I imagine that most of us would consider loyalty to be a positive thing. We all want loyal friends and loyal spouses and partners. We want loyal leaders in the organizations to which we belong. We want loyal family members and loyal pets. And we are conditioned to display loyalty ourselves, too. God, of course, is deserving of our loyalty. Friends depend on our loyalty in return for theirs. Businesses expect loyalty from consumers. If loyalty to country morphs into treason, well, the penalty is dire. Some of us might be thinking particularly of loyalty on this day, when I gather there is an important game scheduled for this evening. While loyalty levels in this city might not be quite as high as last year, perhaps, for lack of a better choice, you’ve settled on a team to root for. There’s always some team to which you can lend your support. Because loyalty, after all, is basically a good thing, isn’t it?
And so it’s not surprising that the citizens of Nazareth hoped for at least a little loyalty from Jesus, the local boy. This son of Joseph, who had gained quite a following outside of his hometown, has returned to his synagogue. As we heard in last week’s Gospel, which continues in today’s reading, Jesus quotes from the prophet Isaiah and announces something amazing to all gathered. The poor will be recipients of his good news. Captives will be released. The blind will recover their sight. The oppressed will go free. It is the year of the Lord’s favor. On top of that, Jesus proclaims that he is the fulfillment of Isaiah’s hopeful words. Could it get any better than this for little old Nazareth?
If you were a resident of that town and were blind or were feeling a bit oppressed by the Roman government or knew someone who was unjustly imprisoned wouldn’t you have hung on every word that Jesus uttered in that synagogue? Scripture tells us that this is exactly what happened. The eyes of all who heard him were riveted on Jesus, and they were amazed at his gracious words. It certainly didn’t seem unreasonable for this hometown notable to offer some special favor to his fellow citizens. Can’t you hear the unspoken expectations of those listening to Jesus? “Jesus, we raised you in this town.” “Jesus, we nurtured you in this synagogue.” “Jesus, you are one of us.” Do something for us. Now.
But Jesus utterly disappoints. He draws on imagery from Israel’s Scriptures to remind his fellow townspeople that even Elijah, in days of old, was not sent by God to one of the myriad number of needy widows in Israel. He was sent instead to a widow in Sidon, in forbidden Gentile country. Similarly, the prophet Elisha was directed not to an Israelite leper but to a Gentile one. In the presence of hometown folk, in the company of those who expected some allegiance from him in return for having raised him up and for being one of them, Jesus announces that God has sent him to work wonders not in his hometown but in other places. God has other plans. This is not Nazareth’s lucky day. Jesus is bringing God’s good news to all people, even to those who were anathema to the residents of Nazareth.
So can you blame Jesus’s townsfolk for being enraged? Would it have hurt Jesus to work even some small act of favor in his hometown? Couldn’t he have been just a bit more devoted to his own clan? After all, we’ve already established that loyalty is virtuous, a basic characteristic of a well-ordered society and community.
Or have we? Because how can loyalty be virtuous when devotion to one group, cause, or view has become an idol that is at odds with God’s unfathomable purposes in the world? When Jesus makes his proclamation in the synagogue, the residents of Nazareth have already convinced themselves that they are the intended recipients of God’s favor. They have it all figured out. Since Jesus is one of them, he will do something for them. They are thus befuddled and angered when they hear that Gentiles—outsiders, those not like them—are to be blessed by God. And because they cannot cope with their disappointed expectations, they revolt and attempt to throw Jesus off a cliff.
Doesn’t this sound familiar? It doesn’t take too much mental stamina to look at history or to look around us today and see people being thrown off cliffs because they have challenged or are challenging anticipated loyalties. Whether recognized prophets of history or contemporary people who simply want to speak a word of truth, it’s no news flash that truth aligned with God’s desires is often what people don’t want to hear because it pushes the limits of their worldview or of their pride. And when confronted with such provocative truth, there usually is a fork in the road: follow God or follow the idols of our loyalties.
Ultimately, loyalties, whether rightly directed or misdirected, bring a sense of comfort, don’t they? The familiar becomes the expected, and the expected becomes what we worship. The end result is fear, fear that if we betray our loyalties we will lose out, we will be alone, or we will face an uncertain, unfamiliar future. It’s much easier to stick with the idols of our misshapen loyalties because at least they’re convenient.
Unyielding loyalty to party membership frequently supersedes loyalty towards realizing the Gospel in the world, which requires its own loyal hands to work for justice, peace, and the dignity of every single person, regardless of what they look like or what they believe or where they come from. Is it too much to imagine that God might ask us to transcend human-created loyalties in order to do his will in the world? Is it too much to imagine that God’s favor might be extended to people who don’t share the same loyalties as we do? Humans are pretty good at limiting God’s power and are not so good at trusting that God can do far more than we can ask or imagine.
Devotion to a particular religion or denomination might even surpass devotion to God, because what a religion or denomination represents can mistakenly become the image of God in people’s minds. Outside the Church, earthly leaders demand unswerving loyalty to the extent that should you question a decision made or an action taken, you might be thrown off a cliff. And the supposedly faithful friend who writes you off because you question the morality of a deed done or left undone has misunderstood what loyalty is all about.
The lingering question, a question acutely present in our current state of affairs in this country or across the globe, is whether God’s voice of truth can continue to be heard in a world wracked by misshapen fidelities. Have warped loyalties squeezed out any chance of human loyalty to God’s word? Must every prophet of God or every speaker of truth be thrown off a cliff or assassinated or deprived of a voice? The situation seems to be one of great despair until we recognize that there is a profound difference between God’s loyalty to us and the loyalty we often demand of God. While we play quid pro quo with God, we forget that God doesn’t work that way. We are the recipients of God’s gracious favor even though we fall short on our faithfulness to God time and time again. God is faithful. And even when it seems like there is no room for God’s word of truth to get through to us because everyone is throwing prophets off cliffs, God’s gracious favor passes through the midst of it all and goes on its way to reach willing ears, hungry for some truth.
For however much we barter with God, and however tempting it is to expect that God’s loyal response to our prayers will result in special favor on our own terms, God slips past the limits we attempt to impose on him. God reaches those who need him, even if those people are beyond what we could ever have anticipated. And God reaches us, too, in the process.
Though God’s people build walls as they close ranks out of blind allegiance and fear, God’s word breaks through the cracks to reach those who especially need to encounter his blessing. Because the word of God is sharper than any two-edged sword and can pierce its way through the calcified hardness of human hearts.
Thank God that he doesn’t seek out only the places we want him to seek out. Thank God that he doesn’t occupy only the turf of the hometowns of our hearts, or of our particular parishes or of our particular civic organizations or of our particular country. God knows whom he needs to reach, and God will do so. For the question is not whether God is loyal to us but where our loyalties lie.
Preached by Father Kyle Babin
3 February 2019
Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia