Saskatchewan, Petulant Toddlers, and Abe’s Hill

Today’s story of Jesus teaching in the synagogue, and then people trying to throw him off a cliff, is one of my favourite stories in the Bible.  But in order to understand what’s going on, we need to understand Isaiah chapter 61.  And to understand Isaiah 61, we need to understand Leviticus 25.

Let’s go.

Leviticus 25 – Deep within quite possibly one of the most boring books of the Bible, there is this life-altering society-changing passage about something called the Year of Jubilee.  Basically, every 50 years, the Israelites were supposed to hit a giant “reset” button.  All debts were cancelled. All slaves were set free.  All land was returned to its original owner.  They were not allowed to take interest on any debts (which might throw a dent in the long term plans of their local credit union).  The Year of Jubilee was a mechanism created to ensure that nobody was ever really, really poor, nobody was ever really, really rich, and that every family would be given an equal chance in life to prosper.   It was basically a great redistribution of wealth.

And, historians have given us their best estimate of how often the Year of Jubilee actually happened.


They just simply didn’t do it.  Why some people just don’t follow what the Bible clearly says is beyond me <smile>.

Isaiah 61 – Now, in order to understand Isaiah 61, we need a map.

Old Testament times.  Israel was one kingdom under King David.  And then eventually they were two kingdom, the Northern Kingdom and the Southern Kingdom. And then they all a whole series of kings and queens, some of them good, but most of them bad.  And then eventually the big bad Assyrians came and destroyed the Northern Kingdom, basically wiping them off the map.  And then the big bad Babylonians came and not only beat the Assyrians AND the Southern Kingdom, but they took the Jewish people as captives back to Babylon.  After living in exile for 70 years, then the Persians came and beat the Babylonians and let the Jewish people return home.

Now here’s where Isaiah 61 fits into here.  Some scholars tell us that the book of Isaiah that is currently found in our Bibles wasn’t written by one dude named Isaiah, but rather was written by three different prophets, and chapters 55-66 are compiled by someone named Trito-Isaiah (so exciting, I know), and generally speaking, his words can be attributed to the time when the exiles were returning home.

They were going home!  After spending 70 years in a foreign land, they were going home.

Imagine coming home with all your family, your friends, your people, after 70 years… These words take on a whole different level of meaning.

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
    to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
    and the day of vengeance of our God… Isaiah 61:1-2

As the Israelites returned home to rebuild their lives and their community, Isaiah was using language from the Year of Jubilee to describe it.  Freedom for the captives.   Good news to the poor. Release from darkness.   Year of the Lord’s favour.

By invoking the words of the Jubilee, Isaiah was calling for nothing less than the radical undertaking of re-ordering the human community (Sharon Ringe). (and we complain when our hydro rates go up).

It was Isaiah’s rallying call:  This is how we’re going to live!  Good news for the poor!  Freedom for the oppressed!  Release from darkness for the prisoners!  Day of vengeance of our God!

We are free, and we are going to build a good life.  God is on our side, God has rescued us and God’s gonna stick it to those evil Babylonians.

This all makes sense when we think about what 70 years as prisoners in a foreign land will do to one’s psyche.  (Can you imagine what we would say if Manitobans were held as prisoners in Saskatchewan for 70 years?)

Enter Jesus.

Jesus shows up at the temple and opens the scroll of Isaiah, and he starts reading.

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,
    because the Lord has anointed me
    to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the captives
    and release from darkness for the prisoners,
 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. – Luke 4:18-19

He rolled up the scroll and sat down.  Luke explicitly mentions that Jesus was done.  It was like a modern day mic drop.

But do see what Jesus did there?

He left out the line about the day of vengeance of our God.

And then he goes on to say: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

He goes and places the Year of Jubilee… upon himself.  He takes the triumphalistic rally cry of the returning exiles found in Isaiah 61, this radical re-ordering of the human community…. And places it on himself.

But he leaves out the call for vengeance, the call for revenge, the call for God to smite our enemies.

It’s kind of like Jesus is rebooting Scripture…. If Leviticus was Jubilee version 1.0, and Isaiah was Jubilee version 1.1, these words of Jesus is like Jubilee version 2.0.

It’s this giant leap in how Jesus read Scripture that cannot be overstated.   It’s the beginning of a whole series of how Jesus quoted Scripture. “Jesus consistently ignored or even denied exclusionary, punitive, and triumphalistic texts in his own inspired Hebrew Bible in favor of passages that emphasized inclusion, mercy, and honesty.”  (Richard Rohr)

The Bible isn’t a flat text.  It’s moving somewhere.  Luke knows this.  So he quotes Jesus quoting Isaiah, but as part of a movement from here to there.

Jesus is taking a text about judgement and turning it into a text about mercy.

It’s like Jesus saying:  We used to be okay with calling for God’s vengeance on others, but now we’re not.  We’re moving somewhere.  Get on board.  Because “if the gospel isn’t good news for everybody, then it isn’t good news for anybody.” (Rob Bell).

And how do you think the people in the synagogue reacted to Jesus selectively quoting their sacred scripture, and turning their text of judgement into a text of mercy?

Oh… no big deal.  They just tried to throw him off a cliff.


Abe’s Hill, Steinbach

Let’s bring this closer to home, and talk about mature and immature faith, healthy and unhealthy religion, and tie it into human development.  And then at the end hopefully you won’t throw me off a cliff. Or, since we’re in Steinbach, roll me down Abe’s Hill’s.

One way of looking at healthy human development is this (I got this from Ken Wilber):

We move being ego-centrism to ethno-centrism to world-centrism.

Let me explain.

Here at the ego-centrism stage, we are primarily concerned about ourselves.  Life revolves around us, and when we think it doesn’t, we get really upset.  This is the stage of petulant toddlers who have just learned to say ‘no’.  It’s my way or the high way, and I’m going to throw a hissy fit if I don’t get what I want.  Selfishness and narcissism rule the day here.

Thankfully, most of us grow out of this stage.

And then we move into the enthno-centrism stage.  This is where we realize that life doesn’t only involve us, but also others.  I sometimes use the word “tribe.”   My family, my friends, my church, my gender, my skin colour, my religion, my country.  However we define the various tribes that we belong to, there is usually a clear and defining definition of who’s in and who’s out.  And then we base all our thinking and acting out of concern for our tribe.

On one hand, this is a huge, massive, important leap in maturity because we now know that our world is bigger than us, and this will hopefully stop us from acting like a bunch of children throwing temper tantrums and taking everyone’s toys.  But on the other hand, if we stop here, we can end up with racism, sexism, family feuds, treating others like they don’t belong, owning slaves, and wars between countries.

And then the next movement is to the world-centrism stage.

This is where we understand that and in anything we do, we know that there are both intended and unintended consequences, and we care about how it affects others. All the others.

This is the realm of what we call the common good.  

This is the realm of Bomber fan saving the life of a Rider fan who is choking on a hot dog.

This is the realm where Christian churches and Jewish synagogues sponsor Muslim refugees in Canada.  Historically, this is a pretty big movement.

This is the realm where Muslims on a bus in Kenya protect the Christians sitting beside them from gunmen.

This is the realm of Nelson Mandela inviting his prison guards to his inauguration.

This is the realm where churches feed people with no strings attached.

The is the realm of the civil rights movement in the States, where protesters proclaimed that their ability to endure suffering and still love is greater than the energy of those causing the suffering.

This is the realm of non-violence, because how can you care about someone you’re dropping a bomb on?

This is the realm where a pizzeria threatens to not bake pizzas for a gay wedding, and then the pizzeria gets tons of bad publicity and threats and is forced to close down, and then the pizzeria starts an online fundraising campaign, and amid the furor a lesbian couple gives the pizzeria twenty bucks and write:  “As a member of the gay community, I would like to apologize for the mean spirited attacks on you and your business… We are outraged at the level of hate and intolerance that has been directed at you and I sincerely hope that you are able to rebuild.”

But when we make this move, when we go against the rules of our tribes to seek the welfare of others, even if they are different than us, even if they are “opposed” to our tribe, we run the risk of our own people wanting to throw us off a cliff.

Healthy human development will move us from ego-centrism to ethno-centrism to world-centrism.  But there probably will be a cost to it. And that cost will probably come from our own tribe.

Now, healthy and mature religion should move us along this path from ego-centrism to ethno-centrism to world-centrism as well.  I believe this is the exact same movement that Jesus was doing here in Luke 4.  They had their Isaiah 61 text, about good news for the poor and freedom for the captives and the day of God’s vengeance for others.  That was a very ethnocentric understanding of faith.  God is with us, and will rescue us, but is not with “them.”

But then Jesus comes and pulls them into a new understanding of God, and faith, and salvation, and it involves EVERYONE.  Throughout the gospel of Luke, from the angels talking to shepherds, proclaiming good news to everyone, to Jesus forgiving the thief on the cross, Luke keeps making this gospel about everyone.  It’s a world-centric understanding of faith.

Isaiah 61 promises material benefits for the believing community.  Jesus shifts the text from “Here is what you will receive” into “Here is what you are expected to give.” “I am the anointed one of God,” says Jesus, “and to follow me you must engage in proclamation, justice advocacy and compassion.” This shift irritates the congregation who are still focused on what they will receive if he is the Messiah. (Kenneth Bailey)

It’s not about what you’re going to get.  It’s about what you’re going to give.

A quick word about world-centrism and advocating for justice.  And I am speaking to my own tribe here.  If we are not actively seeking the welfare of everyone, even those we disagree with… if we are participating in Pride marches to stick it to conservative churches, if we are participating in protests to stick it to the racists and the sexists and to the people who voted differently than us, if we are unable to at the very least offer kindness to everyone, then while our causes might be good,  and our causes might be right, we’re probably acting out of an egocentric place and hiding it with world-centrism language.   We can’t hate the haters, because if we hate the haters, we have become what we hate.

If we don’t transcend beyond our ethnocentrism, I think we’re missing the big picture that Jesus is inviting us to.  And if we don’t transcend beyond our ego-centrism and our desire to “stick” it to people, even those whom we disagree with, I think we’re missing the big picture that Jesus is inviting us to.

How then, in a world full of injustices and oppression and inequality, how do we genuinely move from ego-centrism to world-centrism?

I don’t really have a great answer right now.

But my best answer is that in all of our attitudes, in all of our actions, in all our conversations, in all of relationships, everything we do, can we pray the following prayer with integrity?

As the morning casts off the darkness, Lord, help us to cast aside any feelings of ill will we might harbour against those who have hurt us.  Soften our hearts to work toward their conversion and ours.  Amen.

If we can pray this prayer, I think we’re on the road with Jesus to a more healthy and more mature expression of Christian spirituality, which I think that our world so desperately needs.


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