On a typical sunny day in my neighborhood, folks flock to the beach. This beautiful public park with nature trails and a sandy shoreline meanders alongside Puget Sound. Children play in the sand, families bring picnics, people walk, bike, and skateboard, and the dogs of the city frolic in the nearby dog park.
I often wander along this beach as a regular part of my walking route. I suspect that similar scenes of bucolic life are played out all over the world in communities just like the one I live in, homogeneous groups gathering to enjoy all of nature’s bounty together. Seemingly without care, life rolls along gently with abundance and blessing.
The film No Country for Old Men presents scenes radically different from the ones I see at my neighborhood beach. Random, cruel, and senseless violence committed against innocent persons serves as the bleak backdrop of a nihilistic world in which cruelty and evil conquer goodness. There are no bucolic landscapes to enjoy. The ravages of savagery fill scene after scene. While not based on actual events, the violence depicted in the film could accurately capture the climate in many cities around the world, where the innocent and the guilty alike are gunned down in cold blood for no reason. Theirs is a world where the will to power is the only rule of law.
This film, unlike any other, made me wonder about the reach of the good news of the gospel that Christians proclaim. In other words, is the good news only good for those who dwell on the beach, in bucolic landscapes of comfort and joy with others just like themselves? Or is it something intended to go beyond a close circle of friends? Is the gospel reaching beyond those who are like me, and reaching out to those who are different from me? Does the gospel make a difference in a world like the one depicted in this harrowing film? For if the gospel isn’t making a difference in places where violence and suffering are a way of life, is it making a difference at all?
When Jesus of Nazareth began his public ministry as recorded in Luke’s gospel, he went into the synagogue in his hometown and read from the prophet Isaiah: The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because He appointed me to preach the gospel to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are downtrodden, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.(1)
Then he proclaimed that this Scripture had been fulfilled—right there among his own circle of friends. Luke comments that all were speaking well of him. After all, he was one of their own—from the same community deserving of the Lord’s favor—enjoying God’s bounty and blessing.
But Jesus applies this prophetic utterance in a wholly disruptive manner. The great prophets of Israel, Elijah and Elisha, were not sent to provide and bless their own people with release, recovery, and the Lord’s favor. No, Jesus tells them:
There were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the sky was shut up for three years and six months, when a great famine came over all the land; and yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.
Luke tells us that immediately those who were once speaking well of Jesus now were “filled with rage.” Words of flattery turned to violent action. They took Jesus and intended to throw him off a cliff.(2)
What these initial hearers of Jesus failed to realize is that the teaching and ministry of Jesus went beyond a close circle of familiar friends. Luke’s narrative makes this point right at the beginning of Jesus’s public ministry. For immediately following this scene in the synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus goes out to Galilee to heal a man with an unclean spirit. Galilee, as one of the prophets once described it, is a city of Gentiles, outsiders. And yet, he added prophetically, these people who walk in darkness will see a great light. Not only does the gospel go out beyond the boundaries of ethnic Israel, but it also goes out into the realm of evil, healing what was disordered and violent.(3)
Remembering these events in the life of Jesus, I wonder how often my own proclamation of the good news reaches the afflicted, brings release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind? Does the gospel I affirm set free those who are downtrodden, and present the year of the Lord’s favor to those who live under clouds of disdain? I understand that the good news is needed on the beach. Yet I worry that at times my gospel stays safely among friends, not venturing far beyond that bucolic shoreline. Staying among those who would “speak well of me” is much more comfortable than venturing out where darkness is the great light and where good news is but a fading rumor. But it is in this world, far beyond a close circle of friends, where the good news truly is good news and the dawning of the light of Christ must shine.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Isaiah 61:1-3; Luke 4:16-19.
(2) Luke 4:22-30.
(3) Isaiah 9:1-2a. See also Luke 4:31-37.