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?

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