Living the lectionary 4

Luke 4:21-30

Jesus began to speak in the synagogue at Nazareth: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 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?” 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.'” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 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; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 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. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

Luke wastes no time in plunging his hero into opposition. The person of Jesus and the nature of his mission are depicted as challenging to his own people. He could, Luke thinks, have chosen to be a local hero, a wonder-working local holy man, but his sources tell him that Jesus refused to play that role.

In this incident it seems, Jesus almost provokes the rage that endangered his life. There is no need for him to meet local enthusiasm with such a brutal rebuttal. First he claims he has no acceptance in his hometown, although Luke records the approving words of the Nazarenes. Then he suggests by examples from the prophets that his true ministry may be to Gentiles.

It’s possible that Luke, knowing that his story of Jesus was going to lead to his rejection by Israel and his acceptance by Gentiles, fashioned this narrative as an indication to the reader that the mission to Gentiles was always the Lord’s intention. The opposition of the Nazarenes is recounted in Mark but without the mention of Gentiles and without the extreme violence depicted by Luke.

Luke, who presents Jesus as a prophet, takes care to link him with Elijah and Elisha. The tradition of Jewish prophecy was that it represented the strange will of God who refused to limit his love to his chosen people, and whose compassion could not be corralled by a religious establishment. Jesus, according to the gospels, did not want to be “the prophet from Galilee.” Just as he had no time for the religious leaders of his people, so neither did he want to be a favourite of the common people. He loved them and worked among them, but he was not their property.

The speed with which neighbours could become a bloodthirsty mob will not surprise anyone who has meditated on the Ruandan or Bosnian genocides, the latter especially showing how religious convictions can lead to murder. This dark note at the outset of the gospel, reminds the reader of the need for radical change in human lives.

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