Friday, October 25, 2013

What kind of man is this?

Sundays after Pentecost - Proper 5 [10] Year C

I don’t know about you but I really like getting to this time of the year when we can get down to travelling through the Bible, through Luke’s Gospel in particular, without all the distractions of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter and Pentecost.

From here on in, until we begin Advent in December, we will be going through the stories in Luke’s Gospel pretty much in order.  We may leave some stuff out, but we will cover a lot of material over the next six months.

You may have read the last article in this Month’s Anglican Messenger by Dr John Shepherd.  In it he is talking about John’s Gospel but the same thing applies to Luke.

“To understand [Luke’s] Gospel we’ve got to see it as an answer to a question.  If we haven’t got the question we [may misunderstand] the answer.”

I think this general observation is also true of the particular – each and every story we read in the Bible has been reported there for us as an answer to a question, and our understanding of the story is bound up with our ability to discern what question it might be answering – and we might come back to that in a bit.

What would be the big question Luke is trying to answer?

I wonder if the big question is “What kind of man or Messiah is this Jesus?”

In some ways this could be the big question for each of the Gospel writers – each in their own way want to tell the people they were writing this all down for something that they think is really important about Jesus.

Now the people Luke was thinking of when he wrote his Gospel were Gentiles – as distinct from Matthew, for example, who was clearly writing for a mainly Jewish audience; hence his frequent references to this being so  “so as to fulfil the Scripture which says …”.

There are a whole lot of reasons for me concluding that Luke wanted us all to know that this Jesus was one who has come from God and who is like the great prophet of Israel – Elijah.  Matthew was thinking Jesus was more like Moses – the great Law Giver – but Luke wants us to understand this stuff about Jesus being like Elijah.  Both are helpful and are not mutually exclusive – but it helps to clarify this in order to understand the stories he tells.

Luke makes sure we get this right at the outset of Jesus’ ministry – when he is rejected in Nazareth.  All three Gospels note this with Jesus quoting the phrase “No prophet is accepted in his hometown.”  Luke, however, adds a reference to the Elijah story we had today from the OT as well as the Elisha story about Naaman the leper.  For him, this alignment of Jesus with Elijah is very important – and for the very reasons that these two stories are significant – they show very clearly that the Good News is not just for Israel, but for all people.

Last week you would have heard the Gospel story of Jesus healing the Roman Centurion’s servant – a very clear parallel to the Naaman story – and today we have this story of the Widow of Nain which is also a clear parallel to the story of the Widow of Zarapheth.

So the “big picture” question here is “what kind of man is Jesus?” And the answer is “A man after the likeness of Elijah.”

But there could be a much more particular question that this story is offered as an answer for.  Perhaps it might be answering the question “Is the Good News of Jesus only for those “under the Law?”

There are two important elements of the story that challenge that idea.  Firstly, the Widow was a Gentile who was clearly a person who was not “under the Law” and then Jesus, himself, challenges the Law by daring to touch the dead man on the bier.  This would have made him ritually unclean under the Law and thereby denied himself access to the graces and mercy of God until his period of purification was complete.  Yet, the intervention of God, the blessing of God, was powerfully evident in the raising of the dead Gentile man to life.

Here we see Jesus offering the blessings of God to the outsiders, those who were not “eligible” according to the Law.

And this is a really important idea or message for us to take note of.  Perhaps we already get it, but let me reiterate it.

The Good News Jesus brings is good news for all those we might regard as being outside God’s grace and good favour. 

Notice I said “WE!”

There are times when we in the church can be a bit like the Jews used to be – thinking that God’s blessings only rain down on us the faithful, the law-abiding. 

I remember a man in my first church, after I had spoken about the “forgiveness” saying of Jesus that you must forgive 70 x 7, saying that this only applied within the community of the faithful.  “I don’t have to forgive those people at my work who have treated me badly.”  I simply asked him the question “How much better would your life be if you applied this rule to the whole of your life – to all relationships?”  He went away, like the rich young ruler to think about that.

But Jesus is challenging us to be much more inclusive and welcoming – because his grace and blessings are for all.  Indeed the greater part of the bad reputation he acquired over the years of his ministry was directly related to the bad company he kept – eating with tax-collectors and sinners, prostitutes and other women.  All these things made him ritually unclean. 

But by doing this, Jesus is showing us a very important thing – no-one is exempt from being touched by God’s grace.  And to show us this, Jesus broke all the rules of the Law.

The widow in our Gospel story would have been left destitute with the death of her son – he was her social welfare service because he looked after her in his home.

He reached out to this Gentile women – no self-respecting Jewish man would do that – and he touched the dean man’s body – remember the scribe and the Levite in the Good Samaritan story – and in daring to do these things, the man was restored to his mother.

I think that we in the church have to dare a little – dare to reach out to those whom society rejects and marginalises because of their life circumstances, those whom society regards as failures with whom they should not associate.

This church has in a sense recognised this in reaching out to the Nuba people who now worship here.  Who else is there in our community whom society has rejected but would be welcome here?

Let us pray:
God of widows and orphans,
the consolation of the sad,
you have visited and redeemed your people.
Grant that by the charisma of your true Son,
closed eyes and ears may be opened,
handicaps may be overcome,
disease may yield to health,
and those who are dead may be raised up
to love, worship and serve you forever.


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