One of the things that many of the writers on the life of Jesus agree on - including Albert Schweitzer, Albert Nolan and NT Wright - is that Jesus was a prophet of the "end times", that the core of his message was that a crisis was coming and they needed to get ready. This is shown in the way Jesus begins his public ministry in all four Gospels. Matthew and Mark begin with a summary statement: "Repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand." The first public acts of Jesus in John's gospel are the changing of water into wine, symbolising renewal, and the cleansing of the temple, which presents a clear challenge to the Jewish authorities to reform or be destroyed.
Likewise, the scene in Luke 4:16-30 shows Jesus announcing that the prophecy of the coming kingdom was in the process of fulfillment, and talking about what sort of kingdom it would be.
It didn't take any special message from God to know that a crisis was looming for Israel. The country was buzzing with revolution. Prophets and would-be Messiahs appeared regularly. Militias trained in the hills and stocked arms. The resentment against Rome could become open war at any moment.
When it did, one of two things was going to happen. The national leaders - the priests and wealthy nobles of Jerusalem and Judea - worldly wise and realistic, knew that the poorly armed and poorly trained revolutionaries would be no match for the Roman army. The result would be a massacre. Everything they negotiated and schemed to maintain about their nation, and their own privileged positions in it, would be destroyed. These people worked hard to avoid a confrontation, to keep the revolutionaries weak and inactive.
The other possibility was that God would intervene, and restore Israel to the power and glory it enjoyed in the days of David and Solomon. This is what the revolutionaries, and many other people not directly involved in the revolts, prayed and hoped for.
What set Jesus apart wasn't his perception of this situation, it was his response to it.
He rejected the compromise and self-service of the high priests and the Pharisees, who mixed a focus on personal piety and ritual purity with a series of compromises with the Empire. He named the hypocrisy of this position and made powerful enemies.
At the same time he rejected the idea of armed revolution, teaching his followers the art of non-violence and passive resistance, encouraging them to look at their own motivations and deal with their own anger and hatred rather than just focus on the oppressor. Hence, no milita would come to his aid when he was arrested.
At the same time he charted a third way, of which we can see many elements already in this opening sermon in Nazareth.
- The Kingdom of God was to be a kingdom for the poor, for those who were suffering. It was to be a kingdom of justice, and kingdom where suffering was to end and freedom was to be the rule.
- It was to be an outward-looking, inclusive kingdom, not an exclusive national one. All nations and tribes would be brought under its banner, not as servants of the dominant race but as equal partners.
- In this kingdom, enemies were to be loved and welcomed, not exiled and killed.
It's so hard for us to be ready for the challenge of Jesus.