As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
We are at a moment in time when there is no more moral or powerful claim to make than that you and yours have been victims of some abuse of power. All of the political parties and factions attempt to rally their base by claiming that some all-powerful opponent has done them wrong, and now they must arise to settle the score and make the world right.
- Donald Trump is going to settle the score against political correctness and liberal victimhood weakness.
- Ted Cruz is going to bring down the liberal elites who have ruined the country.
- Bernie Sanders is going to bring down the monied interests of Wall Street and the wealthy.
- Hillary Clinton has been fighting all her life against the Republican establishment for working men and women and by her ascension to power will break the glass ceiling.
Righteous indignation against some wrong done to you and whatever tribe you favor at the moment is the sweetest, most self-justifying feeling a human being can have.
Jesus with the Home Crowd
In Luke 4 Jesus returns to Nazareth to preach in the synagogue. There he pulls out the prophet Isaiah and announces the most audacious liberation:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and the regaining of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to tell them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled even as you heard it being read.”22 All were speaking well of him, and were amazed at the gracious words coming out of his mouth. They said, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” —Luke 4:18–22 (NET)
Why was everyone so pleased with Jesus? Everyone would have understood what Jesus was doing and approved of it, at least those who self-identified with an oppressed Jewish underclass and were hoping that their God would send a leader who would do what revolutionaries always do—gather strong and ambitious men to himself while gaining power. Eventually whole towns and regions would pledge allegiance to him, to the degree that they would eventually become an army.
Jesus, the Worst Politician
What Jesus did next, however, was a very stupid political move. What we see is that he had the worst political instincts imaginable:
23 Jesus said to them, “No doubt you will quote to me the proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ and say, ‘What we have heard that you did in Capernaum, do here in your hometown too.’ ” 24 And he added, “I tell you the truth, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. 25 But in truth I tell you in truth… there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, yet none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”28 When they heard this, all the people in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, forced him out of the town, and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff.30 But he passed through the crowd and went on his way. —Luke 4:23–30 (NET)
Here Jesus seems to needlessly and intentionally alienate what seemed to be the base of his power. For the people of Nazareth, their first hearing of Jesus’ reading of Isaiah was comfortable, vindicating, and hopeful. Why would Jesus then intentionally mess up this love fest?
Of the two examples Jesus brings up, Naaman is particularly interesting. He was the general of the Syrians who were at that moment militarily oppressing Israel. Many in Israel—if they had heard of Naaman’s leprosy—would have cheered this as the justice of God wrought upon the enemy of Israel. You might recall that it was a Hebrew slave girl who pointed Naaman to Elisha. What was he doing with a Hebrew slave girl, you ask? How did he come to possess one? He undoubtedly came to own her in his military campaigns.
The climax of the story comes when Naaman, upon receiving this healing, declares, “Now I know that there is no God in all the world except in Israel” (2 Kings 5:15).
He then asks for a special dispensation when he must escort his master, the king, to the pagan temple, and it is granted. Nowhere do we find him renouncing slavery or saying that he’ll no longer lead raiding parties to take slaves and properties from weaker cities in Northern Israel. Whatever happened to morality?
Jesus intentionally points out that while the prophets attacked the unrighteous kings and wealthy elites of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, they also blessed their pagan neighbors. Jesus pulls out two stories that highlight how, in fact, God blessed enemies of Israel.
The congregation at Nazareth were eager for the Lord, through their new, hometown prophet Jesus, to practice “my well-being at your expense” to their Roman and pagan overlords. Jesus, in effect, points out that the way they imagined their world setting functionally made God their servant and Jesus their agent. However, Jesus claims that Yhwh is Lord over all the earth, whose concern is not particularly for Israel and her interest but for all of humanity—including abusers of power and imperialists.
It is not hard to see how the victim narrative can be simply another tool for my exaltation at the expense of my neighbor. How lovely when I can show the world how evil they are and, by virtue of victimization, the moral high ground I stand upon!
Our hearts constantly look for a place to stand where we can find in ourselves our moral righteousness and justified salvation. We are capable of twisting any narrative toward our service and casting God as vindicator and justifier for our agendas and our righteousness. The most gracious thing Jesus could do in Nazareth was to expose people’s hearts even in the hard and offensive way he chose. And they hated him for it. Hated him enough to want to take his life.
Jesus was such a bad politician, such a bad Messiah, such a poor manager of public opinion, that he managed to alienate nearly everyone. Jesus chose to become the victim of all of them and not the servant of any of their agendas.
In doing so, he in fact became the master of all agendas whose allegiance is demanded of all. This is the claim of the great Christian hymn of Philippians 2.
Now, as we overhear the trouble at Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth, we must ponder our place. What agenda do we wish to subject Jesus to? Who are the enemies we wish to employ Jesus-as-destroyer toward their demise?
Or do we see that, in fact, the One who took no side simply asks that we be on his, and that we follow him as he offends our moral sensitivities and orders history in ways we can never predict and seldom comprehend.