with Tony W. Cartledge
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A New Prophet and an Old Response
Do you like conflict? Probably not. Few of us enjoy heated exchanges, especially with people who are close to us, yet there are probably more disagreements among family members than in any other setting. Fighting within the family always leads to discomfort, and sometimes it leads to danger.
Jesus’ visit to his home synagogue in Nazareth wasn’t exactly a family setting – only men were allowed, so his mother wouldn’t have been there. His adoptive father Joseph was probably dead by then, though some brothers may have still been around. Even so, when Jesus was asked to read from the prophets and offered a chance to teach, he was among friends. Nazareth was an out-of-the-way village that may have had no more than 200 residents in Jesus’ day. Most of the men sitting around would have watched Jesus grow up. They had seen him work. They knew how he treated others.
They thought they knew Jesus, but there was much about him that they hadn’t seen – and apparently weren’t ready to accept. But was there any good reason for wanting to throw him off a cliff?
One misunderstanding(vv. 21-22)
As we learned in last week’s lesson, Luke has Jesus returning to his hometown after gaining notoriety as an itinerant teacher and miracle worker. At the synagogue on the Sabbath, Jesus was asked to read a text from the prophets and to preach. He confidently unrolled the Isaiah scroll to a section that was probably written during the postexilic period, when life was hard for the Hebrews and hopes for a messianic deliverer were high.
Although Jesus would have read from a Hebrew text, Luke presents a loose reading of Isa. 61:1-2a from the Greek Septuagint, along with a line from Isa. 58:6. The result is this hopeful announcement: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).
The words were several hundred years old when Jesus read them aloud, and no one had stepped forward to embody them. The poor still struggled; oppression still reigned. Faithful Hebrews still longed for “the year of the Lord’s favor,” when they expected God to send a Messiah who would set all things right. It must have come as quite a shock for those who sat in the synagogue that day to hear Jesus boldly announce: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (v. 21).
Was Jesus claiming to be the longed-for savior they expected to defy Rome and lead the Hebrews to a glorious age? How could they believe such a thing?
Jesus’ sermon must have been impressive, for the listeners’ initial response seemed positive. “All spoke well of him,” Luke says, and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth” (v. 22a).
Whether the people were favorably impressed is not so clear as the NRSV suggests, but the cause for their conversation is. Literally, “they marveled at the words of grace that came out of his mouth.” The word translated as “marveled” or “were amazed” appears often as a response to Jesus, but typically to indicate wonder or curiosity that falls short of belief (see 4:36, 5:9, 8:25, 9:43, 11:14, and 20:26, in Luke alone). It’s one thing to hear Jesus’ teaching or see his mighty works and say “Oh, wow! That’s amazing!” It’s another thing to say “I believe: I will follow.”
And what was so amazing? It was “the words of grace that came out of his mouth.” The people marveled at the embodied grace they perceived in Jesus’ presence as well as his teaching, but they were also confused: “Is not this Joseph’s son?” (v. 22b). How could such an unassuming young carpenter suddenly morph into a miracle-working teacher who spoke such words of grace?
Could they believe that Joseph’s son, no matter how well spoken, was really the one sent to bring God’s salvation to Israel?
Two proverbs(vv. 23-24)
Jesus heard the congregation’s mixed response, and he knew the people better than they knew him. Having heard of Jesus’ activities in other places, they wanted him to back up his impressive words with a few mighty works to demonstrate his prophetic power.
Thus, Jesus said: “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’” (v. 23a). Some think “yourself” should be understood, by extension, to include “your hometown,” so the people were asking “Why heal the sick in other towns when there are people who need healing here in Nazareth?”
Others see the challenge as a taunt to a self-proclaimed Messiah who still dressed simply and led a mendicant ministry, depending on others to provide for him: “If you’re the one to bring such blessing to the world, why don’t you show more evidence of personal blessing?”
Either interpretation suggests that Jesus perceived a desire among the people for him to perform works of power to match his words of grace: “Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did in Capernaum” (v. 23b). As Satan had tempted Jesus to win people over by doing mighty works (4:9-12), so Jesus’ former neighbors wanted him to perform miracles in order to prove himself, but that was not Jesus’ way.
Jesus refused the unspoken request by quoting a second proverb: “No prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.” By means of this quotation, Jesus claimed the title of prophet, and made it clear that he had no expectation of being accepted in Nazareth.
This proverb also appears in the other Gospels, though in different contexts (Mark 6:4, Matt. 13:57, John 4:44). Here, as elsewhere, it led to widespread murmuring against Jesus. He refused to mold himself to the people’s preconceptions of what a prophet should do. He would not settle down and become the village miracle-worker, attracting visitors from all over to promote the local economy.
Two prophets(vv. 25-27)
Jesus responded to the desire for miracles by citing two Old Testament prophets who were also misunderstood, and whose acts of healing or succor took place outside of their expected circle. Elijah was active during a time of drought when many Israelite widows could have used help, but the one he helped was a Gentile woman who lived near Tyre. There are no stories about Elisha healing lepers in Israel, but he healed Naaman, an enemy general from nearby Syria.
Perhaps it is significant that both the Sidonian widow and the Syrian leper were asked to demonstrate significant faith prior to the miracles done in their behalf. In Matthew’s version of this story, the issue of miracles is not a matter of will, but of ability. Matthew claims that Jesus could do no mighty works in Nazareth precisely because of the people’s unbelief (Matt. 13:54-58, compare Mark 6:1-6). Luke is most concerned with the acceptance of Gentiles, so he does not press the faith issue as Matthew does.
Two responses(vv. 28-30)
Is it surprising that the people of Nazareth took offense at Jesus’ words? We have a sense that the discussion has now moved beyond the synagogue to an outer venue with a larger crowd. Jesus had impressed them with his speech, but refused to demonstrate his power by doing miracles. He claimed to be the Messiah, but talked about prophets being rejected by their own and reaching out to foreigners.
Mark says the people were offended (Mark 6:4), but Luke says they were “filled with rage.” How dare this young upstart turn away from his own people, challenge their traditions, and expose their prejudices?
Not only did the offended people become angry with Jesus, but they also forcibly threw him out of town and tried to throw him off a cliff. Nothing in the law would have called for such a response: the rising tide of anger led to the formation of a lynch mob so determined to stone Jesus that they brought him out to a cliff on the edge of town.
Jesus ruined their plans, however. He managed to melt into the crowd and simply walk away. How could he have done this except by some exercise of supernatural power? It’s hard to avoid the irony: the people who wanted to see a miracle had one performed right before their eyes, but were unable to see it.
Today’s text demands that we ask ourselves what we expect of Jesus, and whether we also reject him when we don’t get what we want out of our relationship. Some people mistakenly think that Jesus promises perfect protection or miracles on call, but that is not the case: Jesus calls us to follow because it is the right thing to do, not as a method for meeting selfish needs.
Those who find the demands of the gospel difficult to accept or to follow sometimes reject Jesus by dropping out of church, or turning their backs on faith altogether – metaphorical ways of throwing Jesus over a cliff so we don’t have to be confronted with his challenge. Have you ever found yourself in this picture? BT
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Adult Teaching Resources
Download the PDF for January 31, 2015 teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide, Digging Deeper, and Hardest Question pages.
Read Scripture online: Luke 4:21-30
Teacher Prep | Youth & This Session
Our students have lots of expectations placed on them. Sometimes they place these expectations on themselves, but many times, external forces place these expectations on them. Help your students wade through which expectations will help them become who they are called to be from those expectations that will just keep them tied down. As you help your students through this process, also talk with them about the expectations they have for their faith. Ask them the same questions about their faith expectations as for their own expectations. When they compare the two, they will begin to see how they go hand-in-hand.
Teaching Resources | Download
Download the PDF for youth teaching resources. This PDF contains the FIT Teaching Guide for this lesson.
Encourage youth to check out this video ahead of the lesson.
“There’s No Place Like Home” from The Wizard of Oz via www.youtube.com
Read Scripture online: Luke 4:21-30