Thought for the day
Probably all of us have experience of “small town Ireland” (or wherever). The limited set of expectations limits what we can see and recognise in others. It may even be that we are both victims and perpetrators! Familiarity does not always breed esteem. This is even true in the faith: we can be so “familiar” with it all that any sense of energy or newness has long since dissipated. And yet, we should allow ourselves to be surprised by the God of surprises: “See, I am making all things new.” (Revelation 21:5) This newness of the Gospel is more radical than mere novelty: it is a new creation in Christ. New wine, new wineskins!
God of the new, help us shake off the shackles of familiarity and come once more with open hearts and lives to hear again your prophet Jesus. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
Luke 4:21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
This scene continues the foundational portrait of Jesus as a prophet (see last week’s notes for the explanation of the tableau). The repetition of v. 21 serves to join this reading with the Gospel used last week. What is genuinely puzzling in the reading is the sudden, apparently unprovoked attack constructed on the basis of the possibly negative “Is not this Joseph’s son?” (Luke 4:22). Of course, in other contexts (see below) this is indeed negative. Perhaps the question assumes a negative value on account of the Infancy narrative in Luke 1-2, from which the reader, at least, knows that this question regarding the origins of Jesus is not the correct one to ask.
In the same vein, Jesus has not yet been to Capernaum in this Gospel, so the observation in v. 24 seems out of sequence, revealing an awareness that the synagogue story actually belongs later in the Gospel narrative.
As the second part of the great tableau, this scene takes us into the ministry of Jesus, the opening to the Gentiles and the reaction of (most of) the Jewish people to this. Eventually, the religious authorities, not the people, will move decisively against Jesus.
Kind of writing
The full scene, running from 4:14 to 4:30, is a Lucan symbolic tableau, which gives, in the manner of an overture, the themes and even the plot of the whole Gospel of Luke, including the negative reaction to the Gospel of inclusion and the eventual death and resurrection of the Messiah. It illustrates the tremendous skill of Luke as an author and, indeed, his freedom as a historian.
Old Testament background
(i) Prophets should be tested: “If prophets or those who divine by dreams appear among you and promise you omens or portents, and the omens or the portents declared by them take place, and they say, “Let us follow other gods” (whom you have not known) “and let us serve them” you must not heed the words of those prophets or those who divine by dreams; for the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you indeed love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul.” (Deuteronomy 13:1-3)
(ii) Elijah and the widow of Zarephath
Then the word of the Lord came to him, saying, “Go now to Zarephath, which belongs to Sidon, and live there; for I have commanded a widow there to feed you.” So he set out and went to Zarephath. When he came to the gate of the town, a widow was there gathering sticks; he called to her and said, “Bring me a little water in a vessel, so that I may drink.” As she was going to bring it, he called to her and said, “Bring me a morsel of bread in your hand.” But she said, “As the Lord your God lives, I have nothing baked, only a handful of meal in a jar, and a little oil in a jug; I am now gathering a couple of sticks, so that I may go home and prepare it for myself and my son, that we may eat it, and die.” Elijah said to her, “Do not be afraid; go and do as you have said; but first make me a little cake of it and bring it to me, and afterwards make something for yourself and your son. For thus says the Lord the God of Israel: The jar of meal will not be emptied and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” She went and did as Elijah said, so that she as well as he and her household ate for many days. The jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by Elijah. (1Kings 17:8–16)
(iii) The story of Elisha and Namaan the Syrian: 2 Kings 5:1-14 (too long to quote).
New Testament foreground
(i) Here is the basic historical version of the scene in Nazareth:
Jesus left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offence at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honour, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief. (Mark 6:1–6) Cf. Matthew 13:54-58.
(ii) The reaction to a sermon of Stephen in the Acts is instructive:
“You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it.” When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen (Acts 7:51–55)
(iii) Widows and lepers in Lk-Acts
Widows: Luke 2:37; 4:25–26; 7:12; 18:3, 5; 20:28, 47; 21:2–3; Acts 6:1; 9:39, 41
Lepers: Luke 17:11-19 — a story which includes a “foreigner” in the person of the Samaritan.
For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. (Romans 10:12)
So then, remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth, called “the uncircumcision” by those who are called “the circumcision”—a physical circumcision made in the flesh by human hands— remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it (Eph 2:11–17)
Verse 21 This resumes the last line of last Sunday’s reading. It proclaims Jesus as the fulfilment of the Jewish Scriptures. Luke is always keen to root Jesus in the mother religion of all Christians.
Verse 22 The reaction is positive, with a possible hesitation expressed in the question, implying a claim to familiarity. There is no hint of the animosity to come.
Verse 23 A well-known type of proverb, with a special echo, in this Gospel, at the crucifixion: “And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!”” (Luke 23:35) Jesus does eventually get to Capernaum: He went down to Capernaum, a city in Galilee, and was teaching them on the sabbath. (Luke 4:31)
Verse 24 A widely attested saying: Matthew 13:57 and John 4:44.
Verses 25-26 The argument is that God’s agent of salvation (in this case Elijah) was not sent especially to Israel. The sentiment is inflammatory and unlikely to be historical. The historical Jesus encounters remarkably few Gentiles in the course of his ministry.
Verse 27 The colourful story of Naaman the Syrian makes exactly the same point. It is not without relevance that in Luke (only) Jesus heals the ten lepers and only one—a Samaritan—comes back to give thanks. From the pejorative Jewish perspective, Samaritans were regarded as foreigners (which they were not, of course).
Verse 28 Rage? The kind of feeling envisaged is well captured in another incident in the Acts of the Apostles, when Paul’s preaching in Ephesus threatens the pre-eminence and economy of Artemis / Diana: “When they heard this, they were enraged and shouted, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”” (Acts 19:28)
Verse 29 This verse anticipates the end of Jesus’ ministry, when people will indeed take him out of the town to execute him. Cf. Then they dragged Stephen out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. (Acts 7:58)
Verse 30 The inexplicable, sovereign escape alludes most likely to the resurrection. Further echoes are (i) the story of the elusive Elijah in 1 Kings 18:7-12, who is mysterious taken up by the Spirit of God and (ii) the stories of the escapes from prison in Acts 12:6-11 (Peter) and Acts16:25-28 (Paul).
Pointers for prayer
1. The people of Nazareth could not accept that this local boy was one to teach them. It can be difficult for us to see those close to us as people through whom God is going to reveal some truth to us. Yet what a difference when we drop our prejudices and are open to what is being said. Perhaps you have experienced this?
2. The anger of the people arose when Jesus confronted them with God’s inclusive ways. God was ‘their God’ and God’s blessings were for them. Jesus reminded them that this is not God’s way. When have you been challenged to think in new ways and not to be excluding some people from your thoughts or concerns? Was there good news for you in the challenge?
3. Jesus continued his work despite the opposition. Have there been times when despite opposition you have been able to ‘walk through the people’ and ‘continue on your way’? Have you seen this courage in others?
God of salvation, in your Prophet, Jesus the Christ, you announce freedom and summon us to conversion. As we marvel at the grace and power of your word, enlighten us to see the beauty of the gospel and strengthen us to embrace its demands.
Grant this through your Son, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, God, for ever and ever. Amen.