First Timothy 2:1-7; Luke 4:16-22
It is usually very difficult to learn to see something in a new way, especially when it requires changing how we view ourselves. It is hard to learn to see our place in the world in a new light, for we easily assume that our preconceived notions are obviously true. But unless we are willing to call ourselves into question, we will never be open to anything better than what we already know and experience.
Today we read in St. Luke’s gospel of Jesus Christ’s first sermon in His hometown of Nazareth. He identified Himself publicly as the Messiah in it by saying that He fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah as One anointed “to preach good news to the poor and to heal the broken hearted…to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” Everyone present liked what He had to say, for what could be better than to have a neighbor as the next King David, a righteous political and military ruler who would liberate Israel from Roman control and usher in a time of national blessedness?
The verses following today’s reading show, however, that the Lord is a radically different kind of Messiah from what the people had expected. He reminded them that God had blessed Gentiles through the prophets Elijah and Elisha, while there were Jews who continued to suffer. In doing so, He challenged their assumption that God’s blessings were only for the Jews to the exclusion of the hated Gentiles. They were so outraged that they tried to throw Him off a cliff. Think about that for a moment. They went from being very happy about His words to trying to kill Him because He made clear that God’s blessings were not only for people of their religious and ethnic heritage, but for the entire world. Their rejection of the true Messiah revealed their desire for worldly power and their idolatry of worshiping themselves, not the true God.
It is certainly understandable that people living under the occupation of a foreign power would want to be liberated. That was all the more true for the Jews in light of God’s promises to Abraham to bless his descendants in their own land. Prophets had foretold their return from exile in Babylon and envisioned them flourishing in a way that would draw all nations and peoples to God. Unfortunately, many misinterpreted these great promises to the point that they identified God’s Kingdom with an earthly realm for only one group of people. That is why those who heard the Lord’s sermon in Nazareth tried to kill Him when He reminded them that God’s concern extends even to foreigners. It was also why the same crowds who cheered His entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday called for His crucifixion a few days later, once it became clear that He was not a conventional worldly ruler about to deliver them from Roman occupation.
The Lord taught that His Kingdom is not of this world and stands in contradiction to the corrupting forces that still keep nations and peoples enslaved to hatred toward one another due to the fear of death. Perhaps it makes sense to serve the false gods of hatred, violence, and domination if the horizons of our lives extend no further than what the powers of this world can accomplish by their own means. But since the Savior has conquered death in His glorious resurrection, He has set us free from the burden of securing our existence over against every conceivable threat. Because even the grave is now an entryway to life eternal, we have the freedom to relate to all who suffer from the debilitating effects of sin as neighbors, regardless of whether they are friends or foes according to the standards of the conventional wisdom. The same Lord Who had mercy on Samaritans, Roman centurions, demon-possessed Gentiles, and Jews who had become notorious sinners has made us members of His own Body, the Church, in which human distinctions are simply irrelevant. In His Kingdom, there are no grounds to view anyone as essentially a stranger, a foreigner, or an alien instead of as a fellow child of God.
Saint Paul, the former Pharisee and expert in the Jewish law, became the great apostle to the Gentiles, for he knew that the Lord wants “all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” Christ is the “one Mediator…Who gave Himself a ransom for all,” for all bear God’s image and likeness, all had become subject to death through sin, and all needed a liberation they could not give themselves. As he wrote to the Church in Rome, “There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by His grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Rom. 3:22-24) Because the Lord has healed the great division of Jew and Gentile, it is clear that there are no grounds for thinking that earthly distinctions between groups of people have any significance at all in His Kingdom. Through faith in Him, all may become heirs to the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham.
We often fail to embrace the full meaning of this radical claim for how we view ourselves and our world. Nations and governments come and go, as do economic systems, political movements, social groups, and cultures. While such passing affiliations shape important dimensions of our lives in this world, we must never allow them to cloud our spiritual vision to the point that we define ourselves or others essentially in light of them. If we do, we will fall into the idolatry of seeking first a kingdom of worldly corruption that remains enslaved to the fear of death. If we do, we will distract ourselves from facing the truth of our own brokenness by building ourselves up over against others from whom we differ in some superficial way. It is usually easy to invent excuses to justify indulging passions for hatred, vengeance, and domination against real or imagined enemies. Of course, that is completely contrary to the way of Christ, Who said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matt. 5:43-45)
St. Paul suffered imprisonment and death at the hands of the Roman Empire; nonetheless, he instructed St. Timothy to pray for all people, including “for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way.” Since he knew that Christ’s Kingdom was not of this world, he prayed even for those who would ultimately take his life. His was a radically different spirit from that shown by those who tried to kill the Savior after His sermon in Nazareth. It is the perspective of one who knows that our Lord reigns through His cross and empty tomb, not by conquering opponents through the usual means of worldly power and domination. It is the perspective of one who knows that, in order to save his life, he must lose it for the sake of our Lord and His Kingdom.
As we celebrate the beginning of a new ecclesiastical year, let us look to the Savior Who brought salvation to the world, not by playing according to the conventional rules, but by offering Himself in free obedience to bring us, and all people, into the eternal day of the Kingdom of God. Let us refuse to fall into the idolatry of worshiping the false gods that set people against one another, and instead become icons of the restoration of the human person in the divine image and likeness. For if His mercy has extended even to us, who are we to exclude anyone from being a neighbor in whom we encounter our Lord?