Isaiah 61:1-4, 10,11
Quino is a famous Argentinian cartoonist who once published a provocative cartoon about cultural and social integration with new immigrants in Argentina. In the cartoon strip he drew an Argentinian guy dressing in a very nice suit and introducing different immigrants to an Argentinian audience. He introduces a Syrian family and says: “You see they eat food just like us”. Then he shows a Bolivian family: “You see, they have children just like we do”. Then an African family: “You see, they love having party just like us”. And so on. At the very end in the last comic strip you see them all smiling, and the Argentinian guy: “You see, they look just like us -and adds on with a sad face- it is easy to say ‘they look just like us’, but when we will be able to say that ‘we look just like them’.
When Jesus rolls up the scroll and says: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”, the reaction from the audience in the synagogue is extremely positive. They speak well of him and are amazed at the gracious words that come from his mouth. He just read one of the most famous passages of the book of the prophet Isaiah, who proclaims the liberation of Israel from the pagan enemies. This is one among many other Jewish texts where we can find a longing for God to come and condemn the wicked nations, pour out a wrath and destroy them. So far so good. What they hear is music for their ears.
However, all of a sudden Jesus points out that when the great prophets Elijah and Elisha were active, it wasn’t Israel who benefitted, but only the pagans. What was wrong with what he said? What made them kick him out of the synagogue, hustle him out of the town, and take him off to the cliff edge to throw him over?
Well, perhaps it was the fact that Jesus’ references to the widow at Zarephath in Sidon and of Naaman the Syrian must have sounded not just provocative to the people’s ears but also very offensive. They might have thought: “How can he dare insulting us by openly saying that the year of the Lord’s favour, the day of vengeance of our God is actually not just for us but for all the nations, including our enemies?”
We may have to remember that the audience in the synagogue must have know very well the stories of Elijah and Elisha. They were prophets whose stories of miraculous and extraordinary deeds became legend among the Israelites and were recounted over and over. They were legend. But perhaps nobody have never interpreted their marvelous actions as statements against their own people. In fact, neither does Jesus. What Jesus is doing is very different. Firstly, he seems not to be bothered about being misinterpreted, and secondly he uses the misunderstanding as a mean to get their attention. By mentioning Elijah and Elisha’s miracles he wants to draw their attention to a new interpretation of the passage of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah. We may have to remind ourselves that for the Jews Isaiah was the prophet of the liberation from the evildoers. Particularly in this passage from the Book of Isaiah, the Messiah is very much described as the avenger against the nations that humiliated them for so many years.
The passage Jesus quotes is about that kind of Messiah, but his quote stops at the proclamation of the year of the Lord’s favour, and omits the day of vengeance of God, the dies irae, that inspired Mozart to compose one of his greatest masterpiece of Classical music. What Jesus says is that the servant-Messiah has not come to inflict punishment on the nations, but to bring God’s love and mercy to them. It is a message of love and compassion. That’s the fulfillment of the Scriptures of which Jesus is talking about. But that’s unacceptable and also tremendously shocking to the hearing of his audience in the synagogue. They know that God is love and compassion, but just for the people He choose as his own, not for the other nations and peoples. They are the enemy, and the least they are the pagans, a sort of second class citizens in religious terms. What Jesus does is a bit like going to a meeting with members of the Ku Klux Klan and try to convince them that black people are equally humans as they are, and that white supremacy is a racist ideology and against human rights.
Their reaction is violent: they want to throw him off the cliff. What a contradiction! This is the same people who praised him a few minutes earlier after proclaiming the word of God. And now they want to kill him. What today’s gospel makes apparent is the great temptation we might have with the Scriptures, which may be called manipulation. The Jews longed for liberation for a very long time, and could not imagine anything different from an avenger-Messiah to come to freed them from slavery and struck down their enemies.
Shockingly Jesus tears down and demolishes their image of God, and talks about a compassionate and loving God for everyone, including their enemies. Unfortunately this image of God doesn’t match their experience of God. Unfortunately what he says is the opposite of what they were expecting. Therefore they reject it violently because it is not in tune with their needs, or at least what they think their needs and longings are. At this point it is clear that Jesus lays bare their manipulation of the Scriptures, but also their confusion. They don’t really know who they are, which gives us a thorough insight about their relationship with God. They really get know who they are if they get to know who is the God that has been revealed to them in the Scripture. And not the projection of their needs.
Likewise, in our Christian life a wrong image of God will surely lead us to a distorted relationship with him, because we are at risk of making God in our own image. Sometimes it seems like we make a god who looks very much like us, and when we discover that He is actually different from what I think or feel, we may be tempted to reject it.
Should we not be us who look more like him? He made us in his image, and this is why we find our true self, our authentic image in him. Khalil Gibran, a Lebanese-American artist, poet, and writer of the New York Pen League, says in one of his most beautiful poems about love: “When you love you should not say, ‘God is in my heart,’ but rather, ‘I am in the heart of God.’ And think not you can direct the course of love, for love, if it finds you worthy, directs your course.”
A compassionate God will lead you to be compassionate to yourself firstly, to accept yourself. When you have learnt to accept yourself, to forgive yourself, to have compassion for your own sufferings, your own illusions, your own passions, your own dreams, your own disappointments, your own defeats, your own wounds, you will have learnt to love yourself. And you will be able to love others, including your enemies.