Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Jesus, the Crowd, and the Scroll in the Synagogue

Yesterday's reading is probably my favorite in the New Testament.

The setting is a synagogue in Nazareth during the first half of the first century of the common era. The setting is important and it's helpful to have a little perspective on the various social factors converging into this moment. 

Synagogues were a relatively new development in Jewish worship. At the time, the worship of the Jews centered on the Temple in Jerusalem and it was based on the various sacrifices offered to God. A Jewish person would enter the Temple to stand in God's presence (as it was believed that God resided in the innermost sanctuary of the Temple) and offer up sacrifices that would express thanksgiving, purge the guilt incurred by sin, or to offer a little from the gifts God had already given. The Temple was grand to behold after recent expansion and beautification projects initiated by Herod, King of Judea. Herod was a vassal king who paid tribute to Rome and its empire, ultimately receiving his authority from them. It was a place of regular pilgrimage and its centrality was expressed in the practice of praying towards the Temple (as remembered in later traditions).

Several centuries prior, communities would have their own shrines and altars that allowed them to partake in the sacrifices locally. These shrines were later outlawed as sacrificial worship centralized in Jerusalem. But approaching the first century, synagogues became another way for the Jewish people to relate to God through the Torah. The Torah, or instruction, referred specifically to the first five books of the Bible that tradition held came from God through Moses after God had sent Moses to proclaim the liberation of the Israelites from slavery under Egypt. In the process of the writing of the various books of the Bible, two things happened. On one hand, the Jewish people were intimately connected to the people of the biblical narrative so that later generations saw themselves in continuity with the earlier ones. On the other hand, as time went on the immediate circumstances recounted in the Bible became remote and needed to be applied to new circumstances guided on the same principals. As the various books of what we now know as the Bible were more widely circulated and codified through regular use in recitation and prayer, it became necessary to offer commentary within both the wider community and local communities. It was in this area that the synagogues proved useful. They were a natural place for the community to gather, to listen to the Torah (and by this time the term "Torah" was more widely applied to wisdom literature and the prophetic writings that proliferated in subsequent centuries), and to hear commentary and discuss the meaning of the Torah.

After the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in the year 70 AD, it was the Judaism of the synagogues that allowed the Jewish people to continue as a corporate entity. Judaism as it is practiced today in all of its varieties stems from them. 

I like to imagine the scene just moments before Jesus stood up to read from the scroll of the prophet of Isaiah and offered his short (though scandalous) commentary. The main image I muster is from Franco Zeffirelli's teleplay "Jesus of Nazareth". Scripted by Anthony Burgess (author of the controversial "A Clockwork Orange") and others, the filmmakers sought to present a more human version of Jesus. With the exception of perhaps one scene (Peter's confession of Jesus being the Messiah), I can't think of any special effect used throughout the film. Instead of desacralizing Jesus, the reliance on the basic narrative and the words of Jesus in the Gospels only heightens the mystery of Jesus in a way that more pious accounts (King of Kings, the Greatest Story Ever Told) do not. Sometimes, it is best to simply let the Gospels speak for themselves.

The scene of Jesus reading the Isaiah scroll seems typical and mundane. A fictionalized rabbi is the mark of continuity between the Nazareth of Jesus' childhood and and the day he reveals himself to his community in Nazareth. In a way, it is just as remarkable as the transfiguration account where Jesus appears luminous and flanked by the long-dead Moses and Elijah to three of his followers as God the Father pronounces divine approval on his son. Instead of ethereal visions and theophonies, it is merely Jesus, synagogue attendees, and a scroll.

This is Zeffirelli's version of the scene:

Since the dawn of reproducible audio and video, we're used to seeing revolutions sparked with words, crowds, and immediate movement. I've seen so many clips of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I have a dream" speech and I've watched interviews with Mother Teresa. I've seen how much you can motivate a crowd with Queen's Live Aid set at Wembley Stadium and watched videos of soldiers surprise their spouses and children after spending a long time abroad. We all intuitively understand how group dynamics work, even at a basic level. We've all probably sat or stood in crowds as they experience a shift in their thinking. It can be exhilarating, it can be horrifying, or it can be a little bit of both. 

Great numbers don't necessarily correlate with the significance of an event. In the 2002 film 24 Hour Party People, a slightly fictionalized Tony Wilson (Steve Coogan) illustrates the illusion of numbers: "The smaller the attendance the bigger the history. There were 12 people at the last supper. Half a dozen at Kitty Hawk. Archimedes was on his own in the bath." Our scene with Jesus, the crowd, and the scroll in the synagogue is explosive without the benefit of a stadium or packed theater. It starts out subdued, even awkward. He catches the community off-guard in what was routine and simply says something - a little something - that interrupts the flow of things:

He stood up to read and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah.He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written:  

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.  

Rolling up the scroll,he handed it back to the attendant and sat down,and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him.He said to them,“Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”

At first blush, "today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing" may not sound very revolutionary, but it doesn't take saying much to upend an entire system. I was re-watching Richard Attenborough's film version of the life of Mahatma Gandhi and he captures this very beautifully. Gandhi is put on trial for upsetting the laws of the British Empire. They threaten him with prison to make an example out of him, setting bail at a low enough amount to make a statement. Gandhi simply refuses to pay it because he doesn't recognize the law as a fair law:


You have been ordered out of the
province on the grounds of disturbing the peace.


With respect, I refuse to go. 


Do you want to go to jail? 

(not giving him an inch) 
As you wish. 

(as much sternness as he can muster) 

All right. I will release you on 
bail of one hundred rupees until I 
reach a sentence. 


I refuse to pay one hundred rupees. 

Then I -- I will grant release without bail -- until I reach a decision.

Jesus' words "today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing" are loaded with hundreds of years of expectation and anticipation. The passage from Isaiah is believed to refer to a coming Messiah that God would send just as he had sent judges, kings, and prophets to guide and govern his people as well as to blot out injustice. In Jesus' own centuries, false messiahs would claim the role and fail.

The expectation of the Messiah figured greatly into the popular imagination of the Jewish people as well. Of all the important issues we can deal with as people, it's not abnormal to see things primarily through the lens of our own pressing problems. During an election year we see things through our own problems as well as those issues that are dear to us. It was no different at Jesus' time and the Jewish people saw things through the lens of Roman occupation, the loss of self-governance, and the fragmentation in religious leadership. That the Messiah was believed to have been long promised by God would have moved people to wonder how bad things could possibly get before God noticed. In the book of Exodus, it takes 400 years before God delivered the Israelites out of Egypt. It took 40 years to take them through the wilderness. It took several generations before they had a king and several more for religious reform. All the while things were getting worse and good people would experience their faith in God as an extended ordeal.He keeps his promises and provides for the daily needs of those who are faithful to him, but within the Hebrew Bible the systemic problems tend to play out over a longer span of time.

Imagine sitting in the crowd in the synagogue the day Jesus spoke up: The day is a Sabbath so there had been 6 days of work preceding that moment. In that week you would have seen Roman soldiers and how they treated your fellow countrymen. You would have recited daily the Shema Yisrael that had been given to the people of Israel through Moses at the cusp of their receiving the fullness of God's promise of deliverance in the form of a homeland that would belong to them, purging the land of those who had usurped that land for themselves. You would have had to calculate how much of your income would have to go to the Romans in the form of taxes, benefiting them far more than they would benefit you. In Nazareth, you would've still been aware of Roman intrusion into the governance and even the worship of your people. God's promise and deliverance would've been welcomed and hoped for, but it was certainly not something to joke about.

And certainly it was not up to a peasant carpenter whose parents were well known to you (as Nazareth was far from a prominent town in size or stature) and whose capabilities had already been long measured up so that to claim that God's ultimate promise of deliverance was coming through him would've been unthinkable.

"Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing." In a moment, Jesus announces the coming of God and proclaiming God's immanent deliverance with a relative whisper. It happens with hardly anything changing between the immediate moments before or after his speaking other than the strangeness and discomfort that the words produced precisely because of their audacity. Perhaps it should've been a grander entrance...but it is not.
And as Jesus is wont to do, he does not settle for addressing pious expectations but also provides the divine discomfort that God had created throughout the biblical narrative. God is not merely coming...his arrival changes everything. He is defying expectations as much as he is meeting them. God is coming not only to His own people but also to those who have antagonized and oppressed them as well. He comes to the wise and the ignorant and it will be those who already feel righteous that will feel passed over. He makes things uncomfortable for everyone, risking violent disapproval for knowing nods. 
"For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts." (Isaiah 55:8-9)

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