Nazareth: Joseph’s son?

JesusIconNazarethToday. 20 Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. 21 He said to them, “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” With the reading complete, Jesus takes the posture (sitting) of the teacher – as he was expected to do. All eyes are upon him, his reputation preceding, his choice of scripture provocative – the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. Then simply and powerfully Jesus tells them that this great promise of God given in Isaiah, this promise of the long-awaited Messiah has been fulfilled.

The first half of this text (Luke 4:14-21) presented us with a new future in the person of Jesus. Jesus had returned to his hometown and aroused expectations that the hoped for “day” of God’s new work in history was “today!” The unfolding of the hopes of centuries was at hand! The “days are coming” of the prophets was turning into “today,” according to Jesus.

The question that hangs heavily in the air is, “what now?” In some way, Jesus has “made his move” before the hometown crowd. He has proclaimed the “year of the Lord’s favor” (v. 19). The next move is up to the people. How will they respond? What will they do in light of this new future? Will they embrace it?

The People Amazed. 22 And all spoke highly of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They also asked, “Isn‘t this the son of Joseph?”

The immediate response of the “hometown folks” to Jesus’ words was very positive. They were amazed and spoke well of him (v.22) – and perhaps with good reasons. One motivation not often discussed in the commentaries is a “siege mentality.” Imagine the ones at the synagogue are more a faithful remnant than a flourishing community. There were gentiles all around. Phoenicians lived to the west and north, Samaritans to the south, Greeks to the west. They were far away from the good influence of Jerusalem. They were surrounded by these pagan influences. It is hard to be a good, pious Jew in the city of Nazareth. It’s no wonder that Nathaniel said to Philip, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth.” Nazareth was not a good place to hand on the faith. “But now Jesus is coming home and we have heard great things about him.” However, the turn at the end of v.22 is ambiguous. How are we to understand the question: “Isn‘t this the son of Joseph?”

There are some scholars that take this phrase to be completely negative from the start. They understand all of these statements as part of the rejection motif and expressions of scorn and doubt that are a direct response to Jesus’ claim. Following this line of thought, the people of Nazareth rejected Jesus on the basis that he was only Joseph’s son. They were suspicious that someone who grew up in Nazareth, someone who they had watched grow up, could possibly do the things they had heard, and even more unlikely that he could bring the future they were expecting. This interpretation follows very closely with the way both Matthew (13:53-58) and Mark (6:1-6) characterize this event. Both place the people’s comments about Jesus being Joseph’s son in a very negative context, with the concluding observation that they took offense at him (Matt 13:57, Mk 6:3).

To be fair, the simple question “Is this not Joseph’s son?” may be read along a spectrum of approval or skepticism. Here are some other possibilities:

  • Who would have thought that Joseph’s boy would someday be God’s prophet?
  • Isn’t this the son of Joseph (whom we all know)? Does he really expect that we are going to believe that he is a prophet?
  • Maybe it is just Luke writing for irony: the townspeople think of Jesus as the son of Joseph when Luke has repeatedly established that he is the Son of God.

Notes

4:21 Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing: this sermon inaugurates the time of fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Luke presents the ministry of Jesus as fulfilling Old Testament hopes and expectations (Luke 7:22); for Luke, even Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection are done in fulfillment of the scriptures (Luke 24:25-27, 44-46; Acts 3:18). today: Today is an important word for Luke. It occurs 12 times in Luke and only 9 times in the other three gospels combined. It occurs in such familiar passages as: “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you.” “Today you will be with me in paradise.” And twice in the Zacchaeus story: “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay in your house today.” And, “Today, salvation has come to this house.” And in our text: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” For Luke today is a moment of radical change.

4:23 The things that we heard were done in Capernaum: Luke’s source for this incident reveals an awareness of an earlier ministry of Jesus in Capernaum that Luke has not yet made use of because of his transposition of this Nazareth episode to the beginning of Jesus’ Galilean ministry. It is possible that by use of the future tense you will quote me . . . , Jesus is being portrayed as a prophet.

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