Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Luke 4:14-30

You have to feel at least a little bad for the people of Nazareth. The trouble for them, as so often for us, is that they don't really want to know Jesus accurately. Knowing Jesus for who he is requires a great deal of us, and it leads us into uncomfortable territory.

The people of Nazareth wanted a few simple things. We miss a lot of what's happening in this passage because we don't understand the plight of small-town Jews in Galilee in the first century. They were caught in tides that threatened to wash away their traditional culture, and they could feel the ebb and flow every day. Nowhere was this more true than in Nazareth. The New Testament doesn't directly mention the larger city of Sepphoris just up the road -- a culturally Greek city that had been founded by Rome and provided a major engine to drive the local economy. Everything that happens in this scene Luke is describing is overshadowed by the cultural tensions in Nazareth.

The people of Nazareth wanted to share in the glory of a hometown boy made good, first of all. Second, they wanted to keep their illusions about who God was and what he was up to. Third, they wanted to keep their fantasies and delusions about themselves and their circumstances.  Jesus' words and actions here in his hometown fly in the face of all those desires. No wonder by the end of the story they want to kill him.

They want to share in the glory of a hometown boy made good. Luke makes clear that Jesus has been preaching throughout Galilee, and we can assume that his preaching, as later, included healing people and casting out demons and all the rest. His reputation grew. So the people of Nazareth were very much like the people of a small town whose local athlete makes it big in the pros. Reporters come around looking for the "I knew him when" story. The city fathers put up a "home of ..." billboard on the highway coming into town. Sportscasters love to allude to the small town, small school, normal guy stories. In a way, all this serves to validate the small town itself, along with all its residents. See? Our town must be okay. Look at the great athlete who grew up here! Our small lives are not mean and meaningless. (No one else is saying their lives are meaningless, btw.) In similar fashion, Jesus' homecoming could have been a pep rally for the local kid. That's what's going on in verses 16-22. Jesus has already dropped the bomb (more on that in a minute) but the delighted people of Nazareth haven't even heard the sermon, they're so preoccupied with this second-degree brush with fame. Throughout his ministry, Jesus has zero patience for those who are hungry for signs, hungry to have their religious lusts titillated, hungry to see something miraculous to fuel their self-focused gossip. Nazareth is just the first of many times Jesus will refuse to participate in this agenda. It is the same refusal on Jesus' part that he has just pronounced to Satan three times over -- he will not use his connection with God to serve his own desires, he will not compromise his identity in God's sight to gain worshipers, and he will not use the spectacular to fuel his movement. Jesus makes clear: when the miraculous occurs, it serves a greater purpose than our own fascination. The people of Nazareth, quiet bedroom community of the much larger Greek-culture driven city of Sepphoris four miles away, are looking for a miracle to legitimize their pride, their counter-cultural defensive identity, their desire to remain in their isolated Jewish enclave. Jesus, the wildly successful prophet who was burning up the wires in Galilee, could validate them by coming home and saying, "I owe it all to these people and this little town," but he doesn't.

In short, they wanted to keep their illusions about who God was and what he was up to. They were certain God was Jewish and he wanted the Jews to isolate themselves in their perceived superiority. They were the faithful people, after all. They were the chosen ones, and God would vindicate their status and their isolationism. The Greek theater and gymnasium in Sepphoris might drive their local economy. It might give them good jobs (perhaps Joseph and even Jesus had served in the construction projects that were going on in this era in Sepphoris). They might have to speak Greek in the marketplaces even though they spoke Aramaic at home and read the scriptures in Hebrew at the synagogue. But in the long run, they knew God would destroy these pagans and their anti-God culture. They dearly loved the passage Jesus chose to read from the prophet Isaiah, and they knew it well. The trouble is, Jesus stops reading too soon. He quit before he got to the good part, the part they were waiting to see fulfilled. He quit reading before he got to the part about God vindicating the Jews and making the pagans come and serve them and destroying the heathen. And then he has the gall to say that this scripture, this passage that makes the Jews dream of better days to come, has already been fulfilled. What?!

They want to keep their fantasies and delusions about themselves and their calling. It is so often tempting for us to live on our fantasies and delusions. We have dreams about the future and what it might mean, and it's easy to get caught on the hamster wheel of imagination. We use fantasy about the future to escape the present. But the fact is, if God endorses that fantasy, if it is in fact a God-given vision, the present is the time to be working toward its fulfillment, or at least working to expand our ability to receive that vision. Every God-given vision about the future requires that we grow in our own capacity to receive it. Oswald Chambers says that God gives us the vision on the mountaintop, then he brings us into the valley to beat us into shape to receive it. The people of Nazareth have mistaken the vision, first of all. They believe it's a self-centered vision about themselves being exalted and (in Steinbeck's phrase) living off the fat of the land. God's intention, instead, is that his chosen people should be a kingdom of priests to call all nations into relationship with him. For a picture of what this is supposed to look like, read Psalm 96. Instead, the frustrated, oppressed people of Nazareth yearned for the day when aliens would tend their flocks and foreigners would do their field work (see Isaiah 61:5). God was on a mission to reach the world, and his missionary people had decided they'd rather have the world for household servants.

Jesus returns to his hometown and quotes a favorite scripture passage, then says that God is already doing the necessary work to bring it to fulfillment. Jesus focuses on the critical part of Isaiah 61 -- the part that defines his role. He is called to be the bearer of good news to the nations, to proclaim recovery of sight to the blind, to set the oppressed free, to tell people God looks on them with favor. This had, in fact, been the calling of the entire Jewish nation since long before Isaiah spoke those words hundreds of years before. This calling goes all the way back to Abraham in Genesis 12. By focusing on his own role, by stepping up to fulfill God's calling to Israel, Jesus exposes the self-centered attitudes of the people of Nazareth for the delusions they are. God is not a God who wreaks vengeance on the nations, Jesus says, but rather he sends his best prophets to places like Sepphoris to reach those who don't know him. He loves the widow and the leper from other nations just like he loves the Jews. Don't you know your own history?

Rather than acknowledge God's call to them, the people of Nazareth rise up in anger to throw Jesus off the cliff. Their surge of wrath is well-known to anyone who has spoken biblical truth into a tradition-bound, insecure congregation or community. Jesus gets jostled a bit, but in the end he just walks away. Later he will tell his disciples that if the towns of Israel don't receive them and their message, they should shake the dust off their feet as they're leaving town. He is speaking out of his own painful experience. Jesus will spend his ministry calling his own people to a greater vision of their calling and identity -- and most of them will miss it, as the church down through the centuries all too often misses exactly this same call. This theme will echo through Jesus' teaching. "Those who have ears, let them hear," Jesus says.

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