Don’t Throw Jesus Off The Cliff
Religious bouncers have no place in Jesus’ community
One minute you’re a rock-star celebrity, and in the next instant, that crowd of adoring fans transforms into a hostile mob ready to throw you off the cliff.
How Jesus came to find himself teetering on the edge of a cliff, mauled and manhandled by a mob with murder in their eyes, is one of those strange stories in the Bible that nobody ever talks about. If the story has a moral, maybe it’s this:
Don’t throw Jesus off the cliff.
To get to the moral of the story, let’s begin with the events of one fateful morning at a synagogue in Nazareth. Then, we’ll look briefly at social theory and how it relates to our faith. Finally, we’ll ponder the way in which American evangelicals are, today, rushing to throw Jesus off the cliff.
First, the story.
When Jesus and his entourage rolled into town, the folks in Nazareth rolled out the red carpet. This was Jesus’ first visit back home since he began his itinerant ministry, but he was already attracting attention for his innovative teaching and, more so, his miracle working. Something good had finally come from Nazareth. So when Jesus arrived, he was invited to read the scripture and say a few words at the synagogue.
Jesus rolled out the scroll and read a well-known passage from the prophet Isaiah, a real crowd pleaser.
“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.”
For a people suffocating in poverty, in desperate need of hearing some good news, this is an applause line.
“He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor …”
The crowd is eating it up. They are broken-hearted, suffering under the grinding boot of the Roman Empire. They cheer the promise of freedom from their oppressor, release from the darkness of military occupation.
Leaning forward now, attentive to their hometown hero, hanging on every word ...
“Today, these words are fulfilled.”
With a dramatic flourish, Jesus rolls up the scroll. I imagine Jesus putting the emphasis on “THESE words.” Emphasizing “THESE words,” because Jesus didn’t read the full passage. He stopped short. He omitted the best part, the final verse.
Isaiah actually concluded this passage by declaring, “the day of vengeance of our God.” God would wreak vengeance on their enemies! A day of reckoning would come, when God would turn the tables and the good old days of Israel’s mighty kingdom would be restored. The Romans would get the punishment they deserved.
But Jesus left out that part. Apparently his hometown fans didn’t notice, at first, what Jesus was doing, because “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips.” If they would have had cell phones in Jesus’ day, I’m sure they would all be held aloft and swaying.
So Jesus underscored his point, by replacing Isaiah’s condemnation with his own commentary. And that’s when it all unraveled.
Jesus gives a brief history lesson of the time when, after three and half years of drought and severe famine, the prophet Elijah was sent to a widow outside Israel, in the land of the Phoenecians (homeland of the infamous Queen Jezebel and the center of idolatrous Baal worship). Jesus reminded his listeners that the widow whom God elected to save from starvation was from the wrong religion, a different race, a foreign culture. There were plenty of Israelite widows who were starving, but they were not saved.
Jesus reminded his listener’s that another ancient prophet, Elisha, was sent to heal Naaman, also a pagan idol worshiper, and worse, a Syrian military leader, who suffered from leprosy. The Syrians were, like the Romans, military oppressors of Israel. Hated enemies. There were plenty of lepers in Israel, but they weren’t healed. Elisha only healed the enemy.
The point of both stories, as interpreted by Jesus, was God’s favoring the pagans over the Israelites. God’s love transcends national boundaries, ethnicity, even religion. God blessed the bad guys instead of the good guys. God saved and healed those with the wrong religion, from the wrong places, instead of his own people.
That was too much.
In the space of a dozen verses here in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, the hometown crowd went from applauding Jesus to throwing him off the cliff.
“All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff.”
Fortunately, Jesus escaped. Luke writes, with a frustrating lack of specific details, that Jesus “walked right through the crowd and went on his way.”
What inspired such venom from Jesus’ childhood friends and lifelong neighbors? The same thing that inspires such enmity among Christians today.
We expect God to favor our tribe. We assume divine approval of those who are most like us, who speak the same language and eat the same kind of food and vote the same way.
We create clear lines of division to help us identify the good guys (us) and the bad guys (them). We erect elaborate fences to separate ourselves from The Other. To make clear who is in and who is out, who is accepted and who is rejected, who is approved and who is denounced.
Somehow we think that, if our line-drawing and fence-building is based on religious rather than ethnic or racial differences, it is justified, even sanctified.
This is an example of what sociologists call “bounded set”
Boundaries are set to define our group, boundary lines based upon how we read the Bible, whether we recite the creeds, who we baptize. Did they say the right prayer? Are they saved, or not?
What is important is to determine who is inside the boundary lines, and who is outside the boundary lines. Those who fall outside the boundary lines are at best deficient, if not eternally condemned.
Most of our energy is spent patrolling the perimeter. Boundaries are hardened, walls get higher. Religious bouncers, whether Franklin Graham or John Piper, whether your local pastor or your favorite celebrity preacher, police the membership and render their verdicts.
We stand guard to protect our group from those on the outside … and just as important, to maintain the status quo on the inside. It’s a static, defensive posture. It is modern, white, evangelical Christianity.
Jesus transgressed the boundary line that day in Nazareth because he refused to be trapped in a bounded-set religion
Instead, Jesus espoused what sociologists call “centered set.” A centered-set group isn’t so concerned about defining itself, about excluding those who fail the litmus test. Instead, a centered-set group embraces a center toward which we all desire to move and around which we orbit. More relevant than where you find yourself currently situated, is to be always moving toward the center.
If Jesus is the center, membership becomes irrelevant. Bounded-set faith is about membership; centered-set faith is about inclusiveness and a generous orthodoxy.
In their book, “The Shaping of Things to Come,” Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch illustrate the difference between bounded-set and centered-set:
In some farming communities, the farmers might build fences around their properties to keep their livestock in and the livestock of neighboring farms out. This is a bounded set. But in rural communities where farms or ranches cover an enormous geographic area, fencing the property is out of the question. In our home of Australia, ranches (called stations) are so vast that fences are superfluous. Under these conditions a farmer has to sink a bore and create a well, a precious water supply in the Outback. It is assumed that livestock, though they will stray, will never roam too far from the well, lest they die. That is a centered set. As long as there is a supply of clean water, the livestock will remain close by.
Jesus was a centered-set practitioner who challenged the bounded-set mentality of the religious elites and governing authorities. Jesus was always inviting the outsiders to come in, welcoming the outcasts, embracing those who were considered unclean, pushing beyond the religious and cultural norms for the sake of compassion.
Jesus continues to challenge our borders and boundaries
To follow in the footsteps of Jesus means we transcend the old boundaries. We reject the old vision that demanded (and looked forward to) “the day of vengeance of our God.” Vengeance against our enemies is replaced by love for our enemies. The table is not so much turned, as it is enlarged, to make space for everyone. The stranger is welcomed. There is no such thing as an outsider because “outside” depends on defining boundary lines that no longer exist.
Jesus practiced the priority of love, compassion, hospitality to all. When these practices crashed up against the religious barriers erected by tradition — and even by holy scripture — Jesus transcended the barriers and erased the boundaries.
We follow Jesus by discarding the old doctrinal litmus tests. This bounded-set mentality has never actually worked in the history of Christianity, but we have such poor institutional memory (or are blinded by such spiritual arrogance) that we fail to realize it. I’m currently re-reading John Philip Jenkins’ excellent book “Jesus Wars,” an historic account of the development of the church creeds during the fourth and fifth centuries (such as the Nicene Creed that is still recited in many churches today and is often used as a measuring rod of orthodoxy). Most of us would consider this a golden age of orthodoxy and unity of the faith, but the harsh reality is that political ambition and military violence significantly influenced the early church councils. This was a rancorous, divisive, and intolerant time for the church … as much so, if not more, than today.
From its earliest years, continuing to the present day, attempts to create a bounded-set big-C Church based on doctrinal purity have resulted only in violence and oppression and ugly conflict that tarnishes our witness before the world. It never works. It never has, and it never will. We have to find a better way to define ourselves than by drawing and re-drawing more and more constrictive boundary lines.
Religious bouncers have no place in Jesus’ community because grace, by definition, is a centered-set reality.
Grace overcomes barriers and bridges differences. Grace is inconsistent with bounded-set gatekeeping and wallbuilding and exclusion.
That’s because grace turns our attention in a different direction. Instead of selfishly evaluating another person’s faith in relation to our self-imposed boundary for the benefit of our own tribe, we’re more interested in each person’s relation to Jesus. Are they — are we — moving closer in relationship to Jesus, to a Jesus-oriented and Jesus-inspired life?
More importantly, instead of worrying over whether another person is one of “us,” our attention is spent on welcoming each person where they are, compassionately meeting their needs, loving them into a more healthy orbit toward the center, and trusting the gravitational pull of Jesus will attract them in the right direction. We embrace a new job description: Not doctrinal police, but healing partners. We embrace a new relationship with others: Not targets for recruitment, but friends.
When we create division, when we separate the world into Us and Them, when we banish our neighbors to hell, we become part of that Nazarene crowd … the exclusive crowd, the arrogant crowd, the murderous crowd. The crowd who, in their zeal to enforce the boundaries, rejected Jesus.
The crowd of Jesus fans who turned against him because they hated The Other more than they loved The One.
Don’t join the crowd. Don’t throw Jesus off the cliff.