Epiphany 4 C: Damnation is Not a Means of Grace

The readings for the Forth Sunday after the Epiphany are:

Old Testament       Jeremiah 1:4–10

Psalm                    Psalm 71:1–6

New Testament      1 Corinthians 13:1–13

Gospel                   Luke 4:21–30

“Damnation is not a means of grace.”

That was one of the many colorful, and powerful impromptu quips that came from the mouth of “Red Fred,” Professor Frederick W. Danker, when I was blessed to study with him. He was responding to a student’s protest that too much emphasis on God’s love might weaken the transformative power of the gospel. Danker was pointing out that the church’s mission is to “get off the seat of its toga” and do something to make the world a better place, and to help us all be better people.

On the other hand, the sound and fury of outrage and damnation just makes us all worse.

In a recent New York Times article, regular columnist and social analyst, Thomas Edsall, asks this question: Why has the pandemic not brought people together against a common enemy, but instead seems to have divided us even further? He summarize the views of a number of experts that he consults by writing, “Polarization has become a force that feeds on itself, gaining strength from the hostility it generates,” (https://www.nytimes.com/2022/01/26/opinion/covid-biden-trump-polarization.html)

I would like to add to this conversation my own observation that polarization is the shadow side of belonging. We all have within us a hunger and thirst for belonging. Healthy belonging consists of the belief that we fit in with others because we have something to give toward the needs of others, and we can depend on others to help meet our needs. But a diseased sense of belonging feeds on rage and results in self-perpetuating polarization.

Polarization happens when we sort others according to how much of a benefit or a threat they may pose toward identity and belonging that have been infected with this disease. Even more fundamental to our behavior is the kind of worldview we build around this sorting that we do. Polarization is the dark side of this syndrome, when we fall into the extreme of sorting not along a wide spectrum, but into the binary of “us and them.”

I will use this Sunday’s Gospel lesson to illustrate: Jesus preaches a sermon on Isaiah 61 in the synagogue of his hometown of Nazareth. Those who listen seem to applaud him, then have a radical change of heart and try to throw him off a cliff. Jesus neighbors have become his enemies. What is going on?  And why the abrupt change of heart among Jesus’ audience?

The German New Testament scholar, Joachim Jeremias, who died in 1979, asserted in his book, Jesus’ Promise to the Nations, that Jesus was rejected by his neighbors from the start. He maintains that is a mistake to understand the Greek as saying the hearers of the synagogue initially approve of Jesus’ message. This is what the  New Revised Standard Version does when it reads:  All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth!” The Greek verb translated as “spoke well” is “martureo,” which simply means to bear witness; and one can either witness in favor or against someone. So, also, the verbal adjective “amazed,” either in the Greek or in English, can be either affirmative or negative amazement. People could either wonder at what they approve, or believe Jesus is talking like a madman. Finally, Jeremias emphasizes the part of the Isaiah quotation that Jesus leaves out: that the Anointed One not only proclaims good news, liberty, and healing to the oppressed, but also the day of the Lord’s vengeance. The “gracious words” of Jesus aren’t amazingly good, but amazingly bad, because Jesus seems to leave out a necessary part of the prophetic message—vengeance against those who oppress Israel.

So, according to the interpretation of Jeremias, the hostility to Jesus is there already when he leaves God’s wrath out of his reading of Isaiah; and he then responds to growing hostility by speaking of how God turned away from Israel to save two foreigners And this only results in an escalation of the hatred, and the resolve to throw Jesus off the cliff.

I see this story as an example of polarization at work. Polarization feeds on itself in a frightening way.The shared identity of Jesus and his neighbors’ has been formed by their shared story of hardship. Their Scriptures record how their distant ancestors were wanderers—perpetual aliens, promised a land of their own, but barely ever enjoying it. When they then formed a nation, they became the the door mat of the empires of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Macedonia, and then Rome. Even their fellow Jews looked down on them–so much so that Nathaniel could ask, when hearing that Jesus may be the Promised One of  the Jewish Scriptures, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

But this shared identity can be distorted. Jesus and his neighbors claim it in different ways. Because of resentments, the people of Nazareth love hearing of good news, but they have sorted out the widow of Sidon and the commander of Syria from the list of those qualifying for gracious words. And they can see less and less nuance—less and less reason to put others on a broad spectrum, and more and more of a need to polarize – to see only “us and them.”

Jesus sees instead a greater commonality that binds Israel to Sidon and Syria: All have fallen short of the glory of God, and all rely on grace.

When Jesus identifies as the anointed one to do God’s will, he touches a raw nerve. The worldview of Jesus’ neighbors has changed. Of course they still celebrate the possibility of good news, release of captives, all under the aegis of a merciful God. But they cling to God’s wrath and vengeance as necessary for the righting of resented wrongs. Someone has to pay.

Decisively Jesus has left vengeance out of his reading. He has hinted that hope of positive change comes only through grace, and not through more and more law and wrath. He has seemed to say, “Damnation is not a means of grace.”

God’s people must show the way in this broken world. We have surely witnessed that political and philosophical polarization has fed on itself and spiraled so out of control that, as a species, we seem incapable of finding solutions to any of our most pressing problems. Yet, still, the church is blinded by the shadow side of belonging. We find our identity and belonging not in being God’s, but in being right. We therefore hold doggedly to the necessity of God’s wrath and strict judgment for those others we identify as threats. We use a literalistic, proof-texting approach to the Bible to fortify our conviction that we are right about a God of wrath.

It is time for the church to live the Bible, not defend our correctness about the Bible. It is time for the church to read the Bible not under threat, but in confidence in the God who covenants with Noah and the world before covenanting with Israel and the church to bless the world. It is time for the church to follow the conversation of the Bible to its powerful conclusion, that the world isn’t changed for the better by wrath, force or  punishment, but by God’s love for us, and our love for all others. And so, as Paul insists in 1 Corinthians 13, it is love that is the greatest spiritual gift, love that endures, and love that will never fail the needs of our human society.

When we give up our stubborn defense of the wrath of God, and turn our zeal toward God’s goal of gathering all people together, we will begin to listen to each other, and show the way for the world to end the ugly polarization that feeds on itself.

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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