About a hundred years after the life of Christ, a Christian by the name of Marcion moved to Rome and started a new church. A believer from an early age, Marcion had heard the stories of Christ and so he preached that he was the Messiah and the son of God. Eventually, though, some in his church started to wonder about some of his teachings. Because Marcion preached that God who was the Father of Christ was a different god than the god of the Old Testament.
In fact, he had a different name for the god of the Old Testament. He called this god Jehovah. And he was not a fan. Jehovah was a god of violence – commanding his people to wipe out entire nations in violent ways. Jehovah was a god of harsh judgment, causing plagues, disease, or physical maladies. And Jehovah was an arbitrary god, choosing only to protect a certain nation and ignoring or judging the others. Therefore, according to Marcion, this was not a god worth worshipping. And this was not the God that Jesus prayed to in the New Testament. Not the one he called Father. Jehovah of the Old Testament could not be the same God that inspired Jesus to talk about love and grace and forgiveness. They must be completely different deities.
So, if we didn’t need to worship the God of the Old Testament, we definitely didn’t need to read the Old Testament. So he took it out of his version of the Bible. Paul’s letters were good. And so was the Gospel of Luke. But whenever Jesus would quote a passage from the Old Testament, that was unnecessary. So he took those parts out. In comparison to our big black book, Marcion’s Bible was a pamphlet.
And people lined up in agreement behind Marcion and his Bible. His church lasted for centuries, long after his death. And I would argue, there are vestiges of that church alive and well today. In fact, maybe even some of us would be interested in signing up. After all, how many of us look at some of those passages in the Hebrew Scriptures and cringe? At the violence? The judgment? The arbitrary ways that God is portrayed? Who is that God and what does he have to do with the Gospel of Jesus? How many of us would at least listen to Marcion if he showed up today and started preaching about the God of the New Testament as a completely different deity than the violent and vindictive Old Testament Jehovah? How many of us would be fine with a pamphlet of Scripture? Take out the old stuff. Take out the stuff that we don’t agree with. Take out the complicated and confusing and difficult passages. Take out a red pen and just cross it all out. And just leave the good stuff. About grace and love and forgiveness. Anyone else ready to sign up for Marcion’s church?
Here’s the problem. Marcion didn’t wrestle with these texts – he expelled them. According to Marcion, life would be a whole lot easier if we just gathered together with people who talked like us and believed like we do and grew up in the same context that we did. His Bible reflected a church of “only us.” In fact, Marcion went so far as to say that Jesus could not have really grown up Jewish, under the vindictive and violent Jehovah. So, perhaps, Marcion suggested, Jesus did not really grow up…at all. Marcion posited that Jesus just appeared on earth one day as a fully grown man, who lived and taught and came to earth without the taint of Jehovah in his life at all. He crystallized this idea of “Only Us” by proclaiming that Jesus had never been anything else. He was always one of us!
Irony of ironies, here stands today’s Scripture passage. From the Gospel of Luke – the only Gospel that Marcion said was worthy of keeping – comes a powerful and critical passage for helping us to understand and expose the Church of Only Us.
The passage is recorded after Jesus returns from the temptation in the wilderness. Some time has passed, at it appears that Jesus has already been in Capernaum and has already begun his ministry. He has been performing miracles already and doing amazing wonders. So now he has returned home to Nazareth, his hometown. Here’s the first problem Marcion would have had with this passage – he wouldn’t have had a hometown because he appeared without growing up as a child. It gets worse for Marcion. Luke tells us that Jesus went into the synagogue on the Sabbath, as was his custom. Terror! Marcion had to have the red pen out on this one! To paint the Messiah Jesus as this synagogue-attending, Sabbath-observing Jew would be anathema. Cross that passage out!
But it gets worse. Because not only was Jesus in synagogue like any good Jewish male would be, but then he uses this passage from Hebrew Scriptures to proclaim what his ministry is going to be about. He stands up and reads from the scroll of Isaiah. Scholars suggest that Jesus likely picked this passage out, and he did it for a reason. Because he was proclaiming who he was going to be and what he was going to do. And in case those in the synagogue didn’t get it that day, he made the point clear: “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words, this is why I am here. This is what I am about. This is my ministry and my purpose and my calling and my identity. Bring good news. Proclaim release and jubilee and healing. Straight from the pages of Jehovah’s Old Testament. And Marcion had to run out of red ink at that point. Because Jesus the Jew used the Hebrew Scriptures to explain what his Gospel ministry was going to be about. It just couldn’t be, according to Marcon’s view of the world.
But you see, here is the problem with Marcion’s logic. Yes, there are plenty of examples of violence and anger and judgment in the Old Testament, but there are also plenty of examples of mercy and justice and love and forgiveness. In fact, much of what Marcion loved about the New Testament came from the Old.
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength”: Deuteronomy.
“Man shall not live by bread alone”: Deuteronomy.
“Love your neighbor as yourself”: Leviticus.
“My house shall be called a house of prayer”: Isaiah.
And today’s passage: “I have come to proclaim release to the captives.” Isaiah.
The message of Jesus came from his Jewishness. We don’t get to throw out the Jewishness of Jesus, because it is where our faith originates. And so, to the larger point, we don’t get to pull out the red pen and pick and choose which passages are acceptable and which ones aren’t. It doesn’t work that way. We take the good with the bad and the uncomfortable with the comfortable. We don’t get to avoid the hard conversations or the hard relationships.
Which is, again, irony upon irony, the point that Jesus makes in the text. At first, everything seemed grand when Jesus read Isaiah in the synagogue. When he told them that their golden boy has come home in order to proclaim release and heal the broken, they were ecstatic. They were patting each other on the back and congratulating each other for raising the boy right. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” It’s like the hometown quarterback that makes it to the big leagues. Or more specifically, like the hometown politician who is now in Washington and staring to bring home the pork. Bring home the big government contracts and Washington-sized building projects. They were looking at Jesus and listening to his words and hearing the stories of the miracles that he has done other places and they are ready for him to settle down and bring those pork projects on home. Start fixing the problems of Nazareth. Start healing their aunts and uncles and friends and loved ones. Start using this amazing power that God had given them to fix some wrongs in their lives. In other words, they were ready to start the church of “Only Us.” Welcome home, son. Let’s get to work.
But Jesus didn’t stop talking. He commented on the passage, as was the custom. And it didn’t go well.
He watched their back slapping and self-congratulations and was quick to correct. He told them, “you think that I am here for you and your problems, to heal the hometown woes and perform miracles here just like I did in Capernaum. But that’s not what I am going to do.” He went on to tell more stories from the prophets. From the prophet Elijah, who skipped over all the widows of the Israelites in order to go and help a widow from the enemy territory of Sidon. And from the prophet Elisha, who did not heal any of the Israelite generals or commanders, but instead went out of his way to heal Namaan, a general from the opposing army. And as he spoke, it began to dawn on them that Jesus had not come back in order to line their pockets or take care of their problem. It slowly began to dawn on them that he was not bringing pork projects to his hometown.
If I can make a point, Jesus said “I have not come back to Lawrence in order to provide you with a project with Washington pork funds. In fact, I am here simply to announce that I have just acquired funding for a significant and sparkling government project to be built in the middle of Columbia, Missouri. Go Tigers!”
Or if I can make a more important point, Jesus was saying:
• I am not here to protect your jobs or take care of your wants; I am here for the undocumented child at the border who is afraid and alone.
• I am not here to protect your Cadillac health care plan; I am here for the single mother who cannot afford healthcare for herself or her children.
• I am not here because you feel oppressed when someone asks you not to say “Merry Christmas”; I am here for the poor black man on death row who could not find or afford the justice that many of the rest of us can.
• I am not here to pat you on the back and help you worship the God of “Only Us.” I am here to remind you that you need to get off your butts and follow the God of Out There.
And the effect of Jesus’ words was chilling and immediate. And they did not just raise their eyebrows or grumble or whisper that Joseph’s boy was a little too big for his britches. They drug him out to the top of the Oread Hotel so that they could throw him off the side.
And somehow, Jesus slipped away. And never again stepped foot in Nazareth, his hometown.
R. Alan Culpepper writes “God’s grace is never subject to the limitations and boundaries of any nation, church, group, or race. Those who would exclude others thereby exclude themselves. Human beings may be instruments of God’s grace for others, but we are never free to set limits on who may receive that grace.”
The people of Nazareth that day were ready for Jesus’ grace and healing, as long as it was for them and NOT for the people that they didn’t like.
Marcion was fine talking about grace and love, as long as it could bolster his own anti-semitism.
He was fine rejecting the Jewish God of judgment, as long as he could reserve the right to judge for himself.
And so, the early church listened to the Gospel of Marcion and they said “no.”
They said that we don’t get to pick and choose. And they kept all of the Gospel of Luke, and even added three more Gospels for good measure. They insisted that we would have a greater diversity and more complex understanding of who Jesus was, even in the midst of inconsistencies and differing voices.
They said that we don’t get to reject our past, even if we aren’t proud of all of it, and they kept the entirety of the Hebrew Scriptures in their canon. It’s all our Bible.
And they said that we don’t have the option of choosing Only Us. Because the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament and the God Incarnate in Jesus the Messiah is the God of today and tomorrow and we are still called to proclaim good news to the poor. Release to all the captives. And recovery to the broken. And we are called to let the oppressed go free, not just the ones that look like us.
We are called to be faithful members – not of the church of Marcion – but of the church of Jesus Christ. Let us throw open the doors of that church to all who may come. And let us rejoice in the release and Gospel love that we proclaim here.