One of the great things about being a pastor is that I get to regularly talk to people about the Bible and how it works. On Tuesday’s I publish old sermons that have been slightly reworked to become longer form blog posts. This is one of those sermons.
My dad always used to joke that when he was a kid his parents didn’t really know much of anything. But then he went off to university and when he came home he was shocked by how much his parents had learned over those few short years he was away! The truth is, for so many of us, we grow up thinking we know so much and then we go off and spend a few years in the real world, only to return home and discover how little we knew in the first place.
But at the same time, for people back home, they typically have the opposite reaction. For them, they watch us grow up and then we leave home for whatever reason—maybe we go off to university, or we move away for a job or join the military. When we return, it’s easy for those people to assume we’re still the same little kids that we always were; that nothing has really changed for us.
I grew up in Arizona and South Dakota, but I moved to the Maritimes 12 years ago for school and I’ve basically been living here ever since. So when I do go back to South Dakota for Christmas or just to visit, sometimes it’s easy for people to forget that I’ve spent the last 12 years growing and developing into a more mature, responsible version of myself.
The same thing can happen if you attend a high school reunion or something like that. When you go to your high school reunion, everyone more or less assumes that you’re the exact same person you were back then. If you were the class clown, you’re probably still the funny one. If you were a jock, you’re probably still into sports. If you were a cheerleader, you’re probably whatever the adult version of a cheerleader is.
As we continue with this series Scandal: The Offensive Gospel of Jesus we’re asking the question, “What is is about all the things that Jesus said and did, all the miracles and teachings that made the religious leaders so angry?” What is it about Jesus that made everyone decide that they had no other choice but to kill him?
Last week we took a look at Jesus baptism and why that was so significant. We talked about how Jesus came as Immanuel, God with us, and how he chose to identify with sinful Israel rather than judge them. This week, I want to turn to another interesting story. This time from Luke chapter 4. We’re going to examine verse 14 through 30 when Jesus returns to Nazareth.
This is what Luke 4:14-30 says:
14Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. 15He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.
16He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
18“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked.
23Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’ ”
24“Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”
28All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. 30But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.
Okay, now this is an interesting narrative in the life of Jesus. First of all, this story, albeit a truncated version, is also found in Matthew and Mark. However, in both of those gospels, it’s not found at the beginning of Jesus ministry, but rather right in the middle of it. Luke is the only one that puts this story at the beginning.
That’s because Luke is not trying to write a gospel that is specifically chronological. He’s not simply trying to record events in the order they happened. Rather Luke and the other Gospel writers have this tendency to take and rearrange the events of Jesus life in order to tell a specific story. Each Gospel was written with a specific purpose in mind. In order to drive home that purpose, the writers would group certain stories together, rearrange narrative events or sometimes even omit stories altogether. The last line of John’s gospel even says as much when he says, “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”
So for Luke, placing this narrative of Jesus’ return to Nazareth at the beginning of his gospel is meant to convey something. Luke wants us to understand the rest of his gospel, as well as the book of Acts, in light of this passage. This passage is viewed as kind of a focusing lens for everything else. Luke is essentially saying “This is important! This is what it’s all about!”
Joel B. Green confirms this idea in his commentary when he says, “As Luke has shaped his narrative, then, the ministry of Jesus in Nazareth at the outset of his public ministry is of central importance to the Gospel as a whole, and thus also to Luke-Acts. It defines to a significant extent the nature of Jesus’ ministry, establishing a critical narrative need for Jesus to perform in ways that grow out of and reflect this missionary program.”
This event doesn’t actually happen at the beginning of Jesus ministry, but Luke places it there in order for us to understand what Jesus ministry is ultimately all about. Okay, so what happens? Why is this so important? Well, as we see in the text, Jesus goes to the synagogue and reads from the scroll of Isaiah. But we have a problem here. Jesus is reading from Isaiah 61 verses 1-2… kind of. In Luke, we’re told that Jesus reads this:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.
But if you compare that with Isaiah 61:1-2, you’ll notice there are some differences. Isaiah 61:1-2 says,
The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn.
If you compare these two passages they don’t exactly match up. Isaiah talks about binding up the broken heart, but Jesus doesn’t say that. He also leaves out the entire second half of verse 2, the stuff talking about the day of vengeance of God. He also adds in this line about setting the oppressed free, which is actually taken from Isaiah 58:6. And recovery of sight for the blind isn’t in the original text, but you could maybe argue that he’s getting that from Isaiah’s talk about release from darkness?
Now, for us, this probably seems rather peculiar. Jesus stands up to read from the scroll of Isaiah and messes up the reading? How exactly does that work? Jesus was actually using a technique common in that time called Targum. Targum was this ancient practice of paraphrasing and explaining the Scriptures all at the same time. This practice came about because the Scriptures were written in Hebrew but by the first century CE people in Palestine mostly spoke Aramaic. So the practice was to read the Scriptures in Hebrew then give a Targum in Aramaic that helps explain what the Scripture means.
And that’s what Jesus does. He reads Isaiah 61, but then he Targums it—that’s not a real verb by the way)—he Targums it in Aramaic by removing some lines and adding others from 58:6 which he believes will give further context to the passage.
This Isaiah passage is essentially about the Messiah. It’s a passage that describes what the Messiah will do when he arrives. And in verse 21 from our Luke passage Jesus says, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” He reads a passage about the coming Messiah and says, “This is finally happening.” The Messiah is no longer some future event for us to anticipate, it’s a present reality. Jesus am the long awaited Messiah and the Spirit of the Lord is on him to do all the things this passage suggests.
This is why the people spoke well of him and were amazed by his gracious words. Obviously, the Messiah is good news for Israel. He’s here to proclaim good news for the poor and set free the oppressed. Who’s more poor and oppressed than Israel?
Furthermore, as he says in verse 19, he’s here to “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” The year of the Lord’s favour is an interesting phrase. It’s a reference to the Year of Jubilee talked about in Leviticus 25. The idea of the year of Jubilee was that, every seven years Israel was supposed to take a break and not work the land. They were supposed to give land a rest. But then, after seven sabbath years, or seven sets of seven years, they were supposed to declare a year of Jubilee where everything would be reset. Debts were cancelled, slaves were freed and land was returned to its rightful owners.
According to Isaiah 61, when the Messiah comes he’s supposed to declare the ultimate year of Jubilee. On a global scale, he’s supposed to cancel debts, free slaves and return the land to its rightful owners once and for all. And here in Nazareth sit a bunch of Jews intimately aware that they are sitting on stolen land. We touched on this last week. The Roman Empire controls the land that clearly, rightfully belongs to them. They are fully expecting, with Jesus announcement regarding the year of Jubilee, that they will be given back what, in their minds, rightfully belongs to them.
Of course, this is good news for them. Who doesn’t want to hear that kind of news? And notice their initial response. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked. Essentially, they’re claiming him for themselves. They’re claiming that Jesus has always been from Nazareth and that they should be first in line for any blessings he might give out.
In this sense, it’s kind of like when someone wins the lottery and suddenly they get a call from their great aunt who informs them that they’ve always been her favourite. That’s essentially what’s going on here. Jesus declares he’s the Messiah and he’s going to set captives free and they reply with, “Jesus… you’re the son of Joseph, right? I’m pretty sure you grew up down the street from me. You know I’ve always been a big fan of yours. Those miracles you did in Capernaum… wow. Did I forget to mention that our moms used to get together for tea?”
Now, Jesus could have ended there. He could have simply told them that as the Messiah he’s here to proclaim good news to the poor, set the oppressed free, cancel debts and return the land to its rightful owners and let them get all excited for what’s to come. But he doesn’t. His response it peculiar. Verse 23 says,
Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: Physician heal yourself. And you will tell me ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard you did in Capernaum.’”
Which is essential Jesus way of saying, “Since you think I’m the Messiah, you’re clearly going to want me to start with you. Pour out blessing on you. But it doesn’t work that way.” He then continues in verse 24,
“Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.”
All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff.
The people are very clearly upset with what Jesus said. But why? They weren’t upset with him for proclaiming he was the Messiah. They were completely okay with that. They liked that part of his message. They were upset when he reminded them that sometimes God blesses people outside of Israel. Jesus references a widow in the region of Sidon and Naaman, the commander of the Syrian army. These aren’t just outsiders, these are the enemies of Israel. Jesus is saying that in this new Messianic age, that he will bless everyone; even their enemies. This caused them to go into a fit of rage and try to kill him.
In Luke, the term “poor” has broader implications than just economic poverty. Later in his same commentary, Joel B. Green says this,
“In that culture, one’s status in a community was not so much a function of economic realities, but depended on a number of elements, including education, gender, family heritage, religious purity, vocation, economics, and so on. Thus, lack of subsistence might account for one’s designation as ‘poor’, but so might other disadvantaged conditions, and ‘poor’ would serve as a cipher for those of low status, for those excluded according to normal canons of status honour in Mediterranean world. Hence, although ‘poor’ is hardly devoid of economic significance, for Luke this wider meaning of diminished status honour is paramount.”
For Jesus, his mission to proclaim good news for the poor meant good news for anyone anywhere who was in any way disadvantaged. And Jesus reminded them of that reality when he referenced Elijah and Elisha. The people in Nazareth assumed that Isaiah 61 was talking exclusively about them. They assumed that they were the poor, they were the marginalized, they were the disenfranchised. But by referencing Elijah and Elisha, Jesus reminds them that God’s grace is for everyone. God’s blessing is for all people, not just those on the inside.
This is the heart of Luke’s gospel. At the centre of Luke is the idea that Jesus has come for anyone and everyone who has been marginalized. The eschatological or the ultimate year of Jubilee will restore everything, not just what’s imbalanced for Israel. And the people in Nazareth didn’t like this idea. The truth is, they didn’t have a problem with the system, they had a problem with their current place within the system. They were okay with inequality, as long as God would come and make them top dog again. They were expecting God to show up and move them up the food chain to the top spot.
But what Jesus said and what Jesus is doing is destroying the system altogether. In Jesus’ Kingdom, there aren’t winners and losers. There are just people. I love how David Neale puts it in his commentary,
“Luke’s social vision is one in which the present societal structures will be upended. Oppression and need will be abolished by the reign of God. Joy will replace the suffering of the lowly.”
When you talk about doing away with entire societal structures, this is simultaneously good new and bad news. Doing away with the system is great news for anyone on the bottom, but it’s terrible news to those who are already winning. This is why Jesus message in Nazareth was so scandalous. Because it forced the people there in that synagogue to confront their own prejudice. Jesus declared that God was working in him and through him to bless all people, not just Israel.
This is interesting, because this is exactly what God said he would do all those years ago through Abraham. In Genesis 12, God speaks to Abraham and says,
I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all people on earth will be blessed through you.
“I will bless you and you will be a blessing.”
“All people on earth will be blessed through you.”
Later in Genesis 22 God says this again, “Through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” God blesses all people, not just those on the inside. The Spirit of the Lord is on Jesus to tell all poor people everywhere the good news that the system itself is about to be destroyed.
In a lot of ways, this reminds me of the Occupy Wall Street movement from a few years back. The movement was basically a protest regarding income inequality in the United States. The issue was that the top 1% richest people in America held an inordinate share of the wealth. Something like 25% of all money in the US was held by this 1%. And I don’t want to minimize the Occupy Wall Street movement or anything that they were saying. Income inequality within the United States is a legitimate issue. However, what the Occupy Wall Street issue completely overlooked was that just about everyone in the United States is part of the top 10% riches people in the world.
I looked this up just this week. If you go to GlobalRichList.com you can see this for yourself. If you make $18,000 a year Canadian, you’re part of the richest 10% of people in the world. And in so many ways, it feels like Occupy Wall Street didn’t care about where they fit within the global system—the fact that they’re still in the top 10% of all people everywhere. They only cared that, within the US economic system, they were on the bottom.
And effectively, Jesus message at Nazareth would have been like going to the Occupy Wall Street movement and saying, “I’m about to level the playing field between the rich and the poor!” Everyone would have cheered. But then he reveals, “And you’re the rich!” There are people all over the place who have it way, way worse than you do. Who are far more impoverished than you are. And the destruction of this whole system will benefit them way more you.
No wonder they were furious. No wonder they tried to throw him off a cliff. What do you mean God’s not going to bless us? What do you mean God is going to bless our enemies? Luke’s gospel starts with this assertion that God is not going to play favourites with Israel but that he’s going to bless all people everywhere no matter who they are or what they’ve done. And their response, trying to kill Jesus, speaks to the level of their prejudice. Their response of anger shows just how despicable this idea is in their minds.
This passage should cause us to confront our own prejudices and assumptions as well. So here are some questions I want us to think about and wrestle with this week.
Number one, who is your enemy? Who is on the outside? Who are the people that you couldn’t imagine God blessing? The people of Nazareth thought they were the in-group. They thought they were God’s favourites, God’s special possession and they considered everyone else out; the Syrians, the Romans, the Sidonites. Because of that, they thought God would bless them, while bringing destruction to everyone else.
Who is your enemy? Maybe for you, it’s a political group like liberals or conservatives. Republicans or Democrats. Maybe it’s people from another religion; Muslims or Buddhist or atheists. Maybe it’s just a different demographic like people in the LGBTQ community, scientists, or people from Ontario. Maybe for you, it’s not a group, but a person. Maybe for you, it’s your coworker or the person who works in the next cubicle. It’s someone else that attends your church. When you’re really honest with yourself, who is your enemy?
Number two, and this should hit us in the gut, if we’re being totally honest, do we actually believe God loves us more than them? When thinking about our enemies, do we somewhere deep down have the belief that God wants to bless us more than he wants to bless them? Do we, somewhere in our heart, want God to shower us with all of his goodness but see our enemies get what’s coming to them? How do we feel when we see them experience the blessing of God? Can we celebrate with them and for them? Or is there a little twinge of jealousy?
Third and finally, I mentioned before that in the Kingdom of God there are no winners and losers, just people. Do you want to live in that kind of Kingdom? Do you actually want to be part of the kingdom of God if the reality is everyone is welcome? If the way we participate in the kingdom of God is by loving our enemies and praying for those who persecute us is that really somewhere we want to be?
Jesus continually reminds us that his kingdom is radically different than the kingdoms of this world. The top down, “might equals right” mentality that the rest of the world operates on doesn’t happen in the kingdom of Jesus. Do we really want to experience the kingdom of God or, if we’re being honest, do we actually like this system, we just want God to put us on top?
For Luke, the heart of the Gospel is Jesus proclaiming good news for all the poor anywhere and everywhere. But this good news confronts our prejudice regardless of wherever it’s found. Who is your enemy? Do you think God loves you more than he loves them? Do you really want to participate in the Kingdom of God when it means the complete and total levelling of the playing field?