Next Sunday I get to do one of my rare preaching gigs. The first for a long time and for perhaps the first time ever at St Andrews I get to choose the topic. So I thought that all this reading of Lives of Jesus has to be good for something and I'm planning a talk on the story in Luke 4:14-30. Jesus preaches for the first (and possibly only) time in the synagogue at Nazareth. So I thought I'd try out my thoughts here and see if they make sense. This is Part 1 - Part 2 is here.
First, here's the passage.
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read,and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“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.”
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.Then he began to say to them, “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.
I've always found this a puzzling passage, because the vibe goes so quickly from happiness to uncontrollable rage, and because Jesus seems to deliberately provoke this rage. However, my recent reading, and especially the commentary from Kenneth Bailey's Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, has helped me to understand it better.
First of all we need to understand about Nazareth. Nazareth was probably founded by the Hasmonean kings who ruled Israel from around 140 BC until the coming of the Romans in 63 BC. They ruled a small kingdom, based on Jerusalem and surrounded by other small Gentile kingdoms. One of their methods of securing and potentially expanding their kingdom was to plant Jewish settlements on its outskirts, in areas dominated by non-Jews - much as the Israelis are doing now in Palestinian areas. Nazareth was one of these settlements.
It was a small town or village - it could have had anywhere from 500 to 2,000 residents at the time of Jesus, probably at the lower end of this range. Just down the road was Sepphoris, a large Romanised town which served as the capital of Galilee. A little further away was Tiberias, a rich persons resort on the Sea of Galilee where the Herods had a palace. Nazareth was a little conservative Jewish outpost in a mostly Gentile region, ruled by Roman soldiers.
This is the community where Jesus lived for most of his life. The congregation would have included his parents and siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins and long-time friends. Now for the first time he appeared to them as a travelling preacher. The passage he chose to read was pretty much the mission statement for the Nazareth community, a passage which would have been dear to all of them, from Isaiah 61.
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks,
foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines;
but you shall be called priests of the Lord,
you shall be named ministers of our God;
you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations,
and in their riches you shall glory.
Because their shame was double,
and dishonor was proclaimed as their lot,
therefore they shall possess a double portion;
everlasting joy shall be theirs.
For I the Lord love justice,
I hate robbery and wrongdoing;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
Their descendants shall be known among the nations,
and their offspring among the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge
that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.
You can see why they loved this. They will be comforted, freed from their oppression and captivity. They are to restore the glory of the ancient kingdom which has been destroyed, the Gentiles who ruled them will become their servants and they will be the honoured elder children receiving the double portion. This was the hope Jesus' father, the descendent of King David earning a living as a humble tradie, would have held on to as he carted his tools down the road to Sepphoris to do building work for the Gentile dogs.
So when Jesus read the beginning of this passage to them and then said "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing", their reaction would have been, "You beauty! The revolution has come and it's being led by a local boy."
This is what they hated about the next bit. He referred them to two stories which they would have heard from their childhoods onwards. The first is from 1 Kings 17, and talks about how Elijah, during a terrible famine brought on by God's anger at Ahab's kingdom, was sent to shelter with a Phoenician widow, whom he supplied with miraculous flour and oil and whose son he healed. The second, from 2 Kings 5, is the story of Elisha healing the Aramaean general Naaman and refusing to accept payment.
No wonder they were angry. Jesus was proposing himself as Messiah, the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah. But he was not a nationalistic Messiah. He would not crush their enemies and give them power and riches. Instead he would show compassion to their enemies, both the rich and powerful and the poor and destitute. The part of the prophecy he read - the freeing of captives, restoring of sight, rescuing from oppression, the "year of the Lord's favour", applied to everyone. If they didn't like that, they could go without. They preferred the latter, and tried to throw Jesus off a cliff.
As for them, so for us. Our rejoicing at Osama bin Laden's ex-judicial killing, and our harshness towards asylum seekers, are the opposite of the two stories Jesus refers to. Instead of comforting and feeding the poor widows and their children (and the oppressed fleeing their home governments) we imprison them. Instead of seeking the healing and gratitude of enemy generals, we seek their death. I suspect we would be among those throwing Jesus off the cliff, too.