Without a Trace of Partiality

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January 18, 2015

Without a Trace of Partiality

Passage: Luke 4:14–30

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of  sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free.        —Luke 4:18

Sometimes when you’ve been away from home for a long time–at college, or in your first job in Denver or Dallas, or raising your own young family in Portland–all you want to do is to get back home–at Thanksgiving, or Christmas, or to that place by the lake where you spent every childhood summer.

But coming home isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. I was thinking about Jim Harbaugh coming back to his old home town in Ann Arbor and his alma mater at Michigan, after almost 30 years away in Chicago and California, and no sooner does he get there than he has to watch the National Championship game to discover that his arch rival’s third string quarterback–third string–is better than any quarterback Michigan has ever had since Tom Brady 14 years ago. This is Ohio State; this is the team he has to beat; this is the team that if he doesn’t beat, he’ll get fired–again. Third string. Sometimes you have mixed feelings about coming home.

Same with Jesus. Jesus comes home to Nazareth after a long absence. I don’t know how long he’d been away, but Luke gives the impression that he’d spent his young adulthood in Judea, the environs of Jerusalem, 100 miles south of Galilee.

And then he yearns for home. And when he gets there Mother Mary convinces him to preach a sermon at the local synagogue where he’d been raised and schooled, where he learned Hebrew and the 23rd Psalm and the books of the Bible in order like our own third-graders.

The rabbi at the synagogue hands him a scroll from the prophet Isaiah, and Jesus rolls it out till he finds what he’s looking for, chapter 61, verse 1: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release for the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”

And then Jesus wraps the whole seditious sermon up by saying, with alarming chutzpah, “Today, right here, right now, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And then he sits down, to the amazement of all.

Maybe he did it on purpose, or maybe he had no idea how this sermon would impact the schoolteachers and neighbors who’d taught him since he was a little boy in short pants. You know how when you’re young and pre-establishment, you’re sometimes blissfully ignorant about how your new ideas are going to sound to the old establishment. But whatever his intention, he succeeds in making the congregation mad as hell, so mad they try to throw him off a cliff.

One of the reasons they’re so mad is the way he ended his sermon: “Today, right here, right now, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” he says after reading a beloved, 600-year-old messianic promise from the prophet Isaiah. Right here, right now, in my person, this messianic promise has been fulfilled. That’s a comment that is beyond brazen and well on its way to blasphemous.

But another reason he made them so mad is because he declared in no uncertain terms and with transparent purpose whose side he intends to be on. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to preach good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, release for the captives, liberty for the oppressed.”

In other words Jesus declares that he is going to be on the side of everybody who is not there in that Nazareth synagogue to hear that sermon. The poor, the prisoner, and the oppressed aren’t there. You know who’s there? Shopkeeps, bread-bakers, vintners, carpenters, schoolteachers, whatever passed for rich tycoons in first-century Nazareth, the same kind of folk who are here this morning: respectable, hard-working, middle-class folk. Jesus says that he intends to be on the side of people who are always on the edges of polite society, in the shadows, the unwanted, sometimes the troublemakers.

I thought it would be a good story for us to hear on this holiday weekend when America is being roiled by a stubborn racial divide that just won’t go away 150 years after the end of the Civil War. Some of us are horrified by a war on cops personified by riots in Ferguson and the assassination of two policemen in New York City.

Others of us are equally horrified that unarmed black men keep getting killed in Ferguson, Cleveland, Staten Island, and Florida. But wherever you stand on this issue, it’s clear that we have a racial problem.

In 1992, a 23-year-old black man wrote, “In the jewelry store, they lock the case when I walk in. In the shoe store, they help the white man who walks in after me. In the shopping mall, they follow me.”

This young black man had recently graduated from Stanford University, where he was president of the senior class, and had just been named a Rhodes Scholar, and would soon matriculate and then graduate from Yale University Law School. His name is Corey Booker, and today he is the junior United States Senator from New Jersey.[1]

In what might be the most practical and commonsense book of the New Testament, St. James writes, “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality.”

What James means to say, I think, is that worldly wisdom has its place in our lives, but it is not enough.   We do the best we can under our own very human intelligences, but it does not lead to that harvest of righteousness we all strive toward. We need the wisdom from above. We need a wisdom which comes from God. That wisdom is pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, and without a trace of partiality.

I love the way James puts it: without a trace of partiality. Partiality is endemic to human nature. A long evolutionary process of the survival of the fittest has built into human nature a suspicion of the other and the different, and so we are partial for what we know; we are partial for what is familiar; we are partial to those we love; we are partial to those who look like us and sound like us and dress like us.

The wisdom that comes from God, on the other hand, is blind to the superficial differences that mark and bless the polychromatic, polyglot, double-gendered motley of the human family, things like gender and race and skin color and ethnicity and strange tongues and different dress and sexual orientation.

Or, if the wisdom that comes from above, this wisdom that is without a trace of partiality, is not quite colorblind, it will notice those shallow, surface differences like gender and skin color only when those distinctions are joys and blessings to us.

Without a trace of partiality, we might notice these superficial differences when we read a book only a woman could write, or hear a symphony that only a German could compose, or listen to a song only a black man could rap, or appreciate a painting only a Dutchman could draw, or wear a dress only a Frenchwoman could design, or witness an act of piety only a Muslim could make, or watch an opera only an Italian could stage, or admire a family only a gay couple could raise, or hear a story only an autistic boy could tell.

You know why the wisdom that comes from God is without a trace of partiality? It’s because God was the one who first dreamed up this whole sprawling menagerie in all its speckled, dappled, brindled glory, and threw it across the global stage in the first place, with rambunctious mirth, a triumphant fist pump, and a cosmic cry of “Wow, that’s really, really good!”

This coming March 7 is the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery protest march that led directly to the Voting Rights Act of 1965. One meaningful way to celebrate Martin Luther King Day this year is by seeing Ava DuVernay’s fine film Selma. It will remind you of how far America has come in 50 years, and how far we still need to go.

British actor David Oyelowo is gathering critical praise–if not, famously, an Oscar nomination–for his portrayal of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Strangely though, Dr. King is not the hero of this film, and he is only one of many heroes at the original Selma March. Until I saw the film, I’d forgotten that there were actually three marches from Selma to Montgomery in March of 1965; the first two failed and only the third finally reached its destination. Dr. King wasn’t even there for the first protest on March 7; the most horrible one; the one Sheriff Jim Clark stopped on the Edmund Pettus Bridge with nightsticks, tear gas, and bullwhips; the one that made it on to the front page of most American newspapers and into the evening news on every television set in America.

For me, the most memorable character in the film is John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. When the actor playing John Lewis first appears on screen in the movie Selma, my wife goes “Whoa!” I said, “Excuse me, I’m right here!” She said, “He’s gorgeous. So maybe that alone is worth the price of admission. I don’t know.

John Lewis was a Baptist preacher. John Lewis was 25 years old. He had his skull cracked open on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, but it wasn’t the first time; he’d been beaten and jailed many times during the freedom rides and sit-ins of the early 60’s.

John Lewis grew up in Pike County, Alabama—the Jim Crow South. His parents picked cotton, peanuts, and corn; the children left school at harvest time to join them. Their small house had no electricity or running water.

When John Lewis began to hear a call to the ministry, he started visiting the henhouse out back to preach to the Rhode Island Reds. John Lewis baptized new chicks; he raised and fed them; he conducted their funerals, burying the dead under a mound of wild-flowers. John Lewis has been the U. S. Congressman from Georgia’s Fifth District since 1987.

At the Washington Mall during President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009, a young African-American introduced himself to the Reverend Lewis as the police chief of Rock Hill, South Carolina. “Imagine that,” Mr. Lewis said. “I was beaten near to death at the Rock Hill Greyhound bus terminal during the Freedom Rides in 1961. Now the police chief is black.” Glory, glory, hallelujah!

After the swearing-in ceremony at the 2009 inauguration, Mr. Lewis approached President Obama with a commemorative photograph and asked him to sign it. The President wrote, “Because of you, John. Barack Obama.”[2] It all started with a preacher on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

Selma tells us we’ve come a long way in 50 years. Ferguson tells us that we have a long way yet to travel.

The wisdom from above is without a trace of partiality. Martin Luther King once said,“We may all have come to America on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.” Yes? We came on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now.

Some of us sailed here from England on the Mayflower; others from West Africa on slave ships. Some of us came here on clipper ships from barren potato fields in Ireland, and others on steamships from cramped and impoverished Europe. Some of us came here fleeing the Jewish pogroms of Russia and Poland. Some of us arrived here on ocean-liners which docked first at Ellis Island, where they changed our name from Novawitski to Novak. Others deplaned from DC-10’s at JFK from Beirut or Bombay or Baghdad or Islamabad or Istanbul. Some of us crossed the Gulf of Mexico to Miami from Cuba in 16-foot skiffs. Some of us came here on giant military transport planes from Vietnam. Some of us crossed the Rio Grande from Mexico in inflatable rafts. Some of us flew first class on a 747 from Beijing or Tokyo to a six-figure job at Pfizer because we had a Ph.D. in chemical engineering.

We may all have arrived on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now. Therefore, the only way forward is to strive for the wisdom from above, which is without a trace of partiality.


[1]Nicholas Kristoff, “When Whites Just Don’t Get It, Part 5, The New York Times, November 30, 2014.

                [2]David Remnick, “The President’s Hero,” The New Yorker, February 2, 2009.