Today’s lectionary passage (Luke 4: 21-44) is a very strange one. The text even seems to start in the wrong place, half way through an event. I read it through several times with conflicting thoughts and ideas as I tried to glean some insights from it.
I decided it is a hard passage to read in isolation so I’ll set the context. The chapter starts with Jesus’ time in the desert (which I have blogged about in the past). Then it moves to Jesus beginning a ministry of teaching and healing throughout Galilee. This ministry trip eventually brings Jesus back to his home town of Nazareth. The text gives no indication of time. Readers have no way of knowing if Jesus had been away for weeks, months or even years. All that is revealed is that “a report about him spread through all the surrounding country” (14) and he “was praised by everyone” (15).
Finally, Jesus arrives in Nazareth, entered the synagogue and read a passage from the book of 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 and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (18-19)
The Gospel of Luke even comments that every eye was on him. I can imagine the scene, all waiting with bated breath to hear what Jesus said about those verses.
So that is the context. The reading for today continues the story. Jesus told them that. “Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (21).
If I am honest with myself, I suspect if someone had said that about themselves today I would have thought how arrogant they were. Why would they be promoting themselves in that way? The arrogance of youth!
However, the congregation didn’t act that way. The sense is almost one of pride at a local boy done well. The ensuing comments talked about amazement at the gracious words.
After which the passage becomes a little strange. It reads as if Jesus is trying to pick an argument with them. He has this dialogue with himself where he predicts questions and answers that will cause them to reject him. It is almost as if he rejects their adoration so they will reject him. This small section ends with the comment, “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown” (24).
I want to pause there and think about that phrase. I have heard it quoted often although rarely about prophets! The sense is always that someone has done something that gets recognition from the wider community but not by their immediate family, friends and neighbours. Although, I’m not going to discuss it today, it is something worthy of pondering. From the amount of times I have heard it said, I can assume it clearly reflects the feelings of lots of people. So, what is the root, is it jealousy or familiarity?
Anyway, back to the text. After, Jesus’ short dialogue with himself he proceeded to cite two examples from their scriptures. The first was from the prophet Elijah, that he was sent to save one widow from famine. The second was about the prophet Elisha that he was sent to heal one person with leprosy. In each case, the emphasis was on the one. The text noted there were many widows and many lepers but the stories only talk about miraculous intervention in the case of the one person.
The interesting thing is the reaction of the congregation. The text says,
When they heard this, 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” (28-29).
What an impact! What a change! What a violent reaction!
How (or why) did the crowd go from amazement to rage? What was it about these words that caused such fury. These words obviously touched a raw nerve in the listeners. I’m not sure, that reading it in 2019, I can even begin to understand the depths of emotion these few verses invoked. The text does not give a straight answer as to why the crowd were so incensed.
Maybe, it was a reaction to perceived rejection as in the examples only one was chosen. Yet, they could just as easily perceive themselves as the chosen ones, after all Jesus had returned to his home town to make this analogy.
As I ponder I like to think that something in Jesus words exposed their hearts. They had heard the words about bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovering sight to the blind and freeing the oppressed. These are good, abstract ideas which all could agree with. Yet, were the examples given a bit too specific? Helping starving widows and lepers!
As I read it, I couldn’t help thinking that maybe things haven’t changed too much. The same great ideas remain and possibly the same reactions.
Great idea to free the oppressed, until they are coming over a border.
Great idea to help the poor until they are seen dirty and smelly on the streets.
Great idea to give sight to the blind so long as they have enough money to pay the bill.
Great idea to set captives free unless they want to set up house next to me!
Just some ideas to ponder about this strange little text. Be blessed.