Nazareth: prophet’s fate

JesusIconNazarethPast as Prologue. 25 Indeed, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah when the sky was closed for three and a half years and a severe famine spread over the entire land. 26 It was to none of these that Elijah was sent, but only to a widow in Zarephath in the land of Sidon. 27 Again, there were many lepers in Israel during the time of Elisha the prophet; yet not one of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”

The people of Nazareth had heard Jesus’ declaration of the fulfillment of God’s promises as a guarantee of God’s blessing on them, but Jesus affirmed a fulfillment that was not limited to Israel only—God would bless all the poor, all the captives. Neither was the fulfillment Jesus announced radically different from the work of the prophets. Israel’s Scriptures themselves bear witness to God’s blessing on Gentiles as well as Jews. Reminders of the mighty works of Elijah and Elisha follow naturally after the proverb about the prophet and the prophet’s home.

Old Testament Stories. Both Elijah (1 Kings 17:8-14) and Elisha (2 Kings 5:1-17), prophets in Israel, took God’s favor to non-Jews. That those two stories were in their own Scriptures and quite familiar perhaps accounts for the intensity of their hostility. Anger and violence are the last defense of those who are made to face the truth of their own tradition which they have long defended and embraced. Learning what we already know is often painfully difficult. All of us know what it is to be at war with ourselves, sometimes making casualties of those who are guilty of nothing but speaking the truth in love. For Luke, the tension that erupts here and will erupt again and again elsewhere is not between Jesus and Judaism or between synagogue and church; it is between Judaism and its own Scriptures.

The sense of privilege, of having some special status with Jesus quickly evaporated as it dawned on the people that they were going to get no special treatment. What should have been joy at the prospect of many being helped by Jesus turned to rage that he would so freely bestow “the Lord’s favor.” It is hard not to think of Jonah here, who would rather die than see God’s forgiveness and grace extended to the ruthless Assyrians in Nineveh. The people of Nazareth would rather kill Jesus than share him with others. Their response is its own condemnation.

They had not learned from their history the nature of the God whom they served, and so on this occasion were ready to kill his son. They should have known better. They should have remembered that they had been called to be gracious to others because God had been gracious to them (e.g., Deut 15:12-15). They should have remembered that the commission given to Abraham was to be a blessing to the world. They should have remembered that Isaiah had talked about this day as the time when Israel would be a light to the nations. They should have remembered why they were called into existence as God’s people.

Jesus Rejected. 28 When the people in the synagogue heard this, they were all filled with fury. 29 They rose up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went away

“The people of Nazareth then began to act on their rage. They drove Jesus out of town (cf. 23:26; Acts 7:58). The end of this scene is so condensed and elliptical that interpreters have often felt the need to fill in conjectural details. The site in question cannot be located with any certainty. Nor is it necessary to speculate about a miraculous deliverance or the force of Jesus’ personality or presence. The intent of the crowd was hostile, but Luke emphasizes that Jesus was not stopped by them. The emphasis is on the last word, which in the Greek text is a verb that implies a continuous action: “He was going on” (ἐπορεύετο eporeueto). The verb (poreuomai) recurs frequently in Luke as the Gospel narrates the journeys that eventually lead Jesus to Jerusalem and the cross.” [Culpepper, 108]

As they were herding Jesus out of town to kill him, he slipped away. In Luke’s Gospel, he never returned to Nazareth. The next passage, just beyond the ending of our reading for today, tells of Jesus returning to Capernaum and again doing great and wonderful things there, and the reports of him circulated throughout the country (4:37, 43-44). The contrast could not be greater. Those who should have known his mission and participated in it, those who knew him best, could see no further than their own wants and their own their own interests. They drove him out because he not only had dared to share the good news with others, he had brought them face to face with their own narrowness and closed future.

Over this story falls the shadow of the cross, for this will not be the last time that Jesus would take the good news to others who are not the “hometown folks.” And it will not be the last time by so doing that he would confront those who should know better with their own lack of vision and narrow exclusiveness. He will be rejected by his own again.

Luke is clearly foreshadowing the crucifixion here. But he also has in mind the larger mission of the church in the world. Jesus came to his own, yet they did not accept him (cf. John 1:11-12). But he came not just to his own, but to the whole world. It was precisely because he came to others that his own people did not accept him. They wanted him to themselves, or not at all.

The proclamation of Jesus’ Good News began in Nazareth’s synagogue. But they did not stop the story by rejecting Jesus there. It moved from there throughout Galilee to Jerusalem. And even though they rejected Jesus in Jerusalem, and even succeeded in killing him there, they did not stop the story. It would be played out in Acts, as the apostles and followers of Jesus also suffered rejection at the hands of those who should know better. But they did not stop the Good News. It simply moved on to Judea, to Samaria, and to the farthest reaches of the Earth (Acts 1:7).  The Good News that Jesus read about and proclaimed that day in Nazareth, the mission that he defined, was carried out in spite of rejection.

Notes

4:25-26 The references to Elijah and Elisha serve several purposes in this episode: they emphasize Luke’s portrait of Jesus as a prophet like Elijah and Elisha; they help to explain why the initial admiration of the people turns to rejection; and they provide the scriptural justification for the future Christian mission to the Gentiles.

4:26 widow in Zarephath in the land of Sidon: Like Naaman the Syrian in Luke 4:27, a non-Israelite becomes the object of the prophet’s ministry. – thus Jesus is noting was has been done for Gentiles was not done for Israel. In the account of the widow of Zarephath, Elijah was sent to Gentile territory to stay with a widow and her son who were preparing to die due to effects of the extended drought. The miracles of the multiplication of oil and flour and the raising back to life of a widow’s only son are the second and third accounts of acts of the Lord’s power through Elijah; he has already caused the drought. Ahab’s (the king) sin brought suffering for the people of Israel; Elijah’s fidelity brings nourishment, as does the woman’s faith. (1 Kings 17:1-16). Zarephath is located on the Lebanese coast (in ancient Phoenicia).

4:27 Naaman the Syrian: Commander-in-chief of the army of Aram-Damascus in the mid 9th century BCE who became a leper and who visited the prophet Elisha for healing (2 Kgs 5:1–27). The biblical story tells of a powerful foreign soldier who had achieved fame on the battlefield, and who was trusted by his king (2 Kgs 5:1). He was, however, a leper. A young Israelite slave girl, captured in one of the Syrian raids on Israel, began the process of healing by telling her mistress, Naaman’s wife, that there was a prophet of great power in Israel. Initially, Naaman tried to gain access to the prophet Elisha through normal diplomatic channels (vv 4–7), but a serious misunderstanding by the Israelite king of the Syrian king’s intentions almost started a war. Finally, the general found Elisha, but when told, through an intermediary, that all he had to do was bathe himself seven times in the Jordan he was furious (vv 8–12). His servant constrained him to obey the prophet and eventually he was healed (vv 13–14). Naaman’s gratitude was great and he tried, unsuccessfully, to offer the prophet a gift. The gift was refused, but Naaman himself returned home with some earth from Israel as a symbol of a newfound faith in Yahweh, the God of Israel. When he, as the trusted aide to the king of Syria, entered the temple of the Syrian god, Rimmon, he would remember Yahweh and Israel (vv 15–19).

4:28 filled with fury: The other Lucan use of this term (thymós) occurs when another crowd reacts to a threat of its local prestige.

Sources

Commentaries

  • Culpepper, R. Alan. “The Gospel of Luke.” New Interpreter’s Bible. Ed. Leander E. Keck. Vol. 9. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994–2004) 102–109
  • Geldenhuys, Norval. Commentary on the Gospel of Luke: The English Text with Introduction, Exposition and Notes. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1952. 164-170
  • Green, Joel B. The Gospel of Luke. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997. Print. The New International Commentary on the New Testament. 204-219
  • Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, vol. 3 of the Sacra Pagina series, ed. Daniel J. Harrington (Collegville, MN: 1991)
  • Jerome Kodell, “Luke” in The Collegeville Bible Commentary, eds. Dianne Bergant and Robert J. Karris, (Collegeville, Minn.: Liturgical Press, 1989). 936 – 980.
  • Brian Stoffregen, “Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes” at crossmarks.com

Dictionaries

  • Gerhard Kittel, Gerhard Friedrich and Geoffrey William Bromiley, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1995)

Scripture Scripture quotes from New American Bible by Confraternity of Christian Doctrine, Inc., Washington, DC. © 1991, 1986, 1970 available at http://www.usccb.org/bible/index.cfm

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