The wideness in God's mercy
Year C Luke 4:21-30
Year C Luke 4:21-30
Maybe this has happened to you.
You start going on about something at a crowded dinner table. Everyone looks happy and nods affirmatively. Then, somewhere along the way, you say something that causes everybody’s face to fall. You, who were doing so well five minutes ago, are now about as welcome as a skunk at a garden party. You misjudged the politics of your audience or used saucy language or insulted the lady of the house. You got it wrong. You’d like to know why because you’re not sure. From the silence in the car on the way home you suspect your wife is confecting the necessary words to tell you.
The story from St Luke’s Gospel about Jesus speaking in the synagogue at Nazareth describes just such a sudden collapse in popularity by a speaker. To highlight this our lectionary has divided the story at the very point where things begin to go wrong. Last week’s reading (Luke 4:14-21) had Jesus being handed the scroll by the elders of the synagogue and beginning to read at the appointed place, reciting the promises of God to release the captive and show grace to the blind and the oppressed. Jesus hands the scroll back to the attendant, sits back comfortably and following a meaningful pause declares that “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”. There’s a charged silence as the home crowd waits for what the local boy will say next but the mood in the room is still pleasantly calm.
What he says next as this Sunday’s gospel reading picks up the story (4:21-30) relates closely to the themes in the King’s Wedding Banquet (Luke 14:16-24) where invitations are sent out and the traditional invitees refuse to respond and so the King extends that invitation to a larger and previously uninvited crowd. We are reminded that we enjoy our membership in the family of God not because we are a deserving heaven-born crowd but because God shows an interest in his creatures which is sufficiently wide to include even us. As the line from the hymn puts it:
There’s a wideness in God’s mercy
Or the line from that other hymn:
A spendthrift lover is the Lord
Were there widows in Israel in the time of Elijah? Of course, but God’s grace was extended to a Gentile woman in Sidon. Were there lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha? Yes, but God chose to bless a Syrian soldier. Believe, as you should, that God releases the captive and blesses his creatures but know that he will extend that grace to whomever he will. If you think you're special, you're not. If you won’t get up on your hind legs and receive such grace thankfully you may end up outside the circle.
We can say with probability that when you and I ran afoul of the group we were speaking to it was because we got it wrong. What Luke tells us in his narrative is that the violent response Jesus received from his hearers that day in his own home town was because he had gotten it absolutely and thoroughly right. Too right, in fact, not to have a fight break out.