During our Christmas Season, we heard two passages from Luke’s gospel in which he mentions the names of powerful and political characters. When introducing us to the birth of Jesus, the evangelist does so “In those days [when] a decree went out from Caesar Augustus… when Quirinius was Governor of Syria…” Later we read the following: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was tetrarch of Galilee, and his brother Philip tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias was tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John the son of Zechariah in the desert.” In this way, Luke reminds us of the beginning of the ministry of John the Baptist. This device of the author of the gospel is to make it very clear to us that salvation - far from being just a mystical reality - is worked out in the ordinary days of human history. In other words, our salvation is not a disembodied spiritual idea, but rather a very real and concrete experience, grounded firmly in the living of our lives. This is a very important point to keep in mind as we move forward now through Ordinary Time, and we hear the Gospel of Luke being proclaimed.
Today’s gospel sees Jesus returning to Nazareth following his baptism at the hands of John, and his time of prayer in the desert apart from everyone else. Jesus has prepared himself for what is about to unfold, at least as best he can or knows how, at this point. The passage introduces us to a powerful truth about how Jesus lived his life in relationship to his Father. Jesus prays with scripture, and listens for the word of God to him to be found there. He listens to the word and he acts in response to the word. So profound is Jesus’ faithfulness to the word of God that the early church came to see in the person of Jesus the “living” Word of God-made-flesh. This understanding amplifies the point shared by Luke in today’s gospel passage: “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”
The Jesus that is portrayed for us in Luke’s gospel is a pretty radical fellow. Because Jesus endeavors to live his life in response to the Word of God, because he is the living Word of God for us, it is no surprise that he calls us to live differently. He calls us to be different with and for one another in the world. Luke’s is the gospel in which the Blessed Mother proclaims the casting-down of the well-to-do and the lifting up of the lowliest of the low, the anawim. Luke’s is the gospel of a world turned upside-down. In this gospel we read of a Jesus more comfortable in his enjoyment of the company of sinners and tax-collectors than he is in his encounters with the pharisaical judges of his time. Luke presents Jesus to us as someone who cares little for a person’s background but is instead embracing of their possibility, their potential. We read of Jesus preferring his time with Samaritans, foreigners, tax-collectors, lepers, widows, the poor, and “sinners,” essentially anyone who was a social outcast.
That’s really staggering for we who live in a very different world. Two thousand years later we live in a world where people are more likely to clamor to be part of the “in-crowd,” in a world in which people crave social acceptance, in a world in which those whom Jesus loved and respected are ignored, disrespected, and thought of as “less than.”
Who are the nameless in our own lives? Who might we rather not know, rather not see, rather not hear? Who are the people we cut out of our social circles? Who are the people we clump together, giving them anonymous, catch-all labels, rather than discover their names or appreciate their humanity?
The example of Jesus calls us to turn our backs on entitlement and privilege, and instead to consider how we might embrace the untouchable and the castigated of our own times. Luke’s Jesus invites us to live lives of humility and indiscriminate hospitality. He invites us to live lives in which those who are often nameless in our communities, in our neighborhood, have their names lifted up and celebrated. In this way we give personal witness to the God who raises up the lowly.
I know it’s radical… but so too is the idea that we are saved by the grace of God in Jesus Christ.