Or: The Moment in History When the Cross Was Almost Removed As Christianity’s Most Important Symbol
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Tis’ the season for one of my favorite religious rituals. The holiest of all holy weeks. VBS! That’s right folks, it’s summer time and my family, like many others, is taking part in the church-hopping strategy that provides the most free babysitting that we can drum up. I know that it would be better of me to celebrate that my boys are learning more about Jesus during this time, but, I must confess that, in my mind, the initials V-B-S stand for Latin words meaning Free. Child. Care.
Mmm…what about Vamanos Bothersome Siblings. Or what about… never mind, not the point. Sorry. Let’s move on.
But, all the same, they do learn a thing or two at these events that lead to really great conversations at home. When this happens I consider it a bonus that they were not only safe and entertained but actually picked up some useful knowledge. I know, Dad of the Year.
This past week they learned the story of Naaman, the leprous Syrian healed by Elisha. If you don’t remember this story from 2 Kings, don’t be embarrassed, it took a good bit of dusting before I could pull this one off the shelf of my memory as well.
As a refresher, Naaman led an army that was made up of enemies, infidels and foreigners to the Chosen People of God, Israel. And the icing on the you-are-not-one-of-us cake was that Naaman was a leper - unclean and bearing the marks of God’s rejection. Naaman is healed of his leprosy when, after a bit of protesting, he followed Elisha’s command to wash himself in the Jordan River.
This story, when taught or preached directly from 2 Kings is usually about God’s greatness above all other gods. Kind of a Our-God-Is-Number-One foam finger moment for Christians. Naaman is a great man of great power who worships other gods, yet can find no hope or healing in them or their prophets. The prophet of Israel’s God, our God, though, is able to, without even having to see, touch or talk directly to this enemy warrior, heal him.
Chant with me now:
“We’re number one! We’re number one! We’re number one!”
This is the kind of hermeneutic, or way or interpreting a text, that would likely bring a person honor in the synagogue.
But when Jesus offered a homily on Naaman it was decidedly not the approach he took.
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Jesus, just like my boys, grew up learning the stories of the (unfortunately labeled by us) Old Testament. He knew of Elijah and Elisha, David and Moses, Samson and Noah, Ruth and Deborah.
And Jesus knew about - and had probably memorized - the proof text for the Our-God-Rocks way of thinking which, in my Bible, is entitled, “Naaman Healed of Leprosy.”
However, when Jesus picks up this ancient biblical narrative, he interprets it in a way that almost removed the Cross as Christianity’s most important icon.
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Jesus’s system-subverting and life-threatening interpretation of the Naaman story shows up in Luke 4. This passage, you should know, is one that I think is absolutely critical for understanding the reason for Jesus’s coming, the meaning of the work he did while here, and the church that was founded because he came.
Here is what I mean.
Based on a study of the corpus of the 4 gospels, we know that what happens in Luke 4 did not happen chronologically where Luke puts it - at the very beginning of Jesus’s public ministry. When I say very beginning, I mean that chapter narratives the very first thing Jesus does according to Luke.
And it is not in this spot because Luke got his timeline wrong. He shows himself to be a careful composer of the Gospel narrative with every story, every statement and every event in the place he wants it to be. Luke is not just recording history as it happened. He is writing theology; Luke is communicating meaning not just with what is there but where it shows up in the narrative arch.
So…since what happens in Luke 4 is not chronologically first in Jesus’s ministry, yet it is narratively first, we have to ask why.
All together now...
I think that what Luke is up to when he places that mid-ministry happening at the start of the story is to give us a filter, an interpretive framework, a decoder ring, a Rosetta stone (enough metaphors yet?) for everything that will follow in both Luke and Acts.
The story in Luke 4 sets the tone, trajectory, and narrative arch of the whole story of Jesus’s incarnation, ministry, death, resurrection, and founding of his church.
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So, now that we have a framework for appreciating the weight of the text, let me quickly note the context of what happens in it.
Jesus is in the synagogue. He is handed a scroll. He intentionally unrolls it to the place in Isaiah where he finds written his very own personal mission statement (if Jesus were in to that kind of thing), and then he reads it aloud to the congregation.
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down”
Read: drops mic, walks off stage.
“The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.”
As they sit transfixed and breathless, he then delivers the real punch…
“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus wants everyone to know that this passage is not about ancient times, ancient prophets, and the ancient workings of God.
Jesus wants everyone to know that this passage is alive, active, and present in their very midst in his very person.
And, most importantly, Jesus wants everyone to know that he has come to be the God-for-the-Other.
The religiously and politically oppressed
Jesus is here for the rejected, the under-served, the ignored, the mocked, the hated, and those scorned by Scripture-defending, tradition-upholding religious folk.
Had Jesus stopped there, there certainly would have been a good bit of post-church potluck gossip. Maybe even a few passive-aggressive, “Well, preacher, that sure was an interesting sermon” comments. At this point Jesus had, at most, created an uncomfortable silence.
But he wasn’t finished.
He just couldn’t quit while he was ahead.
Jesus has to go and bring up Naaman. And had he approached it in a more orthodox way he could have smoothed over the the awkward dis-ease he just caused. But he does not talk about Naaman in the My-God-Can-Kick-Your-God’s-Butt kind of way.
He has the audacity to continue his sermon with,
“Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”
Oh, no he didn’t.
This is the moment when his unsettling presence became so offensively unpatriotic and blasphemous that the crowd felt that only blood could appease them.
And this is the moment in history where the substitutionary atonement of Jesus’s death almost happened off the side of a cliff rather than up on a cross.
“All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.”
In my deep knowledge of the Greek language (please read the previous with sarcasm), I am pretty sure the word “furious” in the text betters translates “remove-the-wig-and-jewelry, red-faced, mad-as-hell, thirty-for-blood rage.”
Had they been able to follow through with their assassination plot I wonder what symbol we’d currently have hanging on our walls and necklaces. Whatever it would be, this little hermeneutical maneuver almost got Jesus killed.
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If we are honest with ourselves, when we read this story we are shocked at the response of the crowd. We are on Jesus’s side, of course, and are therefore appalled by their actions.
However, the fact that we don’t side more with the riotous crowd, shows how good we are at creating a safe distance between us and the text.
Even more, the fact that Jesus’s words don’t illicit a similar visceral reaction in us, shows how unaware we are of how his words threaten our religious systems just as much as it did theirs.
As hard as I try to enter this text, I am so practiced at softening the blow of Jesus’s words, I must confess that I am mostly unaware of the nature of what he is saying, not just to them, but to me as well.
Because I think if I hear the subversive implications of Jesus’s hermeneutic, I may be just as inclined to toss him off the nearest cliff.
It is I who love to define who is in and who is out, how God works and how God does not, what is biblical and what isn’t, who is righteous and who is not…It is I who need the Naaman story in my camp showing the greatness of my position, my ideology, my candidate, my views. Naaman was supposed to the leverage to show my religion’s greatness in an age when it seems to be more and more ignored, belittled, and undermined in popular society/media. I was supposed to be able to turn to Naaman as a reminder in this global, secular, pluralist age that our way, our people, our God rules.
I was all lined up to fight the culture war and Jesus walked up the stripped me of my weapons.
Jesus has the guts to let me know that those I seek to fight against are the very ones in whom he is working, loving, healing, and redeeming - while not lifting a finger for the “widows and lepers in Israel.”
Jesus says, “I came to be the God-of-the-Other.”
And, evidently, his pursuit of the Other is not just a pet project. Luke makes it plain that it is the very reason Jesus came. This God-of-the-Other way is to be the filter through which we read everything else Jesus will do, and, unfortunately, everything else his followers are supposed to do as well.
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As one who spent 10 years in seminary courses studying Scripture, I am curious what Jesus would think of all the methods his followers have devised the last two millennia to interpret the Bible. I wonder… if we were to invite Jesus to a small group Bible Study, how different would not just our conclusions but our very methods of approaching, reading, and interpreting Scripture would be from his? I wonder what surprising things he would do with our favorite “Old” Testament stories.
And by “surprising” I mean, of course, rage-inducing, riot-producing blasphemy. Which then makes me wonder,
What groups of people, that I so easily reject, would Jesus was tell me he has accepted?
What labels, that I toss around so freely on social media, would he condemn?
What boundaries, that I so carefully erect and protect, would come crashing down?
The Naaman story is but one example of how Jesus filters Scripture through a lens that subverts the control of the stake holders of religious conservatism.
Jesus reveals in his way of life, in his teachings, and in his method of interpreting Scripture that God is the God-of-the-Other.
And this is what got Jesus killed.
I spent more than a little sweat and anxiety in my seminary days fearing “B’s” on hermeneutics papers. Nothing I ever wrote was so bad, though, that it warranted execution. Laughter, yes. Death, no.
If I were to actually pay attention to Jesus in this text, I wonder which of my safe, secure systems would be violently shattered?
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Well…this is a bit too much for me to process. A bit too confrontational of a word for one who enjoys worshipping the God-On-My-Side.
I think I’ll just toss these ideas off a cliff and go drop my kids off at the next VBS.