From Exclusivity to Radical Inclusiveness
The first time I ever preached a sermon was to my home congregation in Thomaston. Which was 11 years ago now. I knew I wanted to go to seminary but hadn’t started yet, I was a senior in college home for Christmas break. I worked hard to prepare the sermon and calm my nerves. Before service began, somebody I knew quite well tried to tell me a joke. He was obviously alluding to the text we read this morning, but I didn’t make the connection till later. He said: “Good luck! I hope your sermon doesn’t make us wanna throw you off a cliff!” I thought to myself, “What in the world?!?” Imagine being 21 years old, getting to preach for the first time, and hearing somebody say that and laugh! But I went out there, preached anyway, and got much kinder feedback than Jesus did when he first preached at his home congregation.
Reflecting on this text this morning we have to wonder: what made the people at Jesus’ home synagogue so upset that they wanted to throw him off a cliff? It’s an important question for us to ask, and the answer is at the heart of Jesus’ ministry. The text says all spoke well of him at first. They seemed excited that a kid from their hometown had become this rising star. Then he said something offensive to them. Something that challenged their ideas of who he is and who God is. He seemed a bit snarky prefacing it with “a prophet is never accepted in his hometown” but he had to know what was coming. Then he asked them why Elijah would’ve helped a widow in Zarephath and Elisha healed Naaman the Syrian. The prophets helped two non-Israelites, or Gentiles, when there were plenty of Israelites who needed help at the time. This raises a lot of deep questions: why does God heal some but not others? If God doesn’t heal does that mean God doesn’t care? If God’s supposed to be loving, how can we make sense of all the suffering in the world?
But those questions aren’t the reason they got so mad at Jesus. Jesus’ major point here is that God loves and cares about Gentiles too, and apparently as much as the chosen people of Israel. That’s why this caused such a stir. It was as if Jesus was saying: “If you think you’re more special than other people, look how in scripture God healed Gentiles before any Israelites!”
Now I don’t think Jesus was saying they weren’t special or loved by God. But that’s apparently the way they heard it. What Jesus was doing was trying to expand their vision of what God is doing in the world. To move them from exclusiveness to radical inclusiveness. Jesus is saying that God doesn’t just care about the Israelites; God loves and cares for all people of all nations, all ethnicities, all religions. Jesus was challenging their belief in their own exclusive specialness in God’s eyes. That’s what gets him thrown out of town and almost off a cliff. Challenging the belief that his own group is the most special.
Now before we get too critical of first century Judaism, it’s important to remember that in the ancient world most nations believed in many gods and believed that their own people’s god specifically looked after them. So the Egyptian gods looked after Egypt, the Babylonian gods looked after Babylon, the Canaanite gods looked after Canaan. Every geographic area had its own god. So it only made sense that Yahweh, the God of Israel, looked after Israel; and didn’t need to be concerned with anybody else.
That was the logic for the first half of the Old Testament. But that logic changed when the ancient Israelites experienced what can only be described as a breakthrough in human understanding: the development of monotheism. The belief in only one God. This new idea of monotheism asserted by the ancient Jews was a major development in human understanding of the divine. They proclaimed their God was the God of all humanity, of the whole universe, not just one small region on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean.
But this major development in religious understanding wasn’t matched right away with the idea that God must actually care for all the other nations too. The people Jesus was preaching to had come to understand that Yahweh was the creator of the whole universe, but He still only cared about Israel right? That’s what Jesus challenges.
In essence Jesus was saying, yes Yahweh is the God of Israel and yes Yahweh is the Creator of the world. And Yahweh is also the God of all the other nations, even if they don’t know the same things about Him we do. God does love Israel, and God also loves all those other peoples too!
It may sound like common sense today, that the creator of the whole world would love and care for the whole world. But remember the ancient mindset was that each god only cared about those from their own land. Therefore Israel’s God must only care about Israel. So was the thought process. And this thought process hadn’t yet been reconciled with the fact that Israel’s God created the whole world. This thought process had clearly been challenged by previous prophets in scripture, but Jesus addressing it here is what makes them want to kill him.
Now before we get too critical of their exclusivity, let’s think about how many Christians have that same exclusionary impulse. Maybe you even notice it in yourself from time to time. That feeling that our religious group is right, and others are wrong, and they’re going to suffer the consequences of their wrongness. There’s a long history of human beings fighting wars over their different opinions and understandings. Whether it’s the history of Christians fighting with other Christians. Wars between Catholics and Protestants. Burning heretics at the stake. Fighting crusades against Muslims or pagans. Persecution of Jewish people. Or the less violent but still very hostile arguments between Christians today, even arguments between different Lutheran denominations like the ELCA and LCMS.
The people in Jesus’ home synagogue were too caught up in their own thought process of being special in the eyes of God, so much so that a big part of their religion became believing in the exclusion of others. And so many religious people today seem to fall into that same exclusive thought process, highlighting their own specialness in God’s eyes to the exclusion of others. Jesus challenged their exclusivity by sharing stories of how God helped Gentiles through the prophets Elijah and Elisha. And our thought process should be challenged by what Jesus says here too.
Their reaction speaks to a common part of the sinful human condition. The fact is: we all want to be special and often exclude others so we can feel more special. How many times have we heard Christians today say that if you’re not part of their theological thought process then you’re going to hell? How many religions around the world reflect this same immature tendency to say all those who aren’t part of their group are doomed? It wasn’t just Jesus’ home synagogue who believed this; it’s pretty much every religious group in all of history!
In an email meditation from this past week, Father Richard Rohr discussed humanity’s problem of hatred of the other. He said: “Can you think of an era or nation or culture that did not oppose otherness? I doubt there has ever been such a sustained group. There have been enlightened individuals, thank God, but seldom established groups—not even in churches, I’m sorry to say.” Later he continues, “It seems we ordinary humans must have our other! It appears we don’t know who we are except by opposition and exclusion.”
This tendency to exclude that Rohr points out is what Jesus is challenging us to recognize in ourselves. It’s a spiritual practice to witness your own defensiveness and aggression as it arises. To catch ourselves when we try to limit God’s love and concern to just our own group. To observe our own anger when our opinions or sense of chosenness gets challenged. It’s Jesus’ call to us to catch our own exclusive thinking, and to follow his radical inclusiveness. To understand God’s love for all people no matter what nation they’re from, no matter what religion they believe, no matter what part of the human family they represent.
And the Good News is even in the midst of our tendency to exclude, Jesus Christ came to shine light on our darkness, to teach us how God’s love really works, and to reveal to us the radical inclusiveness of God. Our tendency to exclude even excluded Jesus and led to his death on the cross. But as we know, his experience of exclusion and death is ultimately what reconciles this broken world with God.
Jesus’ ministry is one of radical inclusiveness. The only people he ever chastises are those who exclude. And it is this radical inclusiveness that we are called to model, that we are called to manifest in the world. Jesus’ radical inclusiveness is both the Good News that sets us free and the mission we are called to live out in the world. And so let us pray for the love and inspiration to share Jesus’ radical inclusiveness with the world.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Pastor Brian, 1/30/22