The Word in the Wings

The Word in the Wings  > Reflecting El Roi: gracious giving

Reflecting El Roi: gracious giving

By: KAYA WEAVER

Glorify Dance Theatre will premiere a new ballet, Reflecting El Roi, in March 2024 during the liturgical season of Lent. Lent is a forty-day period when Christians prepare to experience Holy Week and Easter and to remember the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Reflecting El Roi uses dance to explore three traditional intentions of Lent: preparation, prayer & fasting, and giving.

In the last few weeks, we’ve considered the significance of Lent as a season where Christians prepare for God to act beyond what we can anticipate. We’ve explored the purpose of fasting and prayer as disciplines for pruning away things in our lives that don’t reflect Jesus’s lordship. In this post, we’ll see what Jesus says about a third lenten discipline: almsgiving. Father Mike Schmitz, a Catholic priest, says that “almsgiving” is something you do consistently in order to bless others. Luke 4 describes a scene early in Jesus’s ministry where he teaches in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth and stirs up strong feelings there about what God is doing to bless people.

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A READING FROM THE PROPHET

Luke 4:16 And he went to Nazareth, where he was brought up, and he entered according to his custom on the Sabbath day into the synagogue, and he stood to read.

17 And the book of the prophet Isaiah was given to him and opening the book he found the place where it was written:

18 “The spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor, he has sent me to preach release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed,

19 to announce a year acceptable to the Lord.”

20 And closing and returning the book to the assistant he sat; and all the eyes in the synagogue were looking intently at him.

Anointing marks a person or place “as a bridge between heaven and earth” because the water of life and garden fragrances of anointing oil point to the Creator God’s life-giving spirit (The Bible Project). The speaker in the text Jesus reads from Isaiah 61 says God’s Spirit has anointed him–filled and empowered him with life and purpose–to do several particular tasks, listed in Luke 4:18. People with some obvious lack, whether of sight, resources, or freedom, will have their situations turned around. It sounds like the speaker in this Scripture is tasked with blessing others!

The anointed one from Isaiah’s prophecy is also sent “to announce a year acceptable to the Lord,” or “a year of the Lord’s favor” (NRSVUE). The actions listed in verse 18 of giving good news, sight, and freedom to those in need are characterized as actions pleasing to YHWH. The translation “a year of the Lord’s favor” could suggest that these blessings reflect YHWH’s goodwill and activity to bless people in need. “A year acceptable to the Lord” could also suggest that God welcomes the sight of people giving their time, resources, and influence for the sake of others. This phrase is associated with the year of jubilee, when Israelites were instructed to release acquired lands and slaves, reflecting God’s release of Israel from captivity in Egypt (Leviticus 25). This connection to Israel’s law heightens the sense that the task of this anointed one is about both divine activity and human participation.

When Jesus finishes reading from Isaiah, the synagogue-goers in Nazareth are “looking intently at him,” indicating that the Scripture has captured their interest. They’re eager to hear what Jesus will say about this “year acceptable to the Lord” and the blessings that the anointed one will bring.

GRACIOUS WORDS

21 But he began to say to them that, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your ears.”

22 And everyone testified to it and marveled at the gracious words that came out of his mouth, and they were saying, “Surely this is not Joseph’s son?”

23 And he said to them, “All of you will raise to me this parable: ‘Doctor, heal yourself; what things we heard happened in Capernaum, do also here in your hometown.’”

This sounds like exciting news! Whoever the anointed one from Isaiah’s prophecy is, he has arrived to fulfill the Scripture by doing the blessings listed. If there are any listening who are poor, blind, or oppressed, it’s no wonder they “marveled” at Jesus’s announcement that this scripture is fulfilled “today.” Surely they would gladly receive God’s blessings here and now! To add to the sense of hopeful expectation, Jesus points out that the people gathered may have heard that he has done miraculous things in Capernaum. Based on the news going around, Jesus could be the anointed one with the power and the vocation to offer the blessings spoken of in Isaiah.

BUT IN TRUTH…

24 But he said, “Truly I say to you that no prophet is acceptable in his hometown.

25 But in truth I say to you, there were many widows in the days of Elijah in Israel, when the sky was sealed for three years and six months, so that a great famine occurred in the whole land,

26 and Elijah was sent to none of them but to Sarephta of Sidon to a widowed woman.

27 And there were many lepers in Israel in [the time of] Elishah the prophet, and none of them was healed, except Naiman the Syrian.”

Jesus turns around the language of favor and welcome and alludes to his particular relationship with the people of Nazareth. He is preaching this message in his hometown (see Luke 4:16), and the people’s wonder at his words does not align with the expectation that “no prophet is acceptable in his hometown.” Jesus’s statement builds trepidation about what he will say next.

Jesus goes on to speak of Elijah and Elisha, two famous prophets from Israel’s history, who mediated God’s miraculous provision and healing. Jesus emphasizes that although there were people in need in Israel at the time, both of these prophets were sent to offer God’s blessing to individuals outside of Israel. Why does Jesus tell these stories of the former prophets? And how does this change the people’s response to his teaching?

FILLED WITH PASSION

28 And everyone in the synagogue was filled with passion when they heard these things,

29 and standing up they threw him out of the city, and they led him up to the edge of the hill upon which their city was built, so that they might throw him down from a cliff.

30 But he passed through their midst and went away.

The Greek word that describes the people’s feelings upon hearing Jesus’s teaching after the reading suggests strong emotion, which could be interpreted as indignation or anger. Either way, this “passion” leads them to drive Jesus out of their synagogue and out of their town with intentions of violence. This is a dramatic shift from the way they marveled to hear him announce the fulfillment of Isaiah’s words.

What is it about Jesus’s teaching that alters their reception of his words? Jesus practically predicts that this shift will happen when he says that “no prophet is acceptable in his hometown.” Between Jesus’s allusion to the prophets Elijah and Elisha and the change in the people’s attitude toward him, Jesus seems in retrospect to be comparing himself to those prophets who came to do God’s work not just to manifest God’s blessing for Israel but to extend it to the neighboring peoples. Perhaps Jesus tells these stories to temper his listeners’ eagerness to receive God’s blessing for themselves. Perhaps Jesus wants his listeners to consider what it will be like to witness others receiving God’s blessing, or even to participate in extending God’s blessing to others.

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As we’ve explored the lenten disciplines of prayer and fasting, we’ve discussed how these practices can lead us to experience God’s presence and restoration for ourselves. But we’ve also heard from the prophet Isaiah how true fasting is seeking God’s justice in our relationships with other people. When Jesus teaches about God’s gracious gifts, he invites his listeners to realize that we are not always on the receiving end. Like the ancient Israelites who are instructed to release property at the year of jubilee, Christians are invited in the practice of almsgiving to reflect God’s mercy and justice by letting go of what we have and using it to bless others.

When you see Reflecting El Roi, you might notice that Part I of the ballet builds up energy, but the energy doesn’t reach its height until Part III, “Giving.” The energy of the ballet, held in reserve through reflective, individual moments and finally released in a dance full of connection and unity, communicates how the purpose of preparation, prayer and fasting is to share the joy of God’s power and presence with others.

Participation in God’s gracious giving is one of the ways God’s Holy Spirit refines us to more truly embody the image of Christ, who gave his whole self for the sake of blessing all the nations of the earth. What do we have that we can give during Lent so that our disciplines of seeking God’s presence serve the purpose of blessing others?

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Scripture quotations in this post are my own translation, except where otherwise noted.

Secondary reference:

“Anointing” video by The Bible Project (May 2023), https://bibleproject.com/explore/video/anointing/.

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Glorify Dance Theatre Presents

May 3-4

This is a family-friendly ballet that kids of ALL ages will enjoy!