I confess that I don’t quite understand this passage. Or at least I don’t understand how it turns out. It’s not so much what is contained in this Lectionary snippet of verses 14-21 as in what follows when the people in the synagogue turn on Jesus with a murderous ferocity. After all, Luke 4:15 assures us that everyone was praising Jesus. Then, following his Scripture reading from Isaiah and even his words that this was being fulfilled right then and there, everyone spoke well of him and was amazed by his gracious words.
Luke uses pretty big terms here to describe how people—all the people—were reacting to Jesus and it’s all really positive. So how can those same people ALL turn on him (and that is the term Luke uses in verse 28: ALL the people were furious)? And what leads Jesus to say in verse 24 that “no prophet is accepted in his hometown”? Hello? Pay attention, Jesus. You just were being accepted. Everybody liked you. Everybody was speaking well of you. Everybody was amazed at your gracious words. You had them in the palm of your hand! You were doing so well.
It reminds me of some student sermons I have heard. Sometimes student sermons are really poor right from the outset and just grind on from there until you beg for Jesus to return before the sermon ends. Short of the parousia, when such sermons do finally end, you sense great relief. (This does not happen all that often, by the way, but there are times . . .) But other times a student’s sermon starts out really strong. Hope rises in the professor’s heart! This is interesting. All of the other students are listening with rapt attention. Important questions have been raised. The text is being engaged thoughtfully and beyond a mere surface reading.
But then, sometimes, something goes terribly wrong in the second half of the sermon: the good questions that were raised receive pat answers after all. Or what had been good about the sermon gets eclipsed when the student suddenly utters a few lines that you just know would be deeply wounding to any number of people in a congregation were this sermon actually delivered some Sunday. In any event, it sometimes happens that the student ends up saying something offensive or the student drops the homiletical ball in some other way and then the sermon that started out so strong and with such great promise falls flat after all.
Jesus was doing so well. The sermon started out so strong. People were lapping it up. And then . . . well, then he just had to go and get up in their faces and as much as tell them that they were as sinful as Israel of old back in the days when Elijah and Elisha (and Yahweh for that matter) saved their best stuff for people outside of Israel. It was as though Jesus was saying, “You can keep your amazement and you can keep your nice opinions of me because I see the truth: it’s all shallow, it’s all empty as a hollow rain barrel, it’s all a façade as you wonder what you yourself might get out of it all. I see the truth and so I am flat out going to refuse delivery on your good opinion.”
And the people reacted with fury. But you have the sense that their anger stemmed from more than just having been accused of something. Maybe they also sensed that Jesus’ words had a certain bite to them—a bite of truth. After all, accuse me of something patently false and you may well make me very upset. But flag something negative about me that also happens to be perfectly correct and I will be more than upset: I will be hopping angry (all-the-more-so if it’s a truth about me I have labored hard to keep hidden for ever so long now).
That’s maybe why the old adage about prophets and hometowns is right: both parties know each other too well. The townsfolk write off the would-be prophet because they knew him when. It’s difficult for some people to go from having tousled a little kid’s hair when he was young to accepting that same kid as an authority figure later in life. We probably all know people—relatives or people from the place where we grew up—who never stop using the diminutive version of our names even long after we have become adults. “Hey there, Scott-a-Roo! How’s it going, Janey-Pooh?” And for at least some of these people, what lies behind that kind of greeting is the message, “Don’t think you can tell me what to do, Scott. Don’t think I am going to take you seriously, Jane. I’ve been around longer than you, know more, have experienced more. Don’t think your Ivy League education or the experiences you gained when you lived in Asia for two years mean diddly-squat to me.”
Who knows if that was just what was happening to Jesus that day in Nazareth. But if that is how the townsfolk regarded him, Jesus brought his own backlog of Nazareth experience to bear, too. He’d heard Mary and Joseph talking about some of these people over the years when he was a youth growing up. He remembers how old Eli had once said such a cutting thing to Mary that she cried for a week. He recalls how Matthias swindled Joseph out of the pay he had rightly earned on that carpentry job Joseph once did for Matthias. It’s not that we have to think Jesus was bearing grudges all over the place (that would not be a very good thing to think of our Savior!) but if his backlog of knowledge told him that these people had problems—and if that helped him to see through the thin veneer of their initial acceptance of him in the synagogue that day—that would hardly be surprising.
Who knows just what we are to make of all this. But perhaps in this Season of Epiphany one thing we can take away from this aspect of Luke 4 is this: Jesus really was born truly human and he was born into—and then lived in—our very real world. This is such a human story. The drama here is so familiar to us all. We know how this feels. We sense the community dynamics here. God’s Son was present there in the flesh—and actually had been for many years by this time when Jesus finally launched his public ministry—but his divine presence was so earthy, so mundane, so common that Jesus blended in to the community woodwork and was caught up in the same web of rumors, gossip, back-biting, and all the rest as any other human being in Nazareth at that time.
Let’s admit that the way this synagogue story turns out is not very nice. But let’s remember also that Jesus came down here to this planet precisely to enter into all that silliness and pettiness and tawdriness so as to save us from all that. Thanks be to God for his gritty salvation!
There is nothing particularly striking about the Greek (or English) text of this story. As noted above, in verse 30 the Greek literally says that after the people of the town try to throw Jesus off a cliff, he simply “passed through their middle and went on.” That simple statement likely hides a miracle. The fact that the Greek text also does not miss a beat to go right into verse 31 which says “And he went on to Capernaum” may also tell us something. Yes indeed, he disappeared clean out of Nazareth and immediately popped back up in Capernaum where some real work could be done in a way not possible in Nazareth due to the people’s disbelief. Also, commentators point out that a typical reaction to perceived heresy would be to stone someone. However, casting a person down ONTO the stones below was considered to be the same punishment, albeit in different guise.
From Dr. David Davis, Pastor, Nassau Presbyterian Church in Princeton, New Jersey:
I know this doesn’t sound so holy, but sometimes we want to take Jesus and shake him. At least that means you are listening, paying attention to where the Gospel rubs your life raw. Luke reports that “Jesus passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” Some readers have a way of becoming fascinated with the escape. Such a display of power, a crafty move to avoid the mob. Was it a miracle? Luke seems rather unconcerned. Luke is just as content with the understanding that it wasn’t time, yet. Luke seems to prefer that image of the lingering crowd up there on the hill. And so we’re told “he went on his way.” He kept on his way. He moved along the way. He kept right on going. He proceeded in that direction. He went on the way. He went on his way of bringing good news to the poor and proclaiming release to the captives, giving sight to the blind and letting the oppressed go free. He went on his way. He went on his way healing the sick and embracing the outcast and eating with the sinner. The hometown crowd is never satisfied and the understandings of “Us” and “Them” are forever etched in stone. But he still went on his way. Which means, of course, that he went on his way to Jerusalem, before another crowd, up another hill. He went on his way, the way of the cross.
When God’s light shines on the way of the cross, you and I are invited to see both the stretch of God’s grace and the truth of our own disobedience. Here so early in Luke’s Gospel, the Lord’s encounter with humanity’s self-righteousness and preoccupation with the hometown attitude, it is already driving him to the cross. Before the healings and the teaching and the miraculous catch of fish, before Mary and Martha, and the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son and Zacchaeus, before the rich man who was told to sell everything and give it to the poor and the poor widow who put in everything she had, before all of that, Jesus was on his way to the cross. Before Luke makes it abundantly clear that the Gospel of Jesus Christ would reach into “all the living that you have”, Jesus was well on his way.
It’s that reach that causes us to squirm, or to keep a safe distance, or to run away. The Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall remembers that Paul Scherer, a great preacher of the past, used to point out that in the New Testament the kingdom of heaven and the life of discipleship is so often described as a great feast, a bounteous banquet. But then that preacher reminds the hearers of the irony that everyone was trying stay away from that feast. Or as Hall himself then wonders, how is it that the theology of “megachurchianity” in our culture assumes that everyone has this strong compulsion to “get as close to Jesus as possible?” To draw near to this Jesus is to encounter the Gospel that confronts and convicts and threatens. And you and I find our place somewhere in Luke’s crowd, because if we’re honest, the Gospel of Jesus Christ hits too close to home, to the hometown crowd. “They got up, drove him out of 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 Jesus went on his way.”
When your encounter with the Gospel causes knots to form in your stomach, when you realize again that how you broker your time, and the decisions you make with your kids, and how you to do your money, and the plans you put in place at work, and the absolute oppression you endure to a schedule, or when you struggle again with how it all reflects upon and relates to the life of faith…when your view of the world and your politics and your opinions are being poked not by your disagreement with a preacher, or your frustrations with the rhetoric of the public square, or your inability to safely and naively compartmentalize your life because after all religion and politics don’t mix, when your life out there is being prodded by your very understanding of God and the magnitude of the Gospel, when your experience of life and of death is so ripe, when your awareness of suffering and the burden you bear in caring for another weighs so heavily, when your angst about the world or your children’s future, when it all drives you to point a finger at the Almighty and have it out for a change, when you just want to put in a word for the hometown crowd….
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 31, 2016
Luke 4:21-30 Commentary