One thing about teachers is that they want to help their listeners understand the big picture so that the details make sense. I am and always will be a teacher, so my preaching style will reflect that desire for my faith community to grasp the whole picture of what was going that each Sunday reading from the Gospel fits into. But it is equally important for us to understand that the big picture, over weeks' of stories, and the specific story from any given week, have a deep spiritual meaning for us today as we try to live out the Gospel, just as it did for those who were listening to Jesus themselves two thousand years ago.
So, let's take a look at this series of Gospel readings from the 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, which is today, and 7th Sundays in Ordinary time as a kind of "mini-series," which concludes next week. The following Sunday will be the first in the liturgical season of Lent.
Luke is showing us in his version of the Jesus story, how Jesus is the prophesied messiah, first by giving his genealogy, and then by relating Jesus' initiation into the Spirit by John's baptism at the beginning of the Gospel. We heard about the Baptism of the Lord, which was the first Sunday of ordinary time. It is the opening scene, so to speak, in the mini-series of Jesus' early ministry, the beginning of his teaching and healing. Luke begins to retell the Jesus story, after doing his own research and collecting of the many stories from eyewitnesses and those that heard the eyewitnesses.
When we understand the meaning of the various episodes of this "mini-series" we will understand what is asked of us today by Jesus.
To really grasp what will unfold, we have to do a bit of a geography lesson. Israel was the name of the Jewish people. They lived in a territory that was once a single political country, but had been divided into two kingdoms after Herod's death. The northern kingdom was called Galilee; the southern kingdom was Judea. Think of Wisconsin being divided across the state in the middle. It was an area of similar size. Toward the northern third of Galilee, the northern Kingdom, were the towns of Capernaum, Nazareth and Magdala on the shores of the sea of Galilee, (called Lake Gennesaret back then.) Sort of like the Tomahawk, Rhinelander, Three Lakes area "up north" in WI. Way down at the lowest part of Judea, the Southern kingdom, was Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Bethany. Sort of like Kenosha, Racine, Burlington. The distance between these areas was about hundred miles, which was hilly, even somewhat mountainous country. The reason this geography lesson is important is that Jesus was traipsing all over between these two regions at the beginning of his ministry, the time period that all of our readings take place in this ordinary time period.
Where things happen in scripture is important because it carries symbolic meaning which remains true for us today.
For the second Sunday in Ordinary time, the Church, as it assembled the Lectionary, chose to use the story of the marriage feast at Cana, which is not in Lk, but comes from the Gospel of John, as the "Ta Da" way of announcing the spectacular start of Jesus' ministry after the Baptism. But Luke does not give us that story. Instead Luke tells us that after being baptized, Jesus went to the desert for 40 days and nights and was tempted, but survived. Then, he began his ministry, alone, as an itinerant teacher, roaming all over the northern and sounthern kingdoms of Galilee and Judea, teaching and healing everywhere he went, with his reputation spreading quickly. He was teaching in the Synagogues everywhere and scripture says, "Everyone praised him." People began following him; they were his learners or disciples. Jesus, baptized and tested, took his show on the road. He answered God's call, and though a carpenter's son who should have followed in dad's footsteps, left that trade and life behind, to follow the path God had given him. These events took time to unfold, perhaps years. Remember, he walked everywhere over all that territory. These scenes are not part of our Sunday readings, but the set the stage for what comes next.
Three Sundays ago, in Lk 1:1-4, 4:14-21, the 3rd Sunday of Ordinary time, Jesus returns to Galilee to teach in the Synagogue in Nazareth, which was his custom and he was already well known in the area, for it was his custom to go to the synagogue. So Jesus had hoofed it all the way up from Judea, the southern kingdom to the city of Nazareth in Galilee. He had been teaching and performing healings and miracles along the way. That's like walking from Racine to Rhinelander leaving a wake of incredible events, knowledge of which spread like wildfire from village to village along the way. Jesus was pretty much alone for this part of the journey. He was an itinerant teacher. Back to that Sabbath day in the Nazareth Synagogue. (Remember a synagogue was a place of study, not worship, which took place in the Temple.) On this day he read from the Isaiah scroll and told those present, scholars and Pharisees, that the anointing of God, "The spirit of the Lord," was upon him and that the prophesy of Isaiah was fulfilled in their hearing. He, Jesus, was to bring proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, release for the oppressed. He would do what Isaiah had prophesied. They took this in, amazed because they knew he was just a carpenter's son. But what really got him into trouble was when he anticipated their skepticism, challenging them, saying, "no prophet was ever accepted in the prophet's own hometown". The people were ok with that; the Pharisees and scholars were not. Then he said something that made both the people and the scholars and Pharisees crazy with anger. But we didn't get that piece of the mini-series until
the 4th Sunday of Ordinary time, in LK4:21-30, two weeks ago, when Jesus reminds them that Isaiah told the Jews way back then, that God had sent Elijah to care for the widow of Zarephath in Sidon not the widows in Israel, and Elisha to care for Naaman, the Syrian Leper, not the lepers in Israel. Neither the widow nor the leper were Jews. Jesus was telling the Pharisees and scholars that God was a God for all people, not just the Jews. Jesus begins this teaching with "AMEN," which is what was customarily said by the listeners after the teacher spoke. It affirms the teaching. Jesus affirmed his own words, reversing the custom. He didn't need their affirmation. That is pretty big stuff. Jesus was beginning to overturn the practices and mindset of the authorities. Or at least he was trying to. This teaching enraged them and they rose up, drove him out of the synagogue, took him to the edge of town on a high hill and were about to throw him off the cliff, "but he walked right through the crowd and went on his way." Luke was a great scriptwriter!! He leaves us hanging as Jesus has a miraculous Indiana Jones-like escape from the clutches of death by an angry mob.
Before we get the next episode in the mini-series, some pieces of what Jesus is doing get left out of what we heard last week on the 5th Sunday of ordinary time, LK 5:1-11, not because they aren't important, but like we well know, some footage always ends up on the cutting room floor. The events are there in the Gospel for you to read; we just do not hear them in the Sunday liturgy of the Word. Basically, Jesus travels all over both kingdoms and ends up way back down in Judea, (think Kenosha), teaching with authority, his own authority, and healing people everywhere he goes. People seek him out for the healings, more than for the teachings. He really wants to teach. He keeps asking people to not talk about the healings. He works hard to get the message of the good news of the God out, but people are more interested in his miraculous powers.
What happens in this episode of the mini-series, is that Jesus has walked back up to Galilee from Judea, teaching and healing all along the way, and the crowds, as you can imagine, were enormous, everyone wanting a piece of the healing action. He's caught in the crush of the crowd with his back to the sea of Galilee, looks around and sees some fishermen washing their nets with their boats nearby and climbs into one of the boats, asking its owner, Simon, (who later gets renamed Peter) to row it out a ways. Then he begins to teach the crowd from the boat. Wow! Look what has happened. Jesus stopped beating his head against the synagogue wall talking to the resistant Pharisees and scholars. He took his message to the people, the people of God. He went to where they were, in the villages, on the shore, in the hills and the valleys of the two kingdoms. Last week's gospel ends with the fishermen leaving their nets and boats behind, their very means of making a living, as they followed Jesus. He had predicted full nets if they cast out their nets again. They were filled when they cast them out again, to their surprise. These were rough and tumble fishermen, who had already fished unsuccessfully for the day, and who had already cleaned up their gear. Jesus must have been pretty convincing for them to try it again. And of course the result of catching so many fish that their boats nearly sank, was the most convincing. So, as the fishermen followed Jesus, the scene fades.
Finally, we get to today's episode, the 6th Sunday of Ordinary time, Lk 6:17, 20-26. The reading begins "he went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coast Tyre and Sidon, who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases." Tyre and Sidon are north of the Northern kingdom of Galilee, sort of like the upper peninsula of Michigan. You get the idea. The crowds were growing and Jesus' reputation was spreading like one of those wildfires in California. But listen again to the beginning. "He went down with them." Who went down with whom and where were they coming down from?"
This is once again one of those cutting room series of scenes that didn't make it to the Sunday Gospel, but which are essential to understanding the meaning of the mini-series as a whole. The missing scenes are those showing Jesus as teacher and healer: teaching in village after village, From Galilee in the north to Judea in the South, healing the leper, healing person after person, healing the paralytic who was lowered through a roof of a home. On the occasion of the healing of the paralytic, Jesus was teaching in a home. The Pharisees and teachers of the law, who had come from every village of Galilee and from Judea and Jersualem, were sitting there. Think about this. Jesus was done going to the Synagogue to work within the system. Now the Pharisees and scholars were coming to where Jesus was teaching to the people, in ordinary homes. The paralyzed guy was dropped through the roof to be healed and the Synagogue scholars and priests witness Jesus first forgive the man's sins and then tell him to get up and walk. The big wigs go a bit crazy again, accusing Jesus of blasphemy and he once again takes them on, claiming his authority to forgive sins. The regular folks were amazed, filled with awe and knew they "had seen a remarkable thing that day." Later Jesus adds insult to injury by attending a banquet in his honor, hosted by the tax collector and attended by a large crowd of tax collectors and others, none considered fit company by the Pharisees and scholars. Again, Jesus confronts them, saying he came to call sinners to repentance, not the righteous, or as the "Message" version says, He "came to invite outsiders, not insiders, an invitation to a changed life, changed inside and out".
After the dinner, over the next days, teaching and healing events take place; you know where they are - on the cutting room floor. Finally after all the pressure and crowds, the demands and the unending stream of needy, Jesus needs a break. He retreats to the top of a mountain, (think of Moses), to pray all night. He needed to be with God. In the morning he called all the disciples to him, those who were following him to learn the teachings, and from among them, he chose 12 to be his apostles. Can you imagine what they must have felt like? Pretty special, I would guess. Yes, that would be a mountain high, wouldn't it. Becoming one of the chosen to walk with Jesus on his ministry of teaching and healing, no longer a groupie, but one of the insiders. Some of us have had similar experiences, when experiencing Baptism in the Spirit, or a born-again experience or really knowing Jesus in our hearts, or a Call to ministry, or a recognition of God's purpose for our lives. This, friends, is where today's reading begins, Jesus and the apostles are descending from the mountain, coming down off the high. When Jesus and the guys reach the level ground, the plain, they, like us, are in ordinary space, where we live our daily lives. There are three groups of people on the plain: the disciples and newly called apostles, and large crowds of people: some from Tyre and Sidon (think UP of Michigan) and some from Judea, the kingdom and the capital, Jerusalem, (think Milwaukee). Other translations of the scripture for today say that Jesus raised his eyes and looked at his disciples as he gave his blessings to them for being poor, hungry, weeping and hated, excluded, denounced as evil, all because of following his teachings. Then he addresses the larger crowds as he predicts the woes that will befall them. But listen to this! Jesus then shifts his attention back to the disciples and apostles and says, "Rejoice and leap for joy on that day." That day? That day when people hate and exclude, and denounce as evil anyone who following Jesus' teachings of inclusivity and justice for the least? Yes, for sure the apostles are off the mountain high and being told that there will be a great price for following the teachings of Jesus and that they are not to bemoan the consequences but to leap for joy. Jesus is describing what has been happening to him, what happened to the prophets of the Old Testament, what will happen to the new apostles and to the disciples. And he is telling us what to expect as well, when we live his message of love and inclusivity and justice. That is how today's episode of the mini-series ends. Next week it concludes with the toughest message of all about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. I won't spoil the anticipation, but I can give you a coming attraction. It's about not just leaping for joy when people hate us and denounce us as evil and attempt to silence us, today as well as then. It's about loving those same people, our enemies, and praying for them and treating them like we want to be treated, with love and respect. The deepest meaning of this tough mini-series is to stop worrying about those in power who just don't get the message that all people are God's people, that all people are welcomed to the banquet, that all people are invited to repent and that all followers of Jesus who embrace inclusivity and justice are going to be hated, exclude and denounced by the powerful of our modern-day synagogues in Christianity. The deepest meaning is that we are to love them, pray for them and treat them with love and respect, as we would like to be treated, regardless of their actions. We will enter into Lent after next week when this series ends.
This mini-series ends with a shocker of reversals. Can we leap for joy when we are hated, excluded and denounced for the sake of living Jesus' message? In the recent past many are being denounced and silenced, CTA :Nebraska, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, the ordained Roman Catholic women priests, a Canadian priest who concelebrated with a woman priest, and on and on. Are we leaping for joy and loving those who denounce and silence? Are we praying for them? Are we wanting to treat them with love and respect? We are definitely down from the mountain into the ordinary time of living the teachings of Jesus. I confess, leaping for joy when under attack is not the first thing I think of doing. This mini-series of Jesus' early ministry reminds me that to be a disciple Jesus means to be bad-mouthed, excluded and denounced by the powers that be in the Church when teaching with a prophetic voice that challenges the Church to be Christian. Leap for joy? It isn't all that easy, is it?