Luke 4:21-30, Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time
From back in the Lord’s day up to today, the synagogue remains a consecrated place of prayer—Jews worshipped there, of learning—they studied the Torah there, & of social gathering—they came together to discuss religious matters there, too. Here are some rules in Jewish synagogues today. I quote from the “Laws of Synagogue Etiquette” by a Rabbi Eliezer Wenger. “No running around in the synagogue. Children in particular should be taught about the sanctity of the place. All must cover their heads—women must wear veils, and men, yarmulkes.Cellphones have no place in a synagogue. They disturb those who are praying, and secondly, most matters discussed on the phone are inappropriate talk in a synagogue. No reading of newspapers. No eating. No sleeping, though a nap is allowed. One may not use the synagogue as a shortcut; like, if the synagogue has two entrances on different sides of the street, and by entering one door and exiting the other, one could save time or steps. If it’s raining or hot outside, one must not enter the synagogue to keep dry or to avail of the air conditioner. One is not permitted to kiss one’s children, even small ones, in synagogue, for it is improper to display acts of affection to anyone in a synagogue other than to God. However, one may kiss a child who’s crying and needs to be calmed down with a kiss. But one is allowed to kiss the hand of the rabbi, for this is also the honor of God.” Those are some of today’s rules. So, can you imagine how much stricter they were back in the Lord’s day? In fact, one must be ritually pure to enter the synagogue back then. People who had major or minor impurities may not enter, or even touch any part of the synagogue until they were purified.
A “major impurity” was anything that caused one to be “impure” for seven days, like menstruation, or touching a dead human body, or being in the same room as a dead body, or engaging in physical intimacy with a woman during her period – major impurities. Examples of “minor impurities” would be : lustful behavior, nocturnal emission, touching a woman during her period, touching the carcass of a dead animal (must have been tough if you were a butcher or a cook), eating non-kosher food – minor impurities. That’s only some of the original synagogue rules back in the day.
Well, one day, Jesus comes into the synagogue, and reads from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, freedom for the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. Today, this passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” Normally, after reading from scripture, one delivers a commentary on it, to explain it, to exemplify. So, the religious authorities were awed at Jesus’ proficiency with scripture. But only in the beginning. Because that day does not end well for Jesus. His listeners’ awe turns into marauding rage. Jesus must’ve explained himself, saying: “Today, this passage is fulfilled in your hearing. I already am, and will continue, ministering to people whom we, Jews, prohibit entry into our synagogues, our temple, our religion, our lives. I already am and will continue ministering to people we reproach as impure, sinful, cursed by God,” he must have said. Maybe he even enumerated them: the women, lepers, the possessed, prostitutes, tax collectors, the blind, deaf, lame, the Samaritans, the non-Jews; in other words, everyone who needed the most loving and saving from God—but whom religious authorities precisely banned as impure. Unfortunately, the Jews have portrayed God as someone you could confidently and rightfully approach only if you were male, Jewish, sane, healthy, with vision, hearing, and limbs intact, and heterosexual. Otherwise, you are against the law, God does not welcome you. Now, if you had such a mentality, doesn’t it seem that we’ve turned God into a “synagogue,” too? A members-only, insular, turned in on himself, moral, religious elitist god? DO we understand God that way—as that kind of a “synagogue”?
Well, Jesus is God’s new “synagogue”, the new-Synagogue-Incarnate, so to speak. He is a walking synagogue with all the windows and doors thrown open, especially for those who need God’s healing and forgiveness the most; especially the contrite, the self-accusatory, the people inculpated for something they had absolutely no control over – inculpated for their gender, their illness, their biological functions, etc. Because if the religious elite have banned these people from going anywhere near the “synagogue”, well then, God’s Synagogue-Incarnate, Jesus of Nazareth, bill bring hilselg near them…with all his doors and windows thrown open! This the Good News of divine inclusivity. But this is infuriating news to the religious elitists. So they rise to their feet and try to overthrow this impure-loving “synagogue”. So just in case we forget that God is not a monolithic, members-only synagogue, we can turn to today’s second reading where Paul speaks of love. But God is love, isn’t her? So we can replace the word “love” with “God”. “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have God, I am but a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. If I can prophesy and fathom all mysteries and all knowledge and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have God, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have God, I gain nothing.” And then it get better. “God is patient. God is kind. God is not jealous. God is not pompous. God is not inflated. God is not rude. God does not seek his own interests, not quick-tempered. God does not keep a record of wrongs or broods over injury, nor does God rejoice over wrongdoing but rejoices with the truth. God bears all of us, believes all of us, hopes in all of us, endures all of us. God never fails.” And that is our God – a living, breathing “synagogue” with all the doors and windows of his heart thrown wide, wide open!