Wineskins Archive

November 26, 2013

The Centrifugal Mission (Mar-Apr 2002)

Filed under: — @ 1:34 am and

By Mike Cope

You have to give Jesus this: he could move a crowd from standing ovation to manslaughter faster than anyone!

Luke tells us that he went to his hometown to preach. He was handed the Isaiah scroll in the synagogue; he unrolled it, and he began reading:

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

After reading those verses, he rolled the scroll back up and sat down. With everyone staring at him, he said simply, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

At that moment, smiles began to break out. People were winking at one another. Everyone spoke well of their favorite son. He had the right text and the right word (“today”) to go with the text. But a few moments later, this same crowd was furious, eager to throw him off a cliff.

So what made them change their opinions so quickly?

Jesus learned the lesson that many ministers have learned since: you don’t get in trouble by reading scripture but by explaining it!

There was a centripetal force at work among those at the synagogue – a force that pulls everything inward. They loved Isaiah 61, for surely they were the poor, the prisoners, the blind, the oppressed. God had taken notice of their poverty and of their oppression by the Romans. And now he’d come through his anointed one to set them free. What good news!

It’s the same centripetal force that often works in us. We are the privileged ones; we are the recipients of God’s grace; we are the chosen few who, alone, walk on the ancient path.

Jesus chose to illuminate his text by telling two old stories. These were stories right out of their scriptures, but not the kind of stories they liked to hear. For these were embarrassing episodes in Israelite history – of Elijah going to help a Gentile widow (when there were plenty of Jewish widows who needed aid) and of Elisha cleansing a Syrian leper (when there were lots of lepers in Israel).

The moment Jesus suggested that they didn’t have an inside track, that Isaiah 61 wasn’t just for them, he went from favorite son to degenerate prodigal!

Barbara Brown Taylor tells about being at a retreat where everyone was asked to describe a time in their life when someone became Jesus to them. Several told of people who had shown them unexpected compassion and unconditional love. But the exercise took a different direction when one woman said her first instinct was to ask, “Who in my life has told me the truth so clearly that I wanted to kill him for it?”

That’s how it was for the good folks at the Nazareth synagogue. Jesus wouldn’t buy into their centripetal reading of scripture; rather, his reading was centrifugal. He saw it–and the mission of God–moving constantly outward. The kingdom isn’t just for us, he said, but for those on the outside, those who’ve been mauled by life, those without direction, hope, and basic needs.

It’s no wonder, then, that his mission in Luke’s Gospel takes on this centrifugal force: one village idiot by another he casts out demons; one piece of flaky skin after another he touches lepers; one heavy religious yoke after another he sets people free; one sinner after another he issues a call to conversion.

Any time we seek to cloister ourselves, any time we draw battle lines (proclaiming an “us vs. them” culture war), any time we obsess on our own likes and dislikes, we fall into the centripetal trap that Jesus confronted. And we find him again pointing outward: to the couple abusing each other with verbal stones, to the pregnant sixteen year old with no one to hold her, to the child without supper, to the person who doesn’t know God. This is the Spirit-anointed mission of God to which we are called.

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