, and Fillippus as titular rulers of the now Roman provinces of Judea, Galilee, and Iturea-Trachonitus, respectively. In response to the psychopathic Archelaus’ routine massacres of his own people, the Romans deposed him and took over direct rule in Judea placing it under a Roman procurator.

Jesus’ home province of Galilee remained under the titular control of Herod Antipas – again of biblical fame. Despite the success of the Hasmonean period, the Jews of the Galilee had suffered periodic brutal incursions at the hands of the Phoenicians of Tyre and Sidon – the non-Jewish regions along the coastal strip of what is now Lebanon. By Jesus’ time a legacy of considerable racial animosity had built up among the Galileans towards the Phoenicians.

So, returning to events in the Nazareth synagogue, how are we to understand why the congregation was so quickly roused to rage against the man who a moment ago they had been extolling with jubilation?

Not for the last time will Jesus respond to the acclamation of the crowd with a word designed to burst the bubble of misguided enthusiasm. We sense his unease in response to their acclamation as he tells them tells that no prophet was ever accepted in his hometown.

This has often been interpreted as an explanation for the crowd’s turning on him. But this doesn’t make sense given that only a moment ago he had them eating out of his hand. Something more is going on here. In effect, Jesus is saying a prophet is accepted only if he tells his hearers what they want to hear.

Isaiah’s words were regarded by Jesus’ Galilean hearers as a manifesto for their liberation as God’s chosen people. They were roused to rage when they heard Jesus referencing from a story about and encounter between Elijah and a widow of Zarephath – a hated Phoenician. They were further incensed at the mention of the encounter between Elisha and Naaman, the general of the Syrian army that had vanquished the Kings of Israel and Judah. It’s one thing to quote with approval from Isaiah. It’s another to tell his audience that they are not the only recipients of God’s favor. 

Here is Jesus’ first practical teaching on love your enemies – because it’s not up to his audience to confine the boundaries of God’s favor – which Jesus is at pains to point out – is given without favor.

In 2021 there are sections of our society which continue to experience historic and systematized discrimination. Discrimination results from historic definitions of who is excluded from God’s favor. Those outside of God’s favor – become the objects of God’s disfavor.

In our society, the favored feel free to assume God’s disfavor with such groups through random forms of violence against them. Serious violence becomes systematized – expressed through economic and environmental discrimination – that continues to disadvantage very specific communities. More serious still, the systemic violence against communities not included in the definition of those worthy of God’s favor – becomes embedded in the DNA of the criminal justice system’s courts, prisons, and police.

Only this week we heard of a current instance of this. Under the First Step Act, an algorithm identifies a low-risk category of incarcerated offenders in deciding who is eligible for early release. It’s been noted that the algorithm currently identifies only 7% of Black and Latino offenders compared with 31% of white offenders as eligible for early release. In our society even the computer algorithms operate racial bias.

There are sections of our society who rather like the congregation at Nazareth have historically assumed automatic inclusion within God’s favor. Like the Nazarites – any challenge to this set of assumptions provokes real fear and rage. Much of the current resurgence of white supremacy is a reaction similar to the way the Nazareth congregation pivoted on the head of a pin from jubilation to rage.

America is growing less white and becoming more polychrome. The problem for groups at the top of the racial pecking order is the fear of falling from preeminence. Such groups become highly vulnerable to political and social media manipulation into believing a culture war is about to displace them with a loss – largely imagined – of privileges and prestige. Therefore, the boundaries of God’s favor must now be defended-enforced with violence.

White nationalist evangelicalism equates a failure – despite some frightening successes – of imposing in God’s name their own cultural norms on the whole of society – as a widespread conspiracy to take away their religious and civil rights. The stark choice presented by the zero-sum thinking is if you’re not on top then you must be at the bottom.

Peter Marty writing in Christian Century identifies behind white supremacy a more aggressive resentment:

a fear-based panic that typically involves some form of rage. Most White grievance is built on a perceived sense of being under siege. The aggrieved think of themselves as a persecuted people, wronged and under attack. In order to cultivate White victimhood, purported enemies must be fashioned or imagined enemies who can then be targeted and attacked.

How quickly the persecutors imagine themselves the persecuted. In psychology we speak of a mechanism called projective identification. This is where our own unacknowledged fears and resentments are projected into others. The unacknowledged violence in our own hearts becomes the fear of violence at the hands of a largely fictional other.

Sections of the white community now fear being on the receiving end of the violence they have historically meted out to nonwhite groups. Thus, historic white-rage-driven-violence is projected outwards and exploited for political advantage – now by one of the two major political parties – to the point of now threatening the very foundations of our democracy. How lethal is the need to preserve the illusion of being the sole recipients of God’s favor.

We cannot completely get inside the mindset of the 1st-century community of Galilean Jews who heard Jesus’ prophetic and political proclamation in the synagogue at Nazareth. Yet we can surmise that their sudden raging reaction towards Jesus had something to do with the sudden realization that they were not the exclusive recipients of Isaiah’s words of God’s favor.  Jesus tells them that God shows favor without regard, even to those they deemed unworthy of divine inclusion. Put into today’s context of White rage – God shows favor even to those you fear – a fear based simply on your own record of persecution of them.

As we have persecuted others so now we fear they will persecute us. After all, everyone is just like us, aren’t they?

Seeing is Believing

Image: Water into Wine, Sadao Watanabe.

The gospel according to John proceeds through its first chapter at a breathless pace. The writer whom we know as John the Evangelist – who while not John the Beloved Disciple is someone who may have known John personally. He is the one who records and passes-on the unique teaching tradition of the Beloved Disciple – a teaching tradition that had remained distinct from the mainstream apostolic tradition recorded in the synoptic gospels of Mark, Matthew, and Luke.

Feel the pace of the narrative. Chapter 1: 29 we read: The next day Jesus appears before John for baptism. Then again at verse 35: The next day – Andrew, one of men who witnessed the baptism followed Jesus and introduced his brother Simon to Jesus. Verse 43 opens with again: The next day –Philip enters the picture and follows Jesus. Philip finds Nathaniel and announces the joy of his discovery – we have found him about whom Moses wrote, Jesus, from Nazareth – to which Nathaniel, ever the whit replies: can anything good come out of Nazareth?

Day one, day two, day three – a symbolic sequence for John who from the outset wants us to be aware of how the story ends – Jesus’ final three days. John’s  schema is captured by T.S Eliot: The end is where we start from. Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning. Chapter 2 opens with: On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited.

We catch our breath as we’ve been propelled through the first chapter – having moved from the majestic opening of the prologue – words conjuring up images worthy of any Star Trek movie – to finding ourselves on the planet’s surface -so to speak – watching God’s only son coming and going among the local inhabitants – calling this one and then these ones, before arriving at the most domestic of all scenes – a local small town wedding where there seems to be a problem about the wine.

The first part of John’s Gospel is also known as the Book of Signs. Rather than following the chronological narrative of Jesus birth and life followed by Matthew and Luke according to the blueprint established by Mark, after locating Jesus ‘ identity as the pre-existing Word – the logos – the communicative element of the divine nature – John proceeds to build his Jesus narrative around seven signs – each designed to demonstrate and confirm Jesus’ divine origin and purpose.

There are seven signs in all beginning with:

  1. Changing water into wine at the wedding at Cana (Jn 2:1-11)
  2. Healing the royal official’s son (Jn 4:46-54)
  3. Healing the paralyzed man at the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem (Jn 5:1-15)
  4. Feeding the 5,000 (Jn 6:5-14)
  5. Walking on water (Jn 6:16-21)
  6. Healing the man born blind (Jn 9:1-7); and
  7. Raising Lazarus from the dead (Jn 11:1-45)

John’s sign stories certainly contain inexplicable-miraculous happenings. But to get into a debate about whether miracles as supernatural events happen or not is to miss John’s purpose. Signs always have the function of pointing beyond themselves to something greater. We are in the season after the Epiphany and John intends to draw our attention to a rolling sequence of epiphanies – a Greek word meaning showings that reveal to the disciples an inner truth about Jesus’ divine identity and purpose – truth accessible only through the medium of faith.

The Wedding at Cana is a favorite text at weddings. It’s noted in the Preamble to the wedding service in the Book of Common Prayer that Jesus was present at this wedding event – seemingly an indication of God’s valuing of lifelong marriage as a reflection of relational love shared within the divine community.

The story has some other interesting features.

  1. We are told that Mary, who in John is never referred to other than as the mother of Jesus seems one of the principal guests – named first with Jesus lumped in with his disciples in second place.
  2. We are left to wonder why the bride and groom appear nowhere in the story. Their wedding is simply the convenient backdrop for the focus of action between Jesus and his mother and then between Jesus and the minor servants.
  3. When Mary tells Jesus the wine has run out he responds: Woman, what concern is that to you or me? Addressing his mother as Woman seems abrupt and dismissive to our ears. Yet, we need to note however, that his use of the address woman – sounding to us like the all too familiar patriarchal putdown of women – is also the way he addresses Mary when standing at the foot of the cross he entrusts her to the care of John the beloved disciple: Woman, behold your son. Here, woman communicates respect and the agonies of love and loss.
  4. Having seemingly dismissed his mother’s concern, her response is in the vein of whatever son.  She dismisses his tone of rather priggish self-importance and remaining confident he will do the right thing instructs the servants to do as he tells them.
  5. Having appeared to dismiss his mother’s implicit request, Jesus does as she obviously intended him to do.

Christian commentators have seen in the transformation of the contents in the huge stone jars of water reserved for ritual purification into wine as a sign of Jesus abrogating the old law of the Mosaic Covenant. A better interpretation of this is that water used to delineate the boundaries of ritual purity – a form of exclusion –now becomes the wine of welcome and inclusion.

Who is the audience witnessing this first sign? Only Mary and the disciples witness and understand what Jesus has done. No one else at the wedding has any inkling – which causes the steward of the celebration to exclaim wonderment at why the groom has broken with common sense and custom and served the best wine last after everyone is well on the way to being drunk.

Down the centuries, the more Puritan in the Christian community have felt perplexed that John should report a wedding event as the first sign of the kingdom. After all, a wedding where the main thrust of the narrative revolves around the quantity and quality of the wine- seems a somewhat trivial if not unworthy image for the coming of the kingdom.

Others, however, have welcomed and been affirmed by John presenting Jesus at a wedding as the setting for the first of his signs that the kingdom has come. It’s reassuring that Jesus seems to have enjoyed parties – and that occasions of joy and merriment involving eating and drinking reveal a great deal about the nature of God’s kingdom – as a place of abundance in the form of the good things of life – wine and food, celebration of love, drunken bonhomie – symbolizing the goodness of creation.

This story of the Wedding at Cana is unique to John. There is no overlap here with the synoptic tradition. Nevertheless, my question this morning is how do we hear the first of John’s signs of the kingdom as a 21st-century audience?

In the short term, receiving this story finds us in a place of need. Into the third year of a global pandemic amidst the heedless head-long rush towards an ecological cliff, we have a need to see God’s invitation to faith as an invitation to celebrate social joys. This is more important now after three years of on-and-off quarantine that has left us not simply yearning for a return to our previous enjoyment of social life, but more worryingly, has now instilled in us a reticence – a wariness of social situations that may not so easily dissipate with the end to the COVID emergency. The Wedding at Cana reminds us of the essential nature of social celebration – something not only essential for human wellbeing but also a central manifestation of God’s intention for the world.

Over the longer view we hear the first of John’s signs of the kingdom as a 21st-century audience by being reminded of the importance of seeing the world through an active faith lens. For many of us this is a tall even risky ask. Whether Andrew, Simon, Philip, and Nathaniel had a greater imaginative acceptance of the miraculous that we have – or not – we are not privileged to their 1st-century mindset – they were changed as they witnessed in Jesus the quiet and unseen way divine action in the world comes about.

Like them, we are hungry to be changed and yet remain fearful of change. This is a balancing act and so what is needed to tip the balance on this scale? The disciples hunger led them to begin to trust Jesus enough to follow him. Now he rewards them with this first in a series of signs. They will go on the experience seven signs yet one sign is enough to completely rewire their whole world view.

What we call reality is never real – reality is only the way we see things. Our current worldview lens equips us to see somethings – usually the bad things – and remain blind to others – usually the good things – chief among them the quiet and unseen ways divine action in the world comes about to break open the dead shell of yesterdays to equip us to do what we came here for and waste our hearts on fear no more (John O’Donohue). Food for thought – no?

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