The Time Jesus Poked the Belly of the Beast
Remember the time Jesus spoke in a synagogue and poked the belly of the beast that often lurks under polite niceties and religious smiles?
In His first recorded contribution at a synagogue, Jesus read from the prophet Isaiah and His audience, no doubt, warmed to the familiar words:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me,
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor;
He has sent Me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty 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.”
(Luke 4:18, 19 c. Isaiah 61:1, 2)
Something about the way Jesus read the passage and His brief comments afterwards were enough to cause the audience to marvel at His “gracious words” and wonder about His true identity (v. 22). “Is this not Joseph’s son?” they asked, almost half expecting that He’d take off a mask and cape in some first-century equivalent of a Zorro reveal.
Yet in less than five verses—no more than three minutes of sharing—Jesus went from hot to not. His audience was “filled with wrath”, marched Him out of the city and tried to throw Him “over the cliff” (vv. 28, 29).
Wow, tough crowd!
But seriously, what made Jesus go from the flavour-of-the-month one minute to a tart, bitter taste the next?
The audience who heard Jesus quote the prophet that day evidently sympathised with the pathetic cretins who needed help:
- the poor in need of food or shelter,
- those crushed by life’s hardships compounded by society’s systemic injustice,
- the captives who needed a defence—more than likely, victims of a corrupt justice system,
- those in need of healing and counselling, and
- the indebted who needed assistance—those forced into financial debt by the abusive regime of the day; hence, the proclamation of Jubilee, the “acceptable year of the Lord”.
It seems that they were only too happy to spare a pious moment to think about the plight of the disenfranchised in their midst. And hey, if Jesus was going to fix the problem, then, well, “Goodie for Him. About time someone dealt with the riff-raff and all that stuff, ol‘ chap!”
There’s no question that they were initially placated by Jesus’ reading, moved by His “gracious words” to do … nothing! but nod smugly, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
Jesus, of course, was not in the placating business. He turned the temperature up by referring to two examples in the Scriptures: Zarephath and Naaman (vv. 23-27).
Jesus’ audience in the synagogue was more than happy with Jesus spouting the need to help the poor in their fold. When Jesus held up two Gentiles as the recipients of God’s blessing, however, and implied they were the sort of people God had in mind, the audience was incensed. Enraged. Jesus was talking about those people!
Jesus poked the beast of prejudice and it awakened violently.
Otherwise devout men turned puce with rage, marching Jesus out of the city intent on murder.
Prejudice lurks deep.
The Beast of Prejudice
The word “prejudice” simply means “to pre-judge someone”. But there’s nothing simple about it.
It’s a very human sentiment, but not a humane one.
We’re naturally suspicious of who and what we don’t know. These suspicions create a wedge between “us” and “them”.
We develop biases about certain people based on our culture and upbringing, biases that become entrenched when reinforced by our peers, the media, and the like. Certain people become those people.
Our biases harden into prejudices that when poked, flare-up—irrationally so, as though our worst suspicions or fears about those people are a sudden evil to confront or a threat to defend against. It foments wickedness in our world like discrimination, abuse and violence, and it manifests in evils like sexism, classism, ageism, racism and so on.
Jesus confronted bias and prejudice regularly. Indeed, He had centuries of prejudice to slay if the Gospel of the Kingdom was ever going to make it to the Gentiles. Like then, the beast of prejudice is one of the main foes standing in the way of God’s Kingdom project today.
Following Jesus requires not just dismantling the pre-judgement process in our heads, but also purging bias from our hearts. We yank it out at the root by allowing God’s love to transform us.
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.
For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so? Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
(Matthew 5:43-48, italics added)
This is the one time in which Jesus called us to be perfect. He’s not talking about moral perfection; He’s talking about demonstrating God’s love.
Without discrimination and free of prejudice, God “makes His sun rise” and “sends rain” on all. By loving, blessing, praying and doing good without partiality, we reflect the Father’s character.
God’s love is totally inclusive, a love that includes not just those we like, but a love that opens its arms to our neighbour, the stranger, the outsider and even those deemed our enemies.
It’s not an optional extra. It’s not a lesson for another day.
Those people are His people and therefore our people.