Rector, Casey Shobe Sermon by: The Rev. R. Casey Shobe, D.Min.
Episcopal Church of the Transfiguration | Dallas, Texas
February 3, 2019
Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany

Unconscious Bias


This week’s story picks right up where we left off last weekend: Jesus has returned home to Nazareth after several months away to be baptized and then fast and pray alone in the wilderness. When he returns home, he stands in the synagogue and reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah:

“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.”

“Today,” he then says, “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke tells us that everyone seemed to like what he had to say. Nazareth was a very small town, and so it’s not hard to picture them swelling with pride at the sight of Mary and Joseph’s boy demonstrating such righteousness and maturity. Rumor had also apparently reached them of some of the amazing things he’d done in Capernaum, so they were probably eager to see for themselves how he was changed from his travels. Anyway, they like him, and they like what he has to say. At least for a moment.

But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He is not going to be their hometown boy made good, who does what everyone expects, always says nice, polite things, and is sure to root for the home team. He didn’t come home to run for mayor. Which is why Jesus doesn’t just roll up the scroll and sit down. Instead, Jesus reminds them of two extremely uncomfortable stories from Scripture: that time the prophet Elijah helped a Gentile widow during a devastating famine, another about the prophet Elisha healing the leprosy of a man named Naaman, who was an officer in the army of one of Israel’s greatest enemies. These are stories about God’s power to heal and save, but inconveniently they happened to the absolute wrong sorts of people. It is not an exaggeration to switch “widow of Zarephath” with “widow of El Salvador” and “Naaman the Syrian” with Naaman the Islamic State fighter, in order to get a sense of the shock value of the stories.

The people of Nazareth are not bothered by the passage from Isaiah, with its vision of healing and liberation. Nor are they bothered when Jesus seems to connect himself with the fulfillment of that vision. What sets them off is that he has the audacity to say that God’s vision has anything to do with people they view as detestable – that God cares just as much about healing and liberating them as he does their own tribe and nation. The mere thought of it is so shocking, so appalling to their sensibilities that, in the blink of any eye, this sweet little congregation gathered for weekly worship turns into a lynch mob, ready to throw Jesus off a cliff.

It’s important to pause and remember that these are not bad people. Jesus grew up in this village, and even though the gospels feature him in places like Capernaum and Jerusalem far more, nearly all his 30+ years of life were spent in Nazareth. They really must have been wonderful people in a great many ways. And yet, they simply couldn’t fathom that the mercy and justice of God’s reign might have something to do with people they considered to be enemies. It seems not to have occurred to them that God may have something bigger in mind than simply freeing this long-suffering regional ethnic and religious group from a series of occupying regimes. They weren’t bad, but the poison of bias was seeping through their souls and strangling their spiritual and moral imagination.

We might like to think we’re much more advanced and evolved than those ancient people – that we would never be so small-minded – but the sin that lay at the root of their anger still haunts humanity today: the sin of bias, of preferring people “like us” to others. Even in this proudly modern age, we typically see others through mirrors dimly, to quote St. Paul, and we allow that clouded vision to affect our judgement and hinder our willingness to love everyone freely and equally.

The problem is that we have too small a notion of what bias looks like. We tend to think that bias is only about big, overt acts, things like Jim Crow laws, or the Japanese internment, or Muslim bans. But scientists who study the effects of bias say that for every external act of prejudice, there are countless other acts of what is known as “unconscious bias” happening all the time.