He Came to Nazareth
As we’ve made our way through these first chapters of St. Luke’s gospel, one of the key things we’ve seen is that Jesus’ ministry is a ministry of confrontation. And everything so far has been hinting at that confrontation coming where the people—and maybe where we—least expect it. The Messiah, so people thought, was supposed to come and vindicate the Jews by overthrowing the Romans; he was supposed to come and high-five all those who were zealous for the law while condemning the pagans. But in the announcement of the angel, in the songs of Zechariah and Mary and Simeon and Anna, and even as God spoke from heaven Jesus’ baptism, we keep seeing allusions to the prophets that point to Jesus being a much “bigger” Messiah than people were expecting. This morning we’ll be looking at verses 14-30 of Chapter 4 and at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Right here at the beginning we’ll see the confrontation that comes as he challenges his own family and friends to think about the Messiah and about God’s deliverance in ways they hadn’t thought of them. But, brothers and sisters, this wasn’t just a problem for them; it’s very often a problem for us too. As we see Jesus challenge the people in our lesson, think about how he might be challenging you and me.
In the first part of the chapter we saw Jesus as he fasted and prayed to prepare for his ministry and as he faced down the devil’s temptations. Now he’s ready to start preaching and teaching the kingdom and that just what Luke says he does. Look at verses 14 and 15:
And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and a report about him went out through all the surrounding country. And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.
The region of Galilee was in the northern part of Palestine, west of the Sea of Galilee and east of the Syrian seacoast. It was an agricultural region. Not only was it a long way from Jerusalem in terms of geography, but it was a long way from Jerusalem in terms of its place in the social and geo-political life of the province. It was to Jerusalem what a rural farming town in Saskatchewan or a small fishing village in Newfoundland is to Ottawa or Toronto or Montréal. Galilee and its people were a long way from the rich power brokers in the capital. Even religiously speaking, the synagogues of Galilee were a long way from the great temple and its priesthood in Jerusalem. But this was Jesus’ home and it’s where he began his ministry: in a land of subsistence farmers and fishermen. As the Spirit had guided him to the wilderness, the Spirit now guides him to these people.
Luke tells us that as he travelled from town to town he taught in the synagogues and that the people were impressed with his teaching. But what did his teaching look like? Luke gives us a closer look as Jesus makes his way through his home country to his own hometown. As he makes his way around Galilee, he eventually returns to Nazareth. We don’t know how long he’d been gone, but his family and friends were no doubt glad to see him again. But this time Jesus is visiting on “business”. And so Luke tells us that, just as he did in the other towns and village, Jesus went to the Nazareth synagogue on the Sabbath. What did his teaching look like? This is the one example that Luke gives and we can expect that this is more or less what he was preaching everywhere he went.
And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and 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 proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. (Luke 4:16-20)
What’s the setting that Luke is showing us? Here’s some background. Most of what we know of the synagogues comes from after the New Testament period, but we do know or have good reason to believe some things about the synagogue in Jesus’ time. The synagogue had its beginnings during the Jews’ exile in Babylon. The temple had been the centre of worship, but not only had it been destroyed, the people had been taken away to a foreign land. With no temple, the exiled Jews began gathering together to read the torah—the law—and to pray. If they couldn’t offer sacrifices at the temple, at least they could study the law and learn how best to obey it. Over time the synagogue evolved out of this. By Jesus’ day each town had at least one synagogue building where the people would gather on Saturdays—on the Sabbath—and usually at other times during the week to worship. Several of the men would take turns standing in the centre to read passages from the torah. They had a lectionary that took them through all five books every three years. Someone would also usually stand to read a passage from the prophets. Since the scriptures were written in Hebrew and many of the people spoke only Aramaic and a little Greek, someone would give an Aramaic translation or paraphrase of the lessons called a targum. After that one of the men would take the preacher’s seat and teach on what had been read. As part of the service, the people would pray and recite Israel’s “creed”: the shema. “Hear, O Israel. The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.” As part of the shema, in Jesus’ day, they also probably recited the Ten Commandments.
The synagogue wasn’t something that God had instituted or commanded. Again, it was a substitute for temple worship that developed when there was no temple at which to worship. Instead of being a place of sacrifice and offerings, it was a place of scripture study. And yet God brought the synagogue about in his Providence. It established a pattern of weekly worship around Scripture and liturgy that gave the first Christians the shape for their own weekly worship gatherings.
This was the setting for Jesus’ preaching ministry. Being a local boy visiting his hometown, he was given the chance to read the lesson from the prophets. The passage as we have it is a conglomeration of texts from Isaiah 58 and 61. Luke might be giving us Jesus’ targum—the paraphrase he gave of the passage in the language of the people—or he may be singling out the verses that were most important to what Jesus had to say. Whatever the case, as Jesus finished reading and took the preacher’s seat—they sat to preach instead of standing—and all these people who had known him as he was growing up leaned forward, eager to hear what he has to say. Look at verses 21 and 22:
And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. And they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”
Everyone knew about Jesus. Everyone knew about the announcements that came at his birth. Everyone knew that he was special. They knew that he was supposed to be that Messiah, but most of them probably weren’t clear on exactly what that meant or how it would work out. And so they were excited to hear him preach on a passage from Isaiah that was all about the Messiah and the deliverance he would bring. In his targum of the passage, or at least in the summary of it that Luke gives us, Jesus stresses his identity: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…he has anointed me.” People had heard about his baptism: how the Spirit had descended and how the Father had spoken from heaven. But what does all that mean in practical terms? The passage goes on to say that this one on whom the Spirit rested was anointed to “proclaim good news to the poor” and “liberty to the captives”. It describes the Messiah giving sight to the blind, freeing the oppressed, and proclaiming the “year of the Lord’s favour”.
Think of how these Galilean farmers thought of themselves. Remember, again, that the Jewish people of that day were living in hopeful and desperate anticipation of the Messiah’s coming. They and their land were captives of the Romans. Their temple and many of their priests were captives to the corrupt sell-outs in the high priesthood. Every time they saw Caesar’s soldiers or saw Caesar’s face on a coin they were reminded of their oppression. These were all the things the Messiah was going to fix when he came. The Isaiah passage describes the Messiah’s work in terms of the “year of the Lord’s favour”. That’s a reference to the year of Jubilee. The law specified that every fiftieth year was to be a year of Jubilee: the people were to take a rest from their farming for the whole year, slaves were freed, debts were cancelled, and all land and property reverted back to its original owner. The evidence we have suggests that Israel was never very good about observing the year of Jubilee. Over time, and especially in Isaiah, it became an idealistic picture of the days when the Messiah would come: cancelling debts and freeing the slaves and the oppressed—ultimately a big picture of God’s justice finally being made manifest in Israel.
These were things Jesus’ friends and family could get excited about. If Jesus was the Messiah, then their deliverance was just around the corner. As Isaiah said, the Messiah was to preach good news to the poor and these were the poor. Poor wasn’t so much an economic class; it referred to the people on the outside. This is probably why Jesus began his ministry with farmers and fishermen in Galilee. For Jews, they were “outside”—far away from Jerusalem, far way from the temple, and far away from the rich and the powerful. And so when Jesus says, “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” they were excited. The deliverance they were hoping for had arrived.
But those words, “In your hearing” are words of invitation. In acknowledging that the people have heard these words, Jesus now invites them to respond and that’s where it all goes sour. They hear the grace he’s preaching and now they appeal to him as “Joseph’s son”. “Awesome, Jesus! Now that you’re ready to fulfil everything we’ve been hoping for, how about giving your friends and family an extra helping of liberty, release, and deliverance—an extra helping of God’s good stuff?” In seeing Jesus as Joseph’s son, his friends and family think that they’ve got a special connection with the Messiah. They “know a guy”—the “guy”—and they want to benefit from their special relationship.
The problem is that as much as Jesus is a local boy, his status as God’s son takes precedence over his status as Joseph’s son. As the Messiah he hasn’t come to grant special privileges to friends and family. In fact, as we’ll see, it doesn’t even mean giving special privileges to Israel as his own people. His calling is bigger. And so knowing what they’re thinking he says in verse 23:
And he said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself.’ What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.”
If Jesus worked miracles one town over, they expect him to do even more for them. “Physician, heal yourself” was a common rebuke: Don’t refuse your friends and family what you’ve done for others. And so Jesus rebukes them in return: “I’m not here as your personal miracle-worker.” Then he goes on to compare himself with Elijah and Elisha in verses 24-27:
And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”
As the Messiah’s friends and family the people of Nazareth wanted special privilege, but instead Jesus reminds them of Elijah and Elisha. In Elijah’s days Israel suffered a terrible famine—a famine that came as God’s judgement—and in the midst of that famine Elijah worked a miracle to provide food for a poor widow. But that widow wasn’t even a Jew. In the middle of a desperate time of famine, God’s prophet went and miraculously provided food for a gentile. And Jesus reminds them of Elisha, Elijah’s protégé. There were many lepers in Israel in need of healing, but Elisha healed only one leper how also happened to be a gentile. And not only was Naaman a gentile, he was the commander of the enemy army.
In an instant the people who were at first so excited to hear Jesus preach about his mission suddenly become angry:
When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. But passing through their midst, he went away. (Luke 4:28-30)
What happened? Jesus redefined what it meant for him to be preaching good news to the poor. These people had put their hopes in the promises Isaiah had made of good news to the poor. As far as they were concerned, they were the poor. Not only were they living under the boot of Caesar, but they were truly on the outside. They didn’t have the special privileges that the fat-cat suck-ups in Jerusalem had. But Jesus goes a step further in terms of what it means to be poor. He reminds them that as Jews, they’ve already been living under God’s special privileges. They’re the ones to whom he spoke. They’re the ones to whom he entrusted the Scriptures and his revelation of himself. They’re the ones he blessed with the land and with the temple so that they could be a light to the gentiles. Even God’s rebukes over the centuries are a privilege when you consider that those rebukes came as his gracious means to draw Israel back into his fellowship and back to faith. No. As “poor” as the Jews might have been spiritually, they were still “rich” compared to the Gentiles who had no knowledge of God. The Gentiles were the true “poor”, because they lived outside of God’s salvation.
And in giving this rebuke, Jesus reminds his own people, his friends and his family, that the Gentiles are on the outside because the Jews failed in their mission. In the days of the kings, the Lord had sent Elijah and Elisha to be a light to the gentiles because Israel as a whole was failing to be a light. And now Jesus points to the people of his own villages and compares them to Israel in Elijah’s day and says, “You want me to ‘hook you up’. Friends, you’ve been ‘hooked up’ since Abraham. You just forgot. You squandered God’s grace and his calling. You want the Messiah to come and deliver you by smiting the Romans. No. I’m here to deliver the Romans as much as I’m here to deliver you. The only smiting I’ll be doing is of sin and death—for the benefit of everyone, Jew and gentile alike!” This is a bit like Winston Churchill praying for healing and restoration for Adolf Hitler; like George Bush praying for Osama bin Laden. These people had spent their lives in expectation of a certain hope. Jesus just said that that hope has come. And then he blew up all their expectations of the privilege that hope would give them.
And they were angry. They chased him out of the synagogue and drove him out of town to a cliff on a nearby hill. They were so angry they were prepared to stone him. Often a person would be thrown off a cliff and then rocks were thrown down on them. That’s the image Luke gives us here. And yet Jesus miraculously escapes. Luke doesn’t explain exactly how, but somehow God intervened. The devil knew that Jesus would be rejected by his people. He had tempted Jesus to perform a miracle at the outset of his ministry: “Throw yourself off the top of the temple. Your Father will rescue you and everyone will know who you are; everyone will accept you.” But Jesus has rebuked him. That wasn’t his mission. His mission was rejection, even to the point of being crucified. And yet here at Nazareth as the people are ready to throw him off a cliff, Jesus is vindicated by the Father. Jesus is rejected by the people precisely because he’s being faithful to his mission and as Jesus is faithful in his calling and mission, the Father now rescues him.
As I said at the outset, as Jesus challenged his friends and family, he challenges us as well. They were convinced that the Messiah had come to smite the evil Romans and the corrupt Herodians—to turn the tables and place the faithful Jews in charge. It had never occurred to them that all this time, over the course of their own history, God’s plan was to deliver those gentiles just as he had delivered Israel. It hadn’t occurred to them that their mission was to prepare the gentiles for the coming of the Saviour, not so that they would be struck down in judgement, but that they might be delivered from the coming judgement.
Consider how often we do the same thing. We wish and pray for God’s judgement to fall on our enemies, whether it’s someone who wronged us at some point in the past, someone who disagrees with us, someone who has oppressed us, someone who is different from us or follows a different religion, speaks a different language, has different values, or lives on the other side of some arbitrary line drawn by governments. We find all sorts of reasons to hate and to condemn. Sometimes we have good reason and sometimes we don’t. But Jesus reminds us that his message of grace is for all people—even the ones we don’t like. He reminds us that the entire human race—including us—has already been judged and found guilty. All of us deserve God’s punishment because of our sins. And Jesus reminds us that he didn’t come to give you and me special privilege in his Kingdom. We don’t deserve extra credit because we have trusted in him. He was the one who called us while we were still mired in sin. He was the one who poured his Spirit into our hearts when we were his enemies. He was the one who redirected our broken wills and misdirected affections, turning our corrupt hearts to himself. He reminds us that as he called Israel into covenant with himself so that she might be a light to the gentiles, he has called us into covenant with himself so that we might be a light in a dark world today. Again, the world’s sinners and followers of false religion and false gods already stand condemned just as we once did. They don’t need our condemnation or judgement. Brothers and sisters, the world needs our light. The world needs us to be witnesses of God’s grace. This is why Jesus calls us to pray for our enemies and to do good to those who persecute us. Sin and death are the real enemies. The Romans weren’t the real enemies of the Jews and even the most hateful of human beings today aren’t our real enemies either. Sin and death are the enemies. Jesus has rescued you and me as he has called us to faith in his incarnation, in his death, and in his resurrection. Let us now be faithful to proclaim good news to the “poor”—to all of those who are still living enslaved to sin and death, to all those still wandering in darkness, and to all those still outside our God’s salvation.
Let us pray: Father, in sending your Son to be our Saviour you showed your love for the world. We rejected your love and grace, but you never stopped loving us. You sent your own Son to die that we might be restored to your fellowship. Let us never forget that our redemption is entirely your work. Let us never fall into the error or thinking that we deserve your love, your grace, or your special privilege because of who we are or what we have done. And let us never forget that you have called and redeemed us not to condemn the world, but to be ministers of your grace that other sinners walking in darkness might be drawn to your light just as we have been. Teach us to pray for our enemies and to do good to those who persecute us. We ask this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.