Don’t expect to be popular if you advocate Sermon on the Mount values at a time when even prominent Christian leaders schmooze politicians who trumpet greed, nationalism, racism and adultery.
Alone in the Judean desert after his baptism, Jesus endured a test that showed he was not trying to improve his ratings (Luke 4). Our Lord refused crowd-pleasing strategies such as turning stone to bread, would not worship the devil even if that supposedly would give him rule over kingdoms, and dismissed publicity stunts such as leaping off tall buildings. Instead, Jesus resolved to honor God alone. He headed to Galilee to teach, heal, forgive, cross boundaries and proclaim justice of the kingdom of God.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor . . . release to the captives . . . sight to the blind . . . and freedom for the oppressed.” With those words Jesus read to his hometown folk at Nazareth synagogue when someone handed him a scroll of the Book of Isaiah. Then he took the congregation through spiritual whiplash with a short sermon.
Friends and family at first swelled with pride when the young rabbi, already lauded in other Galilee synagogues, graced the home pulpit. Local-boy-made-good announced that Isaiah’s prophecy was being fulfilled in their presence. “How well the man speaks!” they said. People of Nazareth knew that Jesus had performed healing in other villages and now expected a good demonstration at home.
But Jesus was no showman, and his sermon flipped to confront racism and elitism. Remember the Hebrew prophets Elijah and Elisha? he demanded. Elijah would not help widows within Israel, where people had a sense of entitlement, but instead helped a widow across the border at Gentile Sidon. Elisha would not heal lepers in Israel, but instead restored a foreign military officer.
In one bold move, Jesus showed that his Spirit-breathed movement would involve caring for those in poverty, freeing prisoners, fighting oppression and showing compassion even for foreigners. He would give sight to the blind, and now people of Nazareth abruptly had eyes opened to see their own prejudice and elitism. They drove Jesus out of town with intent to kill.
Today at Nazareth Village museum there is a replica of that first-century synagogue, a few blocks from the probable ancient location. Pilgrims emerging from the replica can look across the city to a steep hill from which, by tradition, Jesus nearly got hurled.
What price would we be willing to pay to speak and act like Jesus regarding poverty, inequality for captives in our prison system, rejection of immigrants, racism and the sense of entitlement that plagues comfortable churches and societies?
J. Nelson Kraybill is a pastor at Prairie Street Mennonite Church, Elkhart, Ind., and president of Mennonite World Conference. See more of his reflections at peace-pilgrim.com.