Opposition to Jesus
Scripture: Luke 4:21-30
With faith leading the way, with hope lighting out path, & with love guiding us home; let us open our hearts to hear the word of God.
The commentators were ecstatic after the game. “He played like a man inspired,” they said. What images does that bring to your mind?
Tyreek Hill running rings around the opposition & scoring a brilliant touchdown, perhaps.
Or, from a different world, a musician: eyes closed, fingers flying to & fro on an instrument, filling the air with wonderful music.
‘Inspiration’ is a word we use loosely. We imply that “it just came over them,” that that person suddenly became someone different. Of course, we know that it did not happen like that. The brilliant athlete has been training & practicing, hour after hour & week after week. The musician has been playing exercises, perfecting their technique for long hours in private. Then, when the moment comes, a surge of adrenalin produces a performance that we call inspired – but which is actually the fruit of long, patient demanding work.
When Jesus said, the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, Luke has already let us onto the secret. His years of silent preparation. His life of prayer leading up to his baptism. The confirmation of his vocation - & then his testing in the wilderness. Then, at last, going public with early deeds in Capernaum. The exchange in the Nazareth synagogue makes it clear, people had already heard of what he had done elsewhere. Now, with years of prayer, thought & study of Scripture behind him, Jesus stands before his own town. He knew everybody there & they knew him. He preached like a man inspired; indeed, in his sermon that is what he claimed. But what he said was the opposite of what they were expecting. If this was inspiration, they did not want it.
What was so wrong with what he said? What made them kick him out of the synagogue, hustle him out of town, & take him to the edge of a cliff to throw him over? And do not miss the irony: the devil invited J to throw himself down from atop the Temple because God would protect him; Jesus, having refused, now finds himself in a similar situation. Perhaps Luke is telling us that God did protect him, because it came about not through self-promotion but through commitment to his true calling.
The crucial part comes in Jesus’ comments to his listeners. He senses that they are not following him; they are ready to taunt him with proverbs, to challenge him to do some mighty deeds for the sake of showing off.
Perhaps they, too, appear in Jesus’ mind like the devil, suggesting that Jesus should do magic tricks for the sake of it. “Heal yourself, doctor!” – the challenge is not too far removed from the taunt, “He saved others, but he cannot save himself,” which comes in Luke 23. But why? What was so wrong with what he was saying?
By way of defense & explanation for the line he had been taking, Jesus points out what had happened in the days of the great prophets Elijah & Elisha, & in doing so identifies himself with the prophets. Elijah was sent to help a widow – but not a Jewish one. Instead, he helped a Gentile woman from Sidon. Elisha healed one solitary leper - & the leper was the commander of the enemy army, Naaman the Syrian! That is what did it. That is what drove them to fury. Israel’s God was rescuing the wrong people!
The earlier part of Jesus’ sermon must have been hammering home the same point. His listeners were waiting for God to liberate Israel from its pagan enemies. In several Jewish texts of the time, we find a longing that God would condemn the wicked nations & would pour out wrath & destruction on them. Instead, Jesus is pointing out that when the great prophets were active, it was not Israel who benefited, but only the pagans. That is like someone in Britain or France during WW II speaking of God’s healing & restoration for Adolf Hitler. Or if an American pastor spoke of healing & restoration for Osama bin Laden following 9/11. It is not what people wanted to hear.
What, then, was the earlier part of his sermon about?
Luke says that the people were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. Sometimes people have understood this simply to mean, “they were amazed at what a good speaker he was.” But it seems more likely that Luke means “they were amazed that he was speaking of God’s grace – grace for everybody, including the Gentile nations – instead of grace for Israel & fierce judgment for everyone else.” That perfectly explains the actions that followed.
Why then did Jesus begin his address with the long quotation from Isaiah 61? Jesus began, 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 & recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
The passage he quotes is about the Messiah. Throughout Isaiah there are pictures of a strange, anointed figure who will carry out the Lord’s will. But though this text goes on to speak of vengeance on evildoers, Jesus does not quote that part. Instead, he seems to have drawn on the larger picture in Isaiah & elsewhere. He speaks of Israel being called to be the light of the nations, a theme which Luke has already highlighted in chapter 2.
The servant-Messiah has not come to inflict punishment on the nations, but to bring God’s love & mercy to them. And that will be the fulfillment of a central theme in Israel’s Scriptures.
Jesus’ mission will not allow him to be satisfied with comforting the afflicted; he must also afflict the comfortable, even when the afflicted & the comfortable are the same people. Many commentators have noted Luke’s emphasis on the universal scope of Jesus’ saving work. This is not to be confused with a universalism that claims that all are saved, no matter what. This theme of universality claims that Jesus came to offer salvation to all peoples, Gentiles as well as Jews, & to all individuals within each people group. While this idea may seem obvious to many twenty-first-century Christians, to some first-century Jews it was scandalous. This theme of universality comes through strongly in our reading. The prophet Elijah, Jesus reminds the people of Nazareth’s synagogue, was not sent to any of the starving widows in Israel. Rather, he was sent to a Gentile widow in Sidon. Further, Elisha was sent not to any leper of Israel but to Naaman the Syrian, another Gentile. The obvious implication here is that Jesus’ work will be inclusive, as his Father’s work always has been, embracing Gentiles as well as Jews. Truly, Jesus is the universal Savior.
To speak of a universal Savior, of course, is to speak of another theme—the universal need for salvation. In Luke 5:30-32, after some Jewish leaders question Jesus’ disciples about their fellowship with tax collectors & sinners, Jesus says, Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance. In 15:7, he says, There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. Jesus seems to speak of individuals who do not need to repent, but other than Jesus himself, I cannot find any such individual in the Gospel of Luke. It seems that each & every person Jesus encounters needs to repent. The three-parable series in chapter 15 underlines this idea. In the parable of the lost sheep, one sheep out of 100 (1%) is lost. In the parable of the lost coin, one coin out of ten (10%) is lost. In the parable of the prodigal son, one of two sons (50%) forsakes his father & needs to repent. Then the parable ends with the other son standing outside &, despite his father’s pleading, refusing to celebrate his brother’s return. So, both sons, 100% of the total number, need to repent.
In Luke 4, the Jews of Nazareth, an oppressed minority living under the thumb of Caesar, certainly have reason to see themselves as the beneficiaries of Jesus’ mission to bring good news to the poor, . . . proclaim release to the captives, . . . and let the oppressed go free. Certainly, they are the afflicted in need of comfort for they are living under Roman rule. On the other hand, in the midst of their affliction they have taken comfort, as well they should, in their status as the people of God.
They are indeed a people chosen by God’s gracious initiative—chosen for blessing & for mission (Genesis 12:3). But they have lost track of their mission. Rather than a sense of calling, they have a comfortable sense of superiority. God has chosen them; the Gentiles are worthless rabble. It would seem that the people of this synagogue have, like many other flawed human beings, yielded to the temptation to feel better about themselves by looking down on someone else. Jesus is challenging their sense of privilege, & they do not like that, so they try to kill him.
This message was, & remains, shocking. Jesus’ claim to be reaching out with healing to all people, though itself a key Jewish idea, was not what most first-century Jews wanted or expected. Later, Jesus included it with severe warnings to his own countrymen. Unless they could see that this was the time for their God to be gracious, unless they abandoned their futile dreams of a military victory over their national enemies, they would suffer defeat themselves at every level – militarily, politically, & theologically.
Here, as at the climax of the gospel story – the cross – Jesus’ challenge & warning brings about a violent reaction. The gospel still does this today, when it challenges our interests & agendas with the news of God’s surprising love & grace.
Let’s not jump to quick conclusions about the angry mob in our Scripture. How open are you to accepting Christ’s gospel message? Do you realize your need to repent & seek God’s forgiveness? How willing are you to go wherever God calls you & do whatever the Holy Spirit nudges you to do? Perhaps we are all citizens of Nazareth.