We said last week that Jesus’ inaugural address in the Gospel of Luke challenged the national mythology of his people. They believed in and longed for a time when God would set everything right and restore the fortunes of the nation. Jesus referred to this time as “the year of the Lord’s favour,” quoting Psalm 61. But he left out the thing which went hand in hand with the year of the Lord’s favour. Everyone knew and believed that the year of the Lord’s favour would involve “the day of vengeance of our God”; that time when God would pay back Israel’s enemies for all the wrongs done to them. The omission of this line in Jesus’ quotation of the Psalm was meant to be noticed.
As the home-town boy, culture and family expected that this man, who had more or less just announced himself as the Messiah, would pay Nazareth special favours. That’s how things were done, and are still often done today. In the reading this week Jesus refuses to do this. And it is difficult to imagine a more pointed rebuke and insult toward his own people.
He takes a story of the revered prophet Elijah which was cherished as a sign of God’s mercy and power, and makes it into a judgement against his own people. In this story, during a severe famine, Elijah asks for food from a poor widow and her son who are citizens of an enemy nation which is also a centre of religious opposition to Israel.
… she said, ‘As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.’ 13Elijah said to her, ‘Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. 14For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.’ 15She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. 16The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah. (1 Kings 17)
He stays for many days and the meal and the oil do not run out. But her son dies, and in an act of great power, Elijah raises him from the dead.
Luke has Jesus take this story and turn it against Israel: God gives mercy to your enemies, but will not help you in Nazareth at this time. He repeats the process with the story of Naaman, who was commander in chief of the army of Aram (Syria), a bitter enemy. God gives mercy to your enemies and heals them, but not you.
Bill Loader notes that
Luke’s church will have faced fierce competition from resurgent Judaism of the 80’s and had to grapple with the pain of its relative failure among Jews. One of the sub themes of [Luke and Acts] is the attempt to help people to come to terms with this situation.
“We need to think carefully before adopting Luke’s thesis” about the lack of Jewish belief in Jesus as Messiah, he says. It’s a scholar’s polite way of pointing out that what looks suspiciously like an ad hoc argument may not tell us much about the reality that we call God.
When we look at the story on its own terms, beyond Luke’s immediate agenda, we see the universal themes of rage and scapegoating. This is a story where people are confronted with the loss of their world. They expect a God who will favour them and take revenge on their enemies and, instead, are confronted by a God who does not do favours based on race and religion, and sometimes even seems to favour their enemies.
In a sense, as we also too often do, the people of Nazareth were defining themselves by their enemies; we are the people God favours and does not hate. By also loving the enemy, God has removed Nazareth’s (shallow) self-identity. No matter that this offers it an opportunity to move to a much deeper self-understanding; the first emotions at the loss of ourselves are deep pain and fear.
At a deep level rage, riot, and lynching, are a response to the loss of our world. They seek to repair our place in the world or, at least, punish those who threaten it. Sometimes, in the loss of our ability to make a real difference, all we can do is attack those with less power than ourselves. Ironically, our rage does not really re-establish our power, but demonstrates our loss of power.
Few of us are unaware of the dangers of being consumed by indiscriminate rage, or being at its mercy. Most of us are also well aware of how often, and how close, we come to rage. How do we live with this dangerous part of our being?
Learning and daring to mourn gives us enormous freedom and healing in the face of loss. To mourn is to enter dangerous territory. It owns head-on that we have lost. Things are outside our control. There is nothing we can do. We are powerless, and it could all get worse. Mourning is the painful ego-deflating recognition that we have no power.
But mourning has a dignity. Mourning says we still matter, despite what has happened. Mourning says that things should be otherwise. Mourning knows hope; it hoped for something else. Those who mourn, often loved. We mourn at funerals for the loss of ones loved, and for the loss, somewhere in the future, of ourselves.
Let me distinguish the difference between fatalism and mourning. Fatalism, in its stricter philosophical sense, says we have no choice or agency. It borders on determinism, but I am using it in the sense of being resigned (to our fate) and giving up. Mourning is not fatalism. It does not give up. It gives us opportunity to discern what should be.
Too few of us go to funerals, and too many of us won’t cry when we are there. We avoid mourning in our culture. We pretend to be in control. We practise being can-do people. We look on the bright side. We construct work-arounds and fall-back positions. We take out insurance. We build up privilege to maintain and defend our position. We become successful. Our culture defines success as acquisition of things, and as promotion in status. And as much as we may say money is not everything, we are usually much more invested in our material privilege than we are aware.
Success can be an idol. It lets us pretend, for a time, that we are at least a small god in charge of our world. But along with the accumulation of possessions, success gives us something to lose, and it blunts— even removes from us— the spiritual gift and discipline of dependence upon God for our identity and safety. Success, unless we are very careful, teaches us to fear the loss of our privilege. It sets us up for rage. It teaches us that we deserve what we have “achieved.” I use the inverted commas because, often, our achievement and wealth is good luck— even if only the good luck of a good family and good start in life.
The discipline of mourning takes our eyes and our focus off our success. It is the non-defensive acceptance that we are small nothings whose only grace is to trust the goodness behind the world, and it is the acceptance that in the end, despite all we have done, we will die and be forgotten. In only a generation no one will remember us. Even the famous will be misunderstood, their memory will be pillaged for corporate advantage or political propaganda, and then they too, will be forgotten.
Mourning invites us to recognise that those we fear are people who have also lost. It levels us. It broadens the scope of our love— grows compassion— because we find our commonality with all others.
Mourning is also full of pain. Mourning is to draw near to the loss of our life. It reminds us just how fragile we are. Mourning threatens that if I cry about this loss, instead of denying it or pretending to repair it with action or rage, I might open myself to even more pain and loss. Ultimately, the refusal to mourn is a part of our denial of death. No wonder we are hesitant to mourn.
We are not talking here about quick fix life-hacks. We are talking about the development of a spiritual habit. When things go wrong, when we are abused, when we are angered, when our friends are treated outrageously, there is a habit which can be developed.
Mourn. Feel the pain. Don’t retaliate. Don’t fix it— not immediately, although there may be things to do. Rather, feel the pain and the loss. Even… savour the injustice; that is, don’t swallow it quickly. Take time to explore it and feel it. Learn the shape of it. Let it hurt us. Not for the purpose of brewing revenge. Not too long so that it begins to consume us, or sour into self-pity— there is an art to learn here— but so that we appreciate what we have lost. And so that we appreciate what does not, in the end, matter… and what does.
Stop being strong. Weep. In the old language, mourning gives glory to God. It confesses that we were not made to be hurt. It confesses our dependence upon God. And, well-practised, mourning drains from our fear and grief the pus that builds up to a head of rage. It lets us love our neighbour instead of attacking them.
Mourning lets us lose our world and make, and become, something better, rather than adding to the destruction.
This post is developed from this week’s News Sheet thoughts. It also further develops Andrew’s lectionary blog this week.
The reading from Luke 4:
14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ 22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ 23He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ 24And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. 25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepersin Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ 28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.