A Provocation: Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany: February 3, 2019:Luke 4:21-30


21        He began to say to them:
                 Today it has been fulfilled,
                      this writing,
     in your ears.
22   Everyone was bearing favorable witness to him.
           They were amazed regarding the words,
                the gracious words,
                those coming out of his mouth.
           They were saying:
                Isn’t this one a son of Joseph?
23   He said to them:
           Certainly you will say to me this parable:
                Healer,
                     cure yourself.
           What things we heard happened into Capernaum,
                do also here in your hometown.
24   He said:
           Amen I am talking to you:
                No prophet is acceptable in his hometown.
25       On truth I am talking to you:
               Many widows there were,
                    in the days of Eliyahu,
               in Israel,
                    when it was locked,
                         the heaven,
                    upon to three years and six months
                    as it happened:
                         a great famine
                         on all the land.
26                 To not one of them
                    was sent Eliyahu
                         if not into Zarephath of Sidonia,
                              to a woman
                                   a widow.
27            Many lepers there were
                    in Israel
                         on Elisha
                              (Elohim is salvation)
                         the prophet.
               None of them was cleansed,
                    if not Naaman the Syrian.
28   They were filled,
           all,
      with anger,
           all in the synagogue
      when they heard these things.
29        They stood up;
            they threw him out,
                out of the city.
           They drove him up to the cliff
                 on which their city was built
            so as throw him down.
30   He came through the middle of them
      He walked.

A Question or Two:

  • Did you read the scene from last week?
  • Did you notice the warmth of the welcome?
  • If not, go back and read it slowly again.

Some Longer Reflections:

Last week, we noticed that Jesus was gladly welcomed in synagogues throughout Galilee and (in fact) in Nazareth. That means that the scene this week takes place in the context of warm reception, not rejection. This matters. Some interpreters read this scene as a story of how Jesus “came to his own, and his own received him not,” revealing that they would be happier reading the gospel of John than the gospel of Luke.

Everywhere Jesus turns in Luke’s story he meets an observant Jew who welcomes him. Whether it’s Zacchaeus or the thief on the cross, Jesus finds faithful Jews everywhere. John the Baptist finds the same thing: tax collectors and soldiers are presented as reluctant representatives of Roman authority, and John gives them simple tasks that will allow them to live as Jews even if they are trapped into working for Rome.

This context of warm welcome is crucial for reading the scene for this Sunday.

I read this sabbath as being tied to Yom Kippur (see my Provocation for the Third Sunday after the Epiphany for the more detailed argument), and that means that the focus of synagogue worship that day is on the gracious welcome of God and on the importance of healing the hurts that you may have caused in the preceding year. When Jesus reads from Isaiah 61, the congregants hear God’s gracious promise: in the Book of Heaven are written the names of people who have been crushed, exiled, imprisoned.

The audience, both in Nazareth and in Luke’s later time, will have known a great deal about crushing and exile. They will have remembered the Assyrian Conquest in 722 B.C.E. They will have remembered the Babylonian Conquest in 586 B.C.E. They will have remembered the crushing persecution of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. And the audience listening to Luke will have remembered how Rome crushed the First Jewish Revolt in 70 C.E. In that disaster, some 30 years before Luke’s story was first composed in the form we now have, perhaps 1 million Jews had been killed, Jerusalem had been sacked, and the Temple had been destroyed.

When Jesus read from Second Isaiah, the congregants will have heard God’s words of healing and comfort directed to people whose world had been smashed to bits.

By Gentiles.

That matters. Each disaster, each crushing devastation, had been inflicted by outsiders who acted as enemies. The audience will have known that and will have heard Isaiah’s words as a promise like the one you can hear in the Christian hymn, This Is My Father’s World: “That though the wrong seems oft so strong / God is the ruler yet.” You can understand why they were pleased.

What happens next is complicated. Jesus’ words, “Healer, cure yourself,” come out of nowhere. No one has suggested anything of the sort. It is, of course, a common experience. I can get away with thinking of myself as an international expert when I am invited to a conference in Italy, but if I tell the story of that conference to one of my teachers from high school, they still remember me as a goofy kid who was (more than occasionally) a little annoying as a student. Everyone learns sometime that, to the people at home, you are still a little kid.

But, to say it again, NO ONE have suggested anything like this. If the fight is about a prophet in his hometown, Jesus picked that fight on his own. That is strange.

Jesus’ next words take the fight in a different direction altogether. All of a sudden he is talking about a widow in Sidon and a commander in Syria. Those places are not just places on a map, they are the homes of enemies. The armies of Syria had attacked the people of Israel, and Elisha healed Naaman anyhow. And the people of Sidon, in the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, had gladly joined the brutal persecution of Jews. This last bit of history is, of course, out of order: Elijah had met the widow centuries before Antiochus came to power, but both Jesus’ audience and Luke’s will have known Sidon as the home of violent oppressors.

Maybe now the reaction of the congregants in Nazareth makes sense. They weren’t nationalists who hated all outsiders. They were people who had just heard God’s words of tender comfort to people who had been crushed at the hands of enemies (some of whom came from Sidon and some from Syria, among other places). And now Jesus had hijacked those words and had applied the comfort to the enemy.

Think about that slowly. If Jesus’ words don’t offend you, think more slowly still.

If Sidon and Syria don’t trip your trigger (I use the cliché intentionally), substitute Harvey Weinstein. Substitute the KKK. Substitute anyone who has harmed you, intentionally and gladly.

Probably now you are offended. You should be.

What in the world is Jesus up to? Don’t excuse him too quickly. Maybe don’t excuse him at all. You can make up all sorts of safe ways to read this: maybe Jesus is saying that there are sad Romans, too; maybe Jesus is making the point that God is the God of the WHOLE WORLD, not just us; or maybe Jesus is saying that there are good people on both sides of those boundaries. Think slowly. And pay attention to the offense, especially the offense of each of these “safe” ways of finding the “gospel” in this text. It also could be that Jesus is picking a fight that he should have left alone.

It could be that Luke is telling a story in which Jesus is wrong. Or at least clueless. That interpretation, at the least, makes sense of his petulant words about being a prophet in his hometown.

Or it could be that this scene reveals that finding observant Jews everywhere is not simply (and not ever) a pretty little greeting-card-gospel. If Jesus and John the Baptist find faithful Jews everywhere, even among Roman collaborators, it may be because the miracle of turning the world right-side-up has already begun. If that is what is going on in this story out of Nazareth, it is your task to figure out how we participate now in the right-side-up-ing of the world. That is not a simple task, but it is essential. The hyper-partisanship of our current situation is prime evident that the world is upside down. We will die of that partisanship. We will die.

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