There are times in the gospels when it seems like Jesus is his own worst enemy. Here he returns to his hometown, where he gets a warm reception – initially. The gospel writer reports that “all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth” (v.22). Then, suddenly, he seems to turn on the crowd, blasting them with words they find completely offensive, and the next thing we know, we’re reading that “all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 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!” (v.28-29). How does he go from ‘warm reception’ to ‘angry mob’ in the span of a few minutes? And why?
This is a public relations nightmare! Jesus breaks every rule in the preacher’s handbook. Why doesn’t he affirm them, build up their trust, win their affection, take time to contextualize his message before he offers his hard saying? Wouldn’t you think he would carefully word his message so that his audience can hear and receive it?
But he doesn’t. He launches right in, throwing the book at them, hitting them square between the eyes, stunning them with his offensive illustrations and his direct, uncompromising words. I can only imagine the disciples witnessing this, shaking their heads and saying, ‘What just happened? What on earth is he trying to do, get us all killed? Is he ‘nuts’?’
Needless to say, this story may need a bit of unpacking before we can begin to understand and appreciate what’s going on here.
It starts well enough. Jesus enters the synagogue in his hometown and he is invited to read and comment on the scriptures. In Jesus’ day, worship in the local synagogue was informal: prayers were said, hymns were sung, and one of the men of the village was asked to give a reflection on a portion of the scriptures. People traveled to Jerusalem to offer sacrifices in the Temple, but in their hometowns, where they worshipped together week by week, the focus was on listening and responding to God’s word in scripture.
Jesus is handed the scroll containing the words of Isaiah and carefully selects his reading. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” he reads, “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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (v 18-19, quoting Isaiah 61:1-2).
So far so good. He sits down to teach, and “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him” (v.20). They seem eager to hear what he has to say. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” he tells them (v.21). We can imagine the crowd warming up to this. Here’s the hometown boy, who has already created quite a stir in Capernaum and throughout Galilee, making his first public appearance in his hometown, among his own people. Some people are already hinting that he may be the Messiah, the long-awaited savior and liberator of Israel, the greatest in a long line of prophets sent from God. And he’s from Nazareth! People don’t expect much from a little country town like ours. Wouldn’t it be amazing if the Messiah actually was from our village! This is Joseph’s son, one of our own! We grew up with him! We actually know him and his family! How cool is that! And now he’s bringing his show to his hometown. They say he heals people and casts out demons! What do you think he’ll do here? He’s bound to have something special up his sleeve for us!
Jesus must have picked up on the growing sense of anticipation. He must have discerned where this was going. Yes, they were eager to hear him and watch him perform miracles, but were they willing to accept the truth he had come to proclaim? Perhaps Jesus sensed that he was the object of their projections, that they were expecting a show, or that they were hoping to profit from his fame. He may even have been tempted to give in to their expectations, to do something spectacular that would amaze and impress them and convince them to join his cause! But he’s just returned from forty days in the wilderness, where he has wrestled with the devil and faced these same temptations to popularity, power and prestige, and he’s not going to start his ministry by giving in to the expectations of this crowd. Sure, they want him, but they want him on their own terms. They want to be impressed and entertained. They want to be affirmed and validated. They want to benefit from his special powers. They’re eager for what he can give them, what he can do for them. But they have not even begun to grasp what he is really about.
He puts into words what they’re thinking: “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’” (v.23).
He has their number. He sees right through them. And he isn’t afraid to hold up a mirror to them, to confront them with their self-centeredness and their shallow desire to personally benefit from his unique gifts. He’s not going to go along with it. He’s not going to give in to this pressure to perform.
Instead he’s going to drive home his message, the message that the liberating love of God is breaking into the world in a new way – offering good news to the poor, release to the captives, and sight to the blind – and that this liberating love is meant not for the Jews alone, but for everyone! God’s healing and transforming power is for all!
‘Remember Elijah?’ he asks, ‘There were countless widows in Israel during his time, but he only helped one of them, a widow at Zarephath in Sidon, a Gentile!’
‘And remember Elisha? There were many lepers in Israel during his time, but he only healed one of them, Naaman the Syrian, another Gentile!”
Do you see what Jesus is saying here? The Jews gathered in the synagogue at Nazareth that day certainly did! Jesus was holding up to them the mirror of their own tradition, their own scriptures, the example of their own prophets, and using it to shine a powerful light on their self-preoccupation and their sense of entitlement. No wonder they were hopping mad!!!
Biblical scholar Fred Craddock writes, “Anger and violence are the last defense of those who are made to face the truth of their own tradition which they have long defended and embraced. Learning what we already know is often painfully difficult.”[i] We don’t much appreciate having our selfishness and greed exposed, and when someone comes along and does that – especially using the truth of our own scriptures and faith tradition – we’re liable to get defensive, angry, even violent.
That’s why we kill prophets. We know prophets are speaking the truth and we can’t handle it. We don’t want to hear it. We don’t want our worlds rocked or turned upside-down. We don’t want to lose our position of power and privilege. We’re comfortable with how things are. We don’t particularly want the poor to be lifted up, the captives released, especially if it’s going to cost us something.
That’s why the emancipation of slaves leads to a shot being fired at close range in Ford’s theater in Washington in 1865, claiming the life of President Abraham Lincoln. And that’s why the radical message of Hindus and Muslims living together in harmony and mutual respect leads to bullets being fired into the chest of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 by a Hindu who felt that Gandhi had compromised the Hindu cause. And that’s why the courageous dream of an integrated America, with black folks and white folks living together as equals, leads to a shot ringing out in Memphis in 1968, claiming the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.
It is also why this Jesus is beaten and pierced and hung upon a cross to die.
“It is important to notice,” Craddock writes, “that Jesus does not go elsewhere because he is rejected; he is rejected because he goes elsewhere.”[ii] He does not decide to take his ministry to Capernaum, a city with a largely Gentile population, because the people of Nazareth reject him. Rather, he is rejected in his hometown precisely because he has taken his ministry to these Gentiles, these foreigners whom the Jews despise. And now he reminds them that this is, and always has been, God’s purpose – to welcome all.
The embrace of God’s grace is wider than most of us are willing to accept. God’s mercy stirs up within us an ugly response, especially when we see it offered freely to those we think are undeserving of it. It upsets us to see it freely given to those we don’t like or understand, to those who don’t share our faith, our traditions, our culture or our language. It irks us to see forgiveness offered to those who haven’t earned it (like we have). The Jews of Jesus’ day felt they had God solely in their corner, and Jesus comes – to them and to us – to shatter that kind of thinking and to bring us face-to-face with the wideness of God’s mercy.
“You see, it really is all Jesus’ fault,” writes David Lose, “he goes and does the one thing you’re never supposed to do, even to strangers, let alone to friends and neighbors: He tells them the truth, the truth about their pettiness and prejudice, their fear and shame, their willingness, even eagerness, to get ahead at any cost, even at the expense of another. And so, they want him gone in the most permanent of ways.”[iii]
If you’ve ever known this kind of anger, this resentment towards others, you may be able to appreciate the response of the folks who lived in Nazareth. Today, Jesus is here to remind us of the wideness of God’s mercy, of the broad embrace of God’s forgiveness, of the depth of God’s compassion. And he is here to remind us that if we choose to follow him, this will be our calling as well – to respect the dignity of every human being and to freely offer everyone – no matter who they are or what they’ve done – the love and compassion that comes from God. We are to bring good news to the poor, to help the blind recover their sight, to set captives free from whatever is keeping them bound and enslaved. Jesus is inviting us to risk the good opinion of our neighbors and friends, in order to do justice and to love mercy and to take our place at the side of the poor.
Let us earnestly pray that our hearts will be as open as God’s heart, that our embrace will be as wide as God’s embrace, and that we will be made worthy of the calling to which we have been called.
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