Mission As A Motive For Murder
I have good news and I have bad news. You know how those jokes work. I have good news for you and I have bad news—and how you hear the humor and whether you hear it as good news or bad news depends on where you stand. For some people, it is good news; for others, bad news.
Luke's story of Jesus preaching in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth has always been a perplexing story. Everything starts out swimmingly then worship erupts in a brawl. They wanted to murder Jesus!
Every preacher has bad days and sermons that don't go over well. Preachers try to forget days like that, but Luke insists we remember this sermon that summoned such violent reaction. We don’t understand. Why did they want to kill Jesus? It starts off like a murder mystery. We need to establish the motive for murder.
Jesus’ sermon sounded like good news, he even says it is good news: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.”
Wouldn't everyone be glad to hear that? "The year of the Lord's favor" is the time of deliverance and freedom. Living under the Roman boot, wouldn't people be glad to hear that? "The year of the Lord's favor" was the time of healing. Wouldn't they be glad to hear the oppressive tyranny of sickness and infirmity had been broken? Of course they were glad to hear good news—at first.
If the first point of Jesus' sermon was that this is "the year of the Lord's favor," the second point of the sermon was that "the Lord's favor" was extended toward everyone, absolutely everyone. Worshippers began to fidget uncomfortably.
We have been faithful. We have waited. We have been in church Sunday after Sunday, and now Jesus preaches a God whose favor falls upon the just and the unjust, the righteous and the unrighteous, the faithful and the unfaithful? That hardly seems fair.
Those who listen frequently to sermons appreciate illustrations, but Jesus’ illustrations grated against their expectations: There were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah... yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.
Sidon, of course, is modern day Lebanon; and Syria is still Syria. We do not have to have much imagination to guess how gladly that Galilean congregation remembered those stories out of their Bible.
All of a sudden good news started sounding like bad news. You remember the joke where a Cardinal rushes breathlessly into see the Pope and announces, "Holy Father, I have good news for you and I have bad news."
"Well, tell me the good news first," says the Pope.
"Holy Father, the good news is that Jesus Christ is coming again this very day!"
That's wonderful," says the Pope, "but if that's the good news, whatever can the bad news be?"
"The bad news, Holy Father, is that he is coming at Salt Lake City!"
I have good news and bad news; and the bad news is that the good news is not exactly what you wanted and expected.
James McGregor Burns, a political scientist, wrote a philosophical study of "leadership," which may provide us a way of understanding what has happened in that Nazareth synagogue. There are two kinds of leadership relationship, Burns explains. There is transactional leadership. He says:
The relations of most leaders and followers are transactional—leaders approach followers with an eye to exchanging one thing for another: jobs for votes, or subsidies for campaign contributions. Such transactions comprise the bulk of relationships among leaders and followers, especially in groups, legislatures, and parties.1
The posture of transactional leadership is such that people scratch each other's back, you give me what I want and I will give you what you want. "Do here in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum,” that’s the expectation of transactional leadership. Do what we want and we will like you and welcome you. That is the leadership people in the synagogue expected from Jesus. That is the kind of leadership most people anticipate most of the time: transactional leadership.
A second style of leadership James McGregor Burns calls "transformational leadership":
Transforming leadership, while more complex, is more potent. The transforming leader recognizes... an existing need or demand of a potential follower…. The result of transforming leadership is a relationship of mutual stimulation and elevation that converts followers into leaders and may convert leaders into moral agents.2
Transformational leadership goes beyond a simple exchange of wants and needs, lifting people to discover new insights, new powers, and new visions of what may yet be. This kind of leadership, then, has not only to do with what people want and need, but it finally has the effect of transforming human personality.
With that distinction in mind, we shift attention back to the synagogue in Nazareth. What is the agenda that Jesus announces? Clearly, Jesus does not appear in history to engage in a little mutual back scratching with his listeners. He comes to transform human life. He comes to change things. He comes to change us.
The first thing that will be changed is how we hear good news. The good news is good news to the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed, the helpless, those who have no helper but God alone. The bad news is that we wonder what this good news has to do with us. What does this have to do with us? That good news is about "them," not "us." Our lives are so much shaped by this either/or business of good news/bad news: if it is good news for them, it must be bad news for us. More benefits for them mean higher taxes for us. Accepting them as part of our circle means things change for us.
Luke begins telling about Jesus’ ministry with the story of the sermon in Nazareth because if we are going to hear the good news Jesus brings, the first thing that will have to change in us is how we hear good news. We cannot hear what Jesus has to say with ears attuned to "us" and "them." Luke's good news is good news for anyone who will receive it as good news of God’s mercy. Can it be good news if it is good news for everyone? For "them?" For Sidonians and Syrians? For "them?"
For everybody, Luke insists. Luke begins his gospel with this conflict about us and them, but before his story is over at the end of the Acts of the Apostles he will have brought every kind of person he can think of under the canopy of the good news: rich and poor; women and men; aristocrats and beggars; Romans and Jews, and people of every nationality under heaven; Ethiopian eunuchs, for heaven's sake! There is no "them" in the gospel of Luke, only "us," the family of God in Christ. Luke underlines the point by saying the most scandalous things: "God is kind to the ungrateful and wicked." Even them.
Fred Craddock describes our difficulty in reading the gospel of Luke by saying that "We are 'either/or' people in the hands of a 'both/and' God."3
All through the gospel of Luke, Jesus demonstrates the intentions of this "both/and" God. He gives his disciples instructions about how to behave and what to say to the people they meet as they go their way. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you, cure the sick who are there, and say to them, "The Kingdom of God has come near to you." But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, [wipe the dust from your feet and say] "The Kingdom of God has come near" (Lk 10:8-11).
Do you get it? The message is the same to those who welcome the disciples and to those who do not welcome them. If they accept you, if they reject you; the message is the same: "the Kingdom of God has come near." If they like you, if they don't like you: "the Kingdom of God has come near." The preaching of good news is the same to those who accept it and to those who want nothing to do with it.
In the gospel of Luke do we find the parable of the prodigal son. Younger son takes his inheritance, goes away, comes back broke and beaten; older son who never left home wants nothing to do with him. We know that parable but sometimes when we teach the story we try to get clever: Which one do you like, the younger or the older?
“Well, I like that older boy who stayed home and worked the field and did what his Daddy expected him to. He’s solid and responsible, just the kind of person we need around here! Elect him to the session.”
“The older brother, you’ve got to be kidding! He’s a bore! Now that younger brother, he’s got some juice and pizzazz to him; he takes risks, creates some excitement. We need that kind of energy around here.”
We read the parable as if it were one of the old B Westerns with good guys in white hats on white horses and the bad guys dirty, unshaven and spitting.
What happens in the parable? The father sees the younger boy coming along the road and rushes out to meet him. He throws a banquet. Then the father sees the older boy out behind the barn pouting alone, and he goes out to the boy and invites him in to the party. The father goes out to both boys, the younger one and the old one, the irresponsible one and the responsible one, the feisty one and the boring one. The father goes out to both/and. "We are 'either/or' people in the hands of a 'both/and' God." That makes us uncomfortable: “You really mean ‘them’ and ‘us’?” That makes us angry: “We can’t have both ‘us’ and ‘them’ in the church, we’d rather tear it all down than have ‘them.’” Luke tells that it makes some people mad enough to murder Jesus.
We want what we want and that is motive enough, a motive for murder. We customarily think of more exotic motives. The beautiful movie actress, in an act of revenge, murders the silly shop girl who gave her chicken pox and caused her to lose her child. That’s Agatha Christie, but that’s not the way it works in the real world. One man murders another in order to claim a fabulous collection of vintage wines. That’s Columbo, on television. How do motives really work?
“Mrs. Jones, we’ve examined your son, and it doesn’t look like he fell down any steps. It looks like he’s been beaten. Can you explain this?”
“Well, he just won’t do what I want him to do.”
“Mr. Johnson, the neighbors phoned in the disturbance. I hate to be the one to tell you, but your wife is dead. Can you tell us what happened here tonight?”
“I told her and I told her and I told her and I told her....”
They would have murdered Jesus for not giving them what they wanted, but he walked through their murderous rage and went his way. It’s a strange ending this story has. They wanted to murder Jesus because he wouldn’t be what they wanted, but he walked right through them. Jesus, you see, had places to go: Syria and Sidon, Capernaum and Calvary, Antioch and Rome, Congo and China, Maryville, Tennessee and Mombin Crochu, Haiti.
Jesus goes his way and leaves the people there in church pondering the amazing ways of a God whose love is unlimited, a both/and God to whose mercy and grace Jesus commends both them and us.
Patrick Willson Williamsburg, VA
. James MacGregor Burns, Leadership (New York: Harper and Row, 1978), p. 4. 2. Ibid. 3. Craddock, lecturing at Columbia Theological Seminary, February 1983.