LUKE 4:14-30. JESUS’ VISIT TO THE NAZARETH SYNAGOGUE
The common lectionary divides the story of Jesus’ visit to his hometown synagogue:
• Verses 14-21 (Epiphany 3C) tell of Jesus’ initially favorable reception and his reading from the scroll of Isaiah.
• Verses 21-30 (Epiphany 4C) continue Jesus’ remarks and record the hostile response of the congregation.
Luke places this story at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry, not because of concern for chronology, but because this story is a paradigm for Jesus’ ministry and for the ministry of the church in the book of Acts (also written by Luke). It is the story of Jesus and the early church writ small so we might see it at a glance.
• Jesus first comes to the Jewish people in a stable in the city of David (macrocosm); now he comes to the synagogue in his hometown (microcosm).
• Just as the Jewish people will receive Jesus favorably because of his teachings and miracles (macrocosm), so also the people of Nazareth “wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth” (microcosm).
• Just as the crowds, at the instigation of the religious leaders, will turn on Jesus and demand his crucifixion (macrocosm), so also the people of Nazareth become enraged at his preaching and try to throw him off a cliff (microcosm).
• Just as Jesus’ resurrection will overcome the crucifixion (macrocosm), so also “he, passing through their midst, went his way” (microcosm).
This is also the basic outline of the book of Acts. In that book:
• The apostles begin their ministry in Jerusalem—every Jew’s hometown.
• The people receive them favorably on the day of Pentecost, and three thousand people are baptized (Acts 2).
• The story quickly turns, and the church is persecuted, often severely.
• Nevertheless, the church spreads rapidly. The book of Acts concludes with Paul in Rome, where he spends two years welcoming “all who were coming to him, preaching the Kingdom of God, and teaching the things concerning the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness, without hindrance” (Acts 28:30-31).
LUKE 4:21-24. TODAY!
21He began to tell them, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
22All testified about him (Greek: emarturoun auto—was testifying or bearing witness to him), and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth, and they said, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”
23He said to them, “Doubtless you will tell me this parable, ‘Physician, heal yourself! Whatever we have heard done at Capernaum, do also here in your hometown.'” 24He said, “Most certainly I tell you, no prophet is acceptable (Greek: dektos—welcome) in his hometown.”
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (v. 21). Jesus’ preaching begins with the word “Today.” The prophets conveyed promises for the future, but Jesus conveys promises for today. The waiting is over. The time has come. The Spirit of the Lord is upon Jesus now. He brings good news to the poor today. He proclaims, at this very moment, release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind. He has already begun to let the oppressed go free to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (v. 18). In this Gospel, Jesus will speak on several occasions of the kingdom of God as being already present (11:20; 16:16; 17:20-21).
The Jewish people have waited centuries for the messiah. They have seen God work miracle after miracle throughout their history, from the parting of the Red Sea to the incineration of the prophets of Baal, so we would expect them to be ready to receive the messiah —but we would be wrong. As we will see in this Gospel lesson, they are anything but ready. It has been four hundred years since they have seen a prophet, except for John the Baptist who is now preaching in the wilderness, and they don’t expect today to be the day. It has been a long time—centuries—since God promised a messiah, and they have grown weary of waiting—like a guard fallen asleep at his post. Jesus says, “TODAY this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” TODAY! But they aren’t ready today! They begin by speaking well of Jesus (v. 22), but almost immediately turn on him and try to kill him (v. 30).
This story should be instructive to us. Jesus has promised to come again. It has been a long time since he made that promise, and our guard is down—we have grown weary of waiting. The day will come when Jesus will announce, “TODAY!”—and everything will hinge on our readiness to receive him.
“All testified about him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth, and they said, ‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son?'” (v. 22). Some scholars think of this comment as negative. Who does Jesus think he is? Has he gotten too big for his britches? The reference to Joseph could point to the embarrassing circumstances of Jesus’ birth. Matthew 13:54-56 and Mark 6:2-3 reinforce this by characterizing the people’s response as negative from the beginning. However, in Luke’s telling, this hometown crowd “wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth.” It seems that they are surprised at the kid from down the block who has begun an exciting work and whose presence now fills their pulpit.
“Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” (v. 22b). Green characterizes this as a “subtle joke between narrator and reader, (because) we (Luke’s readers…)… know that Jesus is Son of God, not son of Joseph; he comes to fulfill the purpose of God, not to be restricted either by the demands of the devil (4:1-13) or, now, by those of his own townspeople” (Green, 215).
“Doubtless you will tell me this parable, ‘Physician, heal yourself! Whatever we have heard done at Capernaum, do also here in your hometown'” (v. 23). Luke has not yet reported on the things that Jesus did in Capernaum, but instead has Jesus going to Capernaum immediately after this visit to Nazareth (vs. 31). However, as noted above, Luke places the story of Jesus’ visit to Nazareth earlier than do either Mark or Matthew because his interest is emphasis rather than chronology. Matthew tells us that Jesus left Nazareth “and lived in Capernaum, which is by the sea” at the very beginning of his ministry, even before he called his disciples (Matthew 4:13). Mark has him teaching and working miracles in Capernaum at the very beginning of his ministry (Mark 1:21-34). John has him going to Capernaum immediately after working his first miracle in Cana (John 2:12). It seems almost certain that, by the time Jesus addresses the Nazareth congregation, he is living in Capernaum rather than Nazareth.
Jesus’ comment makes it clear that he has done wonderful things in Capernaum, and the hometown folk expect him to do at least as much for them. It is a call for Jesus to match his “gracious words” (v. 22) with great deeds. Capernaum has many Gentiles among its population and is thus (in Jewish minds) less deserving. Now that Jesus is among his own people—God’s people—Nazareth expects great things of him.
In context, the phrase “Physician, cure yourself!” (v. 23) appears to mean, “If you were able to heal the undeserving people of Capernaum, you should be able to do even better for your own people.” It is a call for loyalty to the in-crowd. At the cross, scoffers will respond to Jesus in much this same way. They will jeer, “He saved others. Let him save himself, if this is the Christ of God, his chosen one!” (23:35).
“Most certainly I tell you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown” (v. 24). Jesus cannot accept the narrowing of his mission that the people of Nazareth would impose on him. He cannot reserve his generosity for hometown folk. He cannot devote himself to the local arena. Instead, he must tell these hometown folk a truth that they do not want to hear, and he can predict their response. They are not going to be happy.
Indeed, Israel has a long history of rejecting prophets (2 Chronicles 36:16; Jeremiah 2:30; Amos 2:12; Matthew 23:37; Luke 13:34; 1 Thessalonians 2:15; Hebrews 11:32 ff.). Prophets are seldom popular, because God sends them to say unpopular things. They tell of judgment and call people to make changes that they don’t want to make.
LUKE 4:25-27. THERE WERE MANY WIDOWS IN ISRAEL
25“But truly I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the sky was shut up three years and six months, when a great famine came over all the land. 26Elijah was sent to none of them, except to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. 27There were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed, except Naaman, the Syrian.”
“But truly I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah…Elijah was sent to none of them, except to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow” (vs. 25-26). This story from 1 Kings 17 would be familiar to this crowd. In the midst of a life-threatening drought, God sent Elijah to Zarephath to ask a poor widow for water and bread. She protested that she had just enough for one loaf for herself and her son, and then they were going to die. Elijah asked her to obey in faith, promising, “The jar of meal shall not empty, neither shall the jar of oil fail, until the day that Yahweh sends rain on the earth” (1 Kings 17:14). She responded as requested, and was duly rewarded. Later her son died, and Elijah prayed successfully that his life might be restored. There is only one problem with this lovely story. The widow was a Gentile. The people listening to Jesus would know that.
“There were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed, except Naaman, the Syrian” (v. 27). This story from 2 Kings 5:1-14 is equally familiar, but subject to the same flaw—Naaman was also a Gentile. Jesus’ mention of Naaman must be especially galling to this Nazareth crowd, because Naaman was a Syrian army commander, and the mention of his name would bring to mind the Roman soldiers who now occupy Israel.
Luke already reported John’s warning to the Jewish crowds in the wilderness, “Bring forth therefore fruits worthy of repentance, and don’t begin to say among yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our father;’ for I tell you that God is able to raise up children to Abraham from these stones!” (3:8). The Jewish people must not consider their relationship with God to be an exclusive franchise. Jesus reinforced that message by beginning his work in Capernaum (see Matthew 4:13), a place where many Gentiles live. The Nazareth crowd has not yet rejected Jesus, because they expect that he will do even more wonderful things in Nazareth. Now, however, he speaks clearly and decisively, drawing from their own scriptures to dash their expectations. They cannot expect exclusive privileges just because they are Jewish.
LUKE 4:28-30. THEY WERE ALL FILLED WITH WRATH
28They were all filled with wrath in the synagogue, as they heard these things. 29They rose up, threw him out of the city, and led him to the brow of the hill that their city was built on, that they might throw him off the cliff. 30But he, passing through their midst, went his way.
“They were all filled with wrath in the synagogue, as they heard these things” (v. 28). Jewish people think of Isaiah 61:1, which Jesus quotes at Nazareth (vv. 18-19), as a promise to Israel—that the messiah will bring good news to oppressed Israel, will bind up the brokenhearted of Israel, and proclaim liberty to captive Israel. They think of the phrase, “the day of vengeance of our God” in Isaiah 61:2—which Jesus did not include in his quotation—as promising judgment on Israel’s enemies. In other words, they expect the messiah to deliver Israel and to wreak vengeance on Israel’s enemies. However, Jesus reminds them of a low point in their history, when God brought famine on Israel as a judgment but saved a Gentile widow. Jesus also reminds them of God’s mercy on Gentile Naaman. His message is the opposite of the one that they expect to hear, and they are furious. We should not judge them too harshly, however, because we, too, are easily angered when someone tells a truth that we don’t want to hear.
“They rose up, threw him out of the city, and led him to the brow of the hill that their city was built on, that they might throw him off the cliff” (v. 29). This could be a stoning procedure—accomplished by pushing a person over a cliff or into a low place so that the crowd can stand above and throw stones. Leviticus 24:14 required such stonings to take place outside of town (see also Acts 7:58; 14:19). Stoning is appropriate for a false prophet (Deuteronomy 13:1-11). However, it is also possible that the crowd is simply functioning as an enraged mob with no agenda other than venting rage and eliminating its source.
As stated above, this story is a paradigm for the rest of Jesus’ ministry—and also for the ministry of the early church in the book of Acts. It prepares us for:
• Jesus’ continuing emphasis on ministry to out-groups.
• The growing opposition to Jesus by Jewish leaders and the crowd’s insistence that Jesus be crucified (23:18).
• The persecution of the church in the book of Acts (also written by Luke).
• The eventual acceptance of Gentiles into the church that will begin with Peter’s vision in Acts 10.
• Paul’s statement, “Be it known therefore to you, that the salvation of God is sent to the nations. They will also listen” (Acts 28:28).
“But he, passing through their midst, went his way” (vs. 30). Luke will tell other stories of miraculous escapes:
• An angel will free Peter from prison (Acts 12:6-11).
• The crowds will stone Paul and leave him for dead, but he will revive and continue to Derbe where he will resume his ministry (Acts 14:19-20).
• An earthquake will free Paul and Silas from prison, resulting in the conversion of the jailer and his household (Acts 16:25-34).
• Forty Jews will form a conspiracy against Paul and bind themselves to an oath to kill him, but they were unable to lay a hand on him (Acts 23:12-22).
Perhaps we could summarize by saying that, when a person responds faithfully to God’s call, God will not allow interlopers to thwart that call. That falls short of total protection. God’s servants have been imprisoned, stoned, shipwrecked, beaten, and even martyred—but they have not been stopped. As Julian of Norwich put it:
“God said not, ‘Thou shalt not be tempested,
thou shalt not be travailed,
thou shalt not be afflicted,’
but he said, ‘Thou shalt not be overcome.'”
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2010, 2012, Richard Niell Donovan