(A sermon on Luke 4:21-30, preached at All Saints' Episcopal Church 1/31/2010)This morning we get part two of Jesus’ experience in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth: the opening of his ministry in the Gospel of Luke.
It all starts promising enough. “With all eyes fixed on him, Jesus says, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” This seems to go over really well. People would have been excited to hear these words, that the words of the prophet Isaiah are fulfilled. We are told that, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” The statement that follows “They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’” seems harmless enough as well, but it seems to set Jesus off down a road that ultimately enrages the crowd so much so that he nearly gets thrown off a cliff.
What’s really going on here?
Well, Luke’s source for this text is Mark 6, which says this:
“He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honor, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’” (Mark 6:1-4)
Luke doesn’t include the whole text, but we are to hear that the statement “Is not this Joseph’s son?” as a negative statement that questions Jesus’ authority. This leads to the parallel statement in Luke, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”
Luke, however, is not satisfied with this being the point of text. He reports Jesus going a serious step further. Jesus says, “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.” (Luke 4:25-27)
I’m sure you can discern that this is really offensive to those gathered to hear Jesus, but you may not fully know why. Those gathered in the synagogue that day, like Jesus, were Jews. They rightly understood themselves, in terms of Hebrew Scriptures, as God’s chosen people. The claim from Isaiah that Jesus has linked himself to is supposed to be their salvation: likely understood to be their emergence from the rule of the Romans. Most have certain expectations as to how Isaiah’s prophesy is to be fulfilled, and most of those scenarios involved some sort of physical kingdom to stand up to the Romans, or anyone else that threatened the community. The understanding is that the only way to deal with the brutal power was to be more physically powerful.
Jesus ultimately will counter this understanding of the fulfillment of scripture, and what it means to embrace the kingdom of God. He doesn’t specifically do so in this text, but the statement “Is not this Joseph’s son?” suggests that there already was disbelief that Jesus could have any effect on the status of the Judeans. Jesus hears this, and then busts open the notion that Isaiah’s salvation is just for them, and about a kingdom in the same vein as the Romans.
Remember what Jesus initially read from Isaiah:
“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, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)
This was all understood from an insider’s point of view. But Jesus suggests that the only ones that received the promises of God in Elijah’s and Elisha’s time were foreigners: outsiders. Pairing this with the statement “Isn’t this Joseph’s son,” and the statements ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ and ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum,’ and you can see that Jesus is challenging the entire notion that Isaiah’s promise is just about them.
Jesus is saying, in a not so veiled way, that God continues to do surprising things: breaking into the world in unexpected places.
This, again, fits Luke’s Gentile audience. The covenant of God is not just about the people with the long term relationship: it is for everyone, and in fact, those who assume God’s favor as meaning that they personally will be rewarded over others are mistaken.
This also underscores the reality of Luke’s Gospel: Jesus will be rejected by many of his own people, and ultimately be embraced by many Gentiles.
For us hearers of the word today, I think the message is two-fold. The hometown arguments... who is this Jesus, isn’t he Joseph’s son, isn’t he a carpenter... can distract us from the message of God’s presence. Whether it’s “The Kingdom the God has come near,” or “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” it is the message that God is present and calls us to life and the care of each other that’s important, not arguing over who the messenger is, or insisting on how it’s all going to happen. We can ponder and speculate all day long about who we say Jesus is, and ultimately it is important to be able to articulate what we come to understand, but at the end of the day, believing in the message and then acting it is what really counts.
The second point is this: society’s concept of power is the ability to get what one wants, and to keep bad things from happening. It involves control, and usually dominance over another. We are reminded, again and again by the events of the world, that God’s power is not based on controlling everything. I believe that when an earthquake devastates, a hurricane pounds, an act of terror destroys, or even an illness like cancer invades, it is not an act of God, nor could God have prevented it. My belief and understanding is that God promises not prevention, but to be to present in the midst of destruction, and that from the ashes, new life will be created. Death never has the last word.
That’s real power.