This morning’s gospel reading focuses on the most extensive narrative we have of Jesus in a Synagogue; and, it didn’t go so well! Or did it?
Please pray with me… Lord, let it be your voice that speaks through my mouth, and let our hearts and minds be open and receptive to hearing the Word & Mission you have for us here today. Amen.
Chapter 4 of the Gospel of Luke narrates the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. At the start of this morning’s reading, we are told that “filled with the power of the Spirit,” Jesus ministers in Galilee and eventually returns to the village where he grew up.
People throughout Galilee are saying he is the first true prophet in centuries, and perhaps more than that. But for those in Nazareth, he’s more: he is their celebrity – their hometown hero. Can you imagine? Such an important person, from a tiny, obscure village: they know him! …So exciting! The community was abuzz with rumors and speculation, hopes for a bright future to be brought about through the glory of their native son.
But some are filled with doubt: they watched him grow up. They know him as the son of Joseph the Carpenter. They know Jesus and his family all too well.
Now, Joseph’s being a “carpenter” sounds like a respectable occupation: a skilled artisan, a member of the middle class of the time; but the term was often used to mean “construction laborer.” And, given how small, poor, and obscure Nazareth was, Jesus was probably not raised as the son of a skilled artisan. Joseph was most likely a laborer. Each morning, he probably walked a few miles to the nearby City of Sepphoris, the new capital of the province of Galilee, which was being built at the time, and then loitered in the marketplace there, as many in our own times do near convenience stores and gas stations: hoping someone would hire him.
And, all the old rumors about Mary have been resurrected: the stories of her being an immoral and unfit mother are being discussed at length and in great detail.
Many of the people see Jesus through this lens of sketchy parentage and poverty. These speculations and expectations – both high and low – fill the streets and homes of the village; and Jesus is not oblivious to it.
There’s tension and angst in all this gossip: is he or is he not the one? They want to see proof of who he is, one way or the other. And, if he is what they hope; then Nazareth will rise out of its obscurity and poverty. Pilgrims will flock to see Jesus, as they do for his cousin John, down there on the banks of the Jordan River. The people will prosper, basking in the glory of the prophet or even Messiah from Nazareth.
And now it is the Sabbath. Jesus goes to the synagogue, as is his well-known custom. When he arrives, he finds the room packed to capacity: no one wants to miss the show. A seat is reserved for him in the front row. As he sits down, the peoples’ anticipation that great things are about to happen fills the air.
We don’t know exactly how Sabbath worship services were conducted in Jesus’ time, but we have a fairly good idea, based on hints found in contemporary writings and in Jewish liturgies from a century or two later.
The Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4-9 was almost certainly recited by a worship leader at the start of the service, beginning with these words: “Shema Israel, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai echad”, which means “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one God!”
The people probably responded with “Barukh shem kevod malkhuto le’olam va’ed” – “Blessed be His name, whose glorious kingdom is forever and ever!”
This is followed by the leader’s recitation of the remainder of the passage from Deuteronomy, which stresses that we are to love the Lord our God with all of our hearts, soul and might. (Sound familiar?)
Everyone then probably recites something similar to the modern Tefilla from memory, an 18 part prayer. Then there is the priestly blessing; and then the readings from the sacred scrolls.
The first reading is from the Torah, and then – finally – a reading from one of the Prophets. Jesus faithfully participates, a Jew among Jews, in a service not all that different from our own. He stands with everyone for the Tefilla, and sits again for the blessing and the Torah reading.
But when it comes time for the reading from the Prophets he stands, as many hoped he would: he is asking to give the reading and provide a commentary upon it.
The attendant gives him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. It is a test – an attempt to force him to answer the question in everyone’s mind, but it is not the test they think it is!
Unrolling the scroll, he does exactly as they hope – reading from what we now know as the first two verses of chapter 61 (with a little bit of editing by Luke). These verses are seen by many as a prophesy of the Messiah:
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
Jesus rolls the scroll back up, gives it to the attendant, and sits down. Tension fills the air. This is the moment. Every eye is upon him. The packed room is absolutely silent.
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” He says exactly what they had hoped to hear. … Yes! …
Pandemonium breaks out. Everyone is talking, congratulating each other. He said he’s the Messiah!! But some still say “Is this not Joseph’s son?” Is he who he claims to be?
Jesus’ voice rises above the tumult: “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’” The uproar subsides. He knows they want him to prove himself, just as the Devil did. He continues, “And you will say, ‘Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’”
The crowd is silent again … just a few whispers. The people are taken aback and confused, some are hopeful that they are about to see that proof, but many aren’t too sure, they don’t like where this is going…
“Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in their home town.” (Uh Oh!) He then reminds them of the stories of the Widow in Sidon, and of Namaan, a great enemy of Israel in the time of the Prophet Elisha. Jesus’ words make it very clear that Nazareth is not going to receive any blessings because of him. They will not be allowed to profit from the plan God has for their native son.
Oh, what an ungrateful and pompous young man! Everyone is outraged. Instead of proving he is the Messiah they’d hoped for (or a charlatan, as others suspected), he condemns them! He insults them!! How dare he!
Forgetting the Benediction and Closing Prayer, the angry people jump out of their seats, shove him out of the building, and push him to the top of a cliff at the edge of town. … A high place, but they do not bring him there to exalt him or prove his power. Instead, his neighbors and friends intend to throw him down for failing and insulting them. They want to see his body smash on the stones below.
Will God save him, as Satan prophesied when he took Jesus to the pinnacle of the Temple? Will Jesus use the power within him to fly up in the air? No, he walks away, rejecting the plan they have for him, just as he did when confronting the Devil at the beginning of this same chapter. He failed in the eyes of his people, but succeeded in the real test.
The point being made by Luke is that we do not own or control Jesus. He will always confound our expectations for him, because he has chosen to believe in God’s plan; as we are also called to believe.
But I wonder, in Luke 10 Jesus confirms that we are to love God with all our heart, mind and soul – quoted straight out of the Shema, as we’ve seen – and that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves: the Two Great Commandments of our faith.
So, how is his treatment of these people who’ve known him all his life, “Love”? It is more of a tongue lashing than anything else.
Like Buddhism, Christianity has within it the concept of “Fierce Love” or “Fierce Compassion.” Love is not a wimpy or sentimental emotion; but a passionate, fierce action. Such Love can even require us to be harsh or hurtful in certain circumstances.
Such Love is a tool for transformation, since it requires us, as the one who is acting in Love, to step outside of our daily routines and habits. It requires us to participate in the life of the person in front of us. It makes us see that it isn’t all about us or our agendas.
I think this is what we find here. Jesus loves the people of Nazareth intensely, as he does all of us. It is a love that will not die, and will not be turned aside by anything we do, nor by our expectations.
Jesus shows the people of Nazareth that the Messiah is not theirs, nor ours, and never was. The people are trapped by their expectations and defeatism. They do not think they can act on their own, they think they can overcome their problems only if a rescuer, a Messiah, comes to do it for them. They are convinced they are destined to be passive, accepting whatever life offers them.
Jesus frees us from this by refusing to meet our expectations. So, we are freed from the trap of waiting for God to save us. We learn that through the Holy Spirit, we are already saved. We only need to allow that reality, and the Holy Spirit that is already within us, to bear witness to it, to work in and through our lives, so that the Fierce Compassion of God is made manifest within us and in those around us. God doesn’t meet our expectations; instead, God makes it possible for us to achieve God’s hopes for us.
And so, in being freed from our own expectations, the future becomes possible. If God does what we expect, then we have no future, because the future would be known, set in concrete of our own making. Likewise, Nazareth had no future, until they rejected the Messiah. Through this passage we learn that Jesus had to be free of their expectations, and ours; and that in doing so, we were freed as well.
If we are to be free to fly above the constraints and hopelessness of our worldly existence, as God intends, then we will rejoice in the wings of Freedom that Jesus gave us there in that synagogue that day, when things turned out just as he intended.
Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, January 31, 2016.
Copyright (c) 2016, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)