How Jesus made more and more enemies

It is never easy to proclaim values that are diametrically opposed to prevailing values. Jesus often discovered it the hard way, when he proclaimed a God of love and compassion.

Feb 27, 2021

By Anil Netto
It is never easy to proclaim values that are diametrically opposed to prevailing values. Jesus often discovered it the hard way, when he proclaimed a God of love and compassion.

On the face of it, the values he proclaimed – love, compassion, justice, mercy, forgiveness – were non-threatening to the status quo in Roman-occupied First Century Palestine.

After all, how could someone preaching love – even if it was radical love – be seen as a threat?

But taken to its logical conclusion, the radical love that Jesus proclaimed often got him into trouble. In the Gospels, we can see the tension building up right from the word go. 

Remember the scene in Luke 4, where Jesus proclaimed his ‘mission statement’?

18 The spirit of the Lord is on me, for he has anointed me to bring the good news to the afflicted. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives, sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,

19 to proclaim a year of favour from the Lord.

20 He then rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the assistant and sat down. And all eyes in the synagogue were fixed on him.

21 Then he began to speak to them, ‘This text is being fulfilled today even while you are listening.’ 

What was the reaction of the onlookers? 
22 And he won the approval of all, and they were astonished by the gracious words that came from his lips. They said, ‘This is Joseph’s son, surely?’ Inspiring words, they must have thought. But then, when Jesus spells out how inclu sive this new kingdom will be, by citing two examples from Scripture, the mood sours.

25 “There were many widows in Israel, I can assure you, in Elijah’s day, when heaven was shut for three years and six months and a great famine raged throughout the land,

26 but Elijah was not sent to any one of these: he was sent to a widow at Zarephath, a town in Sidonia.

27 And in the prophet Elisha's time there were many suffering from virulent skin-diseases in Israel, but none of these was cured -- only Naaman the Syrian.”

What was the reaction of the listeners?
When they heard this everyone in the synagogue was enraged.

29 They sprang to their feet and hustled him out of the town; and they took him up to the brow of the hill their town was built on, intending to throw him off the cliff…

What was in these anecdotes that so enraged these bully boys, when only moments earlier they had gushed their approval? The problem was that Jesus extended his vision of the kingdom to people outside the circle of the audience. This audience in the synagogue had regarded themselves as favoured in God’s sight; after all, they were part of the practising faithful, the chosen ones.  

They would have known that the widow Jesus was referring to was from outside Israel at a time when idolatry was flourishing. And Naaman was an army commander in Syria who was suffering from a skin disease or leprosy.

That was a double, even triple whammy in the eyes of the audience – how could God favour such foreigners, one a destitute widow (looked down upon by society, a woman at that), the other a foreign military man with a skin disease (wrongly) associated with impurity.

The audience didn’t like being reminded how God reached out to the foreigners through his prophets. God had found more faith there than among those who prided themselves as practising believers. No wonder the audience was upset! No wonder Jesus found out the hard way that a true prophet is rarely accepted in his or her own circle.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus would be constantly challenged each time he proclaimed the real deeper implications of the kingdom he was proclaiming – for healing, radical love, distributive justice, empathy with society’s outcasts. He had to constantly remind listeners about what God expects and what true faith is all about.

Today, many Christians have a hard time imagining a kingdom where our imaginary barriers are broken down – racial, religious, national, territorial, social class, gender, our notions of  what is clean and unclean. We have our own prejudices against those outside our regular circle.

We have a hard time reaching out to the Other, much less imagining that they could somehow find favour with God.

As Jesus ministry continued, the list of his enemies grew longer – the spies, the religious superstructure of the time, the wealthy who lived in luxury at the expense of the people. The worst condemnations were reserved for those who were exploiting religion and oppressing the people for wealth, status and power.

Others, like the zealots, misunderstood Jesus as a messiah who would bring about political liberation. But Jesus knew that such liberation without a change in the value system of society would be meaningless.

It is not a surprise then that Jesus often asked those he healed to play it down. His ministry was incomplete and he knew how easily his vision could be misunderstood and distorted. Many came to worship him without understanding the depth of his vision of the kingdom, which he proclaimed with so much passion.

As more people saw him as a threat, Jesus would have realised the enormous risks he was taking. Things finally came to a head when he cast his sights on the Temple in Jerusalem. He would have known that his earthly ministry would be cut short.

No, bringing about a new kingdom based on radical values was never going to be easy. As Mandela once famously said of his vision for South Africa: “It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

Such selflessness and determination for a transformed world can only come about with great sacrificial love. And ultimately, Jesus’ vision of the kingdom was vindicated.

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