Trying on the Shroud


–Ancient mosaic of Nazareth

Jeremiah 1:4-10; Luke 4: 21-30

I’m sometimes puzzled by the italicized headings in my Bible. Take this episode in the 4th chapter of Luke. It’s labeled ‘the rejection of Jesus by his townsfolk.’  I agree that trying to hurl someone over a cliff is  a pretty emphatic form of rejection. All the same, I think it’d be fairer to call this passage ‘the not all that unsurprising reaction of his kinsmen to a very petulant Jesus,’ or more succinctly, “Jesus provokes his neighbors to violence.’

What’s wrong with neighbors fawning over you? Isn’t it a perfectly human and ordinary thing to be proud of a newly famous hometown kid, and even to congratulate yourselves that maybe you had something to do with his success? Why is Jesus determined to preempt their 15 minutes of fame?  They barely get through their burst of amazement when he starts flinging accusations at them.

“You will doubtless say, ‘Doctor, cure yourself…’” Well, no, there’s no indication at all that they were going to say that. But he taunts them anyway with Bible stories about God extending to outsiders the mercy usually reserved for insiders. It doesn’t take long for them to get his drift: “That’s what I’m doing. You say you love me, but when I start acting like the God of these stories, you’ll try to kill me. So why should I do any miracles for you?”

Oh my. Of course, he’s right about the future, and he’s right about them. But they’re not hostile now, they’re not angry yet. Why pick a fight? The text doesn’t say, but this testy Jesus reminds me of people I know who suffer what hasn’t happened yet. Psychologists call it anticipatory grief. You know something bad is on the horizon and you feel its pain long before it arrives. Far be it from me to play shrink to my Savior, but Jesus’ baiting of his kinfolk at the outset of his prophetic career smacks of anticipatory grief.

It’s why Jeremiah manufactures all those reasons to say no to God’s call “to build up and to tear down, to plant and to destroy.” It’s that tearing down and destroying part he’s worried about, the part of prophesying that, as another preacher noted, makes it unlikely that prophets will die peacefully in their beds. There’s no such thing as a successful career based on trashing people’s sensibilities. Everybody knows that. So when the young Jeremiah finally says yes, he knows he’s just agreed, if not to a death sentence, at least to a really hard and thankless life.

At the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus is fast-forwarding to the worst case scenario, rehearsing a violent end at the beginning of his mission, trying on the shroud he will be buried in three years later, forcing the hometown folks to play their part and put it on him so that he can get a feel for its texture and dimensions, a feel for the role, the pattern of a prophet’s short and dangerous life.

Maybe it’s practice. And if it is, it poses a question for us.

Have we tried on any shrouds lately? Do we know the size we’re going to need? In what ways have we been rehearsing, even provoking the wrath to come—the wrath of the insiders who sense that they’re implicated in the great sin of mercilessness but can’t face it, and think that killing the messenger safeguards their illusion of righteousness? Have we been scrimmaging and skirmishing enough, flirting with the edges of cliffs, so that when the big battle comes down the road, we will be ready to see it through unflinchingly to the bitter end?

If Jesus is practicing, it poses a question for us. For us who say we believe in the merciful inclusive God and believe we’re totally with the program. For us who think of ourselves as the wideners of circles and the welcomers of all. For us who are so persuaded that God loves everybody without exception that we get provoked by the narrowness of those who don’t and commit mental violence against them, figuratively throwing them off cliffs of our own. For us who talk a good game. For us who must humbly confess that we have a long way to go in the business of following Jesus to the bottom of things, over the edge and into life.