Jesus the Provacateur

Tell all the truth but tell it slant  - Emily Dickinson

Sometimes I have to see the truth "slant," from a different angle, especially when I'm looking at a story so familiar I barely see the words. It's like those magic eye images where you have to turn the picture around or move your head to the right angle - suddenly a new question arises and the hidden image appears.

Jesus' first sermon in Nazareth (Luke 4) hit me slant recently.  The question that rose up: why is Jesus deliberately provoking these people? He seems determined to get them riled up into a murderous rage against him. The story seems clear - the people are with him as he gets up and reads, even when he tells them, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." You can hear the buzz in the room: This is Joseph's son. He's a local boy made good. Wow, we didn't expect this from him.  

And instead of politely acknowledging their approval, Jesus decides to poke the hornet's nest. Surely you expect me to do the signs and wonders I did in Capernaum.  Prophets aren't honored in their hometowns, you know.  And he proceeds to tell about two of the Hebrew Bible's most prominent prophets working miracles for people outside of Israel.  The message seems clear: Not only am I not going to set up shop here in Nazareth; my interest is actually centered in people you find unacceptable, including foreigners. 

So what's going on? Somehow this message about being anointed to proclaim good news is turning pretty quickly into bad news, at least for this particular audience.  This doesn't seem very nice on Jesus' part.  After all, these folks seem perfectly willing to approve their hometown boy. So I've been sitting with the passage for a few weeks, taking it along on walks, mulling and wondering and praying into it. 

One day last week another detail caught my eye.  I recently bought a new Bible, and I noticed that the column that contained most of the Nazareth story was positioned right beside the story of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness. I'd been thinking about what Jesus was resisting in his provocative response to the friends and neighbors he'd grown up with -- maybe he felt they were trying to domesticate him, to get him to bring the Kingdom show to their town. But maybe he was still in the business of resisting the temptations he'd encountered in the wilderness: as Henri Nouwen summarized it, the temptations to be relevant, popular and spectacular.  All those temptations lurked in the approving nods and comments of the good folks of Nazareth, in their expectations that somehow the good news Jesus was anointed to proclaim would benefit them in some particular way.

Maybe those thoughts were going through Jesus' mind.  But something about equating the expectations of other people with temptation, especially those right from the devil's mouth, brought a truth about myself into sharp focus. I'm a person with a fairly honed radar for the expectations of people around me. I started in elementary school listening carefully for the clue about how to impress the teacher. Write a report - you remember the paragraphs cribbed out of the Encyclopedia Britannica - about a part of the body. If you want a challenge write about genes.  And there I am off making charts of Mendel's experiments with peas.  Which may be all well and good for sixth grade, but it's a recipe for burnout and losing your soul in later life.

I wrote myself a little note that day: "expectations = temptation."  Tuning into the expectations of other people, focusing on what I believe they will think or what I'm afraid they will do, is not simply a bad strategy for getting through life; it's a temptation. If I let myself be guided by expectations, I'm not just setting myself up for failure; I'm being unfaithful to myself, God and ultimately the people I love. Not showing up in your own life is a terrible waste, and it has repercussions much further than my own pain. 

I have a confession: I have never managed to see the image in a magic eye picture.  No matter how I turn the page and squint and tilt my head, I only see the repeating pattern on the surface. I'm squinting now, though, at my own expectations of myself and others, examining them for clues to the chains that have held me captive, praying for sight in these blind eyes. I need that liberating good news to show me another way. Maybe I have to risk disappointing someone or provoking their anger. Maybe I have to have my eyes so firmly on truth that I can do it on purpose. Maybe. May it be.


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