A Scuffle in Nazareth (Luke 4:21-30)

Words have power; they can be used to lead people into something better or lead them away from that which is good. It is by words we tell people we love them, share bad news, and shape the direction of our weeks and lives. Words carry power whatever form they come in, whether written or spoken; it is words that shape the direction of our day or words that can alter our expectations of a day in a moment. Here in the Synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus has just spoken words (the Isaiah Messianic Texts) to which the crowd have marvelled at and find themselves wondering just what it means, and to their pondering we now consider the words that Jesus rebukes them with, to help them understand that the Messiah is not made in their own image; his saving act looks nothing like the world would understand it, and what it will mean to benefit from all the Saviour of God will do. Words that had power and did not go down well.

Passage: Luke 4:21-30 NIV

He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked. 23 Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’ ” 24 “Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 25 I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time when the sky was shut for three and a half years, and there was a severe famine throughout the land. 26 Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. 27 And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.” 28 All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built in order to throw him off the cliff. 30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.

The People Ponder (4:21-22)

Jesus has been teaching the Synagogue in Nazareth, the town in which he grew up and called home and the town that was full of people who knew him as the Son of Mary and Joseph and watched as the boy became a man, who worked as a carpenter and it was there that he would speak the most powerful of words. Yet, there is something about the scene that I love when you think of Nazareth the town and Jesus there. It was the place where He was most normal, a town that he had roamed the streets of, grown up in and played with the local children in, a town that he had roamed the streets of and with the passage of time become a man who worked along with Joseph as a Carpenter. Nazareth was the town that he had left to begin his public teaching ministry. It was the town that he returns to at the beginning of his ministry to make clear that while he is a teacher, that which he came to teach is like nothing that has been heard before; and, he is far more than a teacher – he is the one the people of God have been waiting for.

There is his home Synagogue Jesus has risen to read from the Scroll and Isaiah chapter 61, a text that was filled with messianic hope and expectation; as he read it the people would have wondered what he might have to say or what his teaching point might be about the Messiah to come. In perhaps the original Mic drop moment Jesus sits down (the posture of the teacher), looks at the people around him and states: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” There is no ambiguity in Jesus’ statement, nothing to doubt about what he is claiming to those who saw him as normal; and now are being challenged to see him as something far more – the one they have been waiting for – The Messiah. The promised saviour of God, the Son of David: the one they have been longing for and waiting for, hoping that this person might come and set them free from oppression.

Thus, there is the most normal of settings arose a normal teacher the people respected and remembered from his growing up but sat down one who claimed to be the Messiah promised of the prophets of old. In the most normal of settings, the people who knew so much about him were challenged to consider that there was nothing normal about him but that there might be something special.

We are told that all there were ‘speaking well’ of him’ (NASB) and wondering about the gracious words that Jesus spoke. The crowd were grasped in collective amazement about the claims Jesus made of himself, as they tried to shift their image of normality they had formed around Jesus, to one who might be the promised Messiah, the one who will preach good news to the poor and bring liberty to the oppressed. As a side note they would have been aware of the verses that he left out about the coming Judgment1 and that the inferred claim of this ‘normal’ teacher. They were left wondering and started, not by how the words were spoken – Luke reminding us that Jesus had been gracious in his delivery – but because they understood the audacity of the claim and they could not square it with the (normal) image of Jesus the teacher that they had formed. Hence they pondered but confusingly and inquisitively, and perhaps dismissively: “Isn’t this Joseph’s son? ” To their wondering Jesus responded and made clear that we cannot simply ponder about him; we must decide ourselves on what he claims about himself here in the Synagogue of Nazareth.

Doctor Heal Yourself: He Has (23-24)

To their collective amazement and pondering Jesus responds, and what is interesting here is that the tone of this engagement changes not because of the crowd; they have not yet reacted with anger to what Jesus has said. They are dwelling in amazement and contemplation about his words. Perhaps they have heard about his miracles elsewhere (in Capernaum); whatever their wondering and pondering looked like, Jesus knew that it was not good and it needed to be confronted, so that is what he did, as one commentator notes: “It is Jesus, and not the congregation, which changes the tenor of the encounter.”2 As those who are gathered ponder at his words, Jesus again speaks and confronts their wondering. The question is, why? Specifically, why does Jesus act in such a brutal way to move the crowd from pondering amazement to outright hostility towards him?

The answer must be because whatever it was they were pondering, whatever it was they were considering of him, thinking about who he was and what he might be able to do them. Thus Jesus needed to move them from what was comfortable for them – their version of what these words might mean if they were true to the truth of his coming and kingdom – which nothing liked the world! The proverb about the doctor healing himself seemed to be claused on Jesus performing miracles before them ( because they had heard the wonders he had been doing in Capernaum) yet, they only knew him in the most normal of senses “as the son of Joseph” so for such powerful words to be true they would want some evidence of it! Jesus rebukes their pondering by showing the lessons of all the prophets who had walked before them, that not one of God’s anointed messengers ever received acceptance in their own town; So the Son of God, the promised Messiah, would hardly expect different treatment and to be accepted in his home town, by his own people. That lesson had been learning from the prophets of old.

Lessons From the Prophets (25-27)

You can imagine how all those who have gathered there in the Synagogue must have been feeling at that point: “Who does he think he is talking to us like that! There are certain ways to make a point that will always rile people who up hear; it is to extend the point when it is clear that it has already been heard. Yet, what seems to be the case here is that the people have heard; but they have not listened; they have not understood just what is at stake here, so Jesus extend extends the lesson of what he is teaching at this moment. That the one of whom Isaiah prophesied is here, yet like the prophets of old the ones who will be most willing to receive him will not be the people of God; but the people God’s chosen people would have rejected!

Jesus makes this point clear by again drawing on the experiences of two prophets – those who would have no honour in their home towns – who were honoured mostly by those outsides of the covenants of God. Many widows were in need during the perilous time in which Elijah and Elisha ministered, yet Elisha was not sent to one of the widows of God’s people but one who lived in pagan lands. Additionally, there were many people who suffered the sickness and stigma that came from Leprorasy as Elisha proclaimed the word of God and displayed his authority from God through many signs and wonders, yet, not one of the Israelite lepers was healed by God: no, the person who was called by God to come to his prophet and receive cleansing was Naaman the Syrian. What was the point Jesus was making? That God was concerned with more than the Israelites, and he would be received by those His people might reject.

Elisha ministered doing a time of great unbelief among the people of God as they had forgotten his laws and lived in pursuit of their own desires and passions; the people worshipped God in action, but their hearts were far from him. It was a time that mirrored the time that Jesus was ministering: in the era of Elijah, the widow at Zarephath and Naaman (gentiles) were blessed by God and received from his Grace. God bypassed all those who claimed to know him and live for him and showed Grace and concern for two people who were far from him. The history of the people warned them that God would not wait for them, nor would he conform to their expectations and desires; he would go beyond them and receive and bless those who they might reject – gentiles. As it was then, so it is now as God Incarnate ministers among his people, yet, they see him and cannot see him – so he will be thorough them and the hardness of their hearts and go to those who will receive his word and the assurances of his promises. Form the mouth of God was a new narration of an old Narrative for the people of God – He was working among them, and they could not see it, so he would work beyond them so that he might be received and made known. As one commentator notes “This is God at work, as God has been at work across the millennia, as God is at work even now—unfolding new narratives with, through, and among particular people, who are often outsiders to the assumed faithful.”3 The history of the people of God had warned them if they rejected Him, his way, Grace and protection then he would go beyond them. Perhaps the people of Nazareth thought Jesus would be theirs to enjoy alone, or for Isreal, yet, Jesus warns that Salvation is, in other words, not restricted to the sons of Abraham, let alone the villagers of Nazareth; it is for every son of Adam, for Jesus has come to save not just Jewry, but humanity. As this Gospel has already indicated and will stress increasingly, he is to be the Saviour of the world”4

This might seem like a harsh scene, yet, this is the reality of the good news of Jesus and the effects of the Gospel on those who will hear it. The Kingdom of God, its ethic and way in the world look nothing like the ways of the world: In a world that says you earn by effort; the Gospel says you receive through Grace. So it’s only logical that the beginning of the Gospels Proclamation by the Son of God would be jarring to those who hear it, those whose ears are shaped in the ways and logic of the world. “The good news is not the narrative they were used to, not what they expected from the living God, who had come once again to break through their calcified ways”5 and so we must ask ourselves today, what misconceptions around God and this Gospel might we be carrying and how might hearing it properly challenge our hearts and minds where they have become stale and sterile; how might we need to things we consider true and Godly, yet if we allow the Gospel to do its work in us and God the Holy Spirt to sanctify us we soon see the seepings of idols rather than anything this is of God. If Jesus were speaking to us today instead of the crowd, where might he be challenging us in the same way?

Conclusion: Are we Ready to Hear (28-30)

Opening Our Ears

The crowd, which just a few moments ago pondered in amazement and wondered about the possibilities, now reacts with rage to the words that have been spoken and how they have been spoken. They have heard, yet, they have not been able to hear what he was saying to them; they preferred their truth and comfort rather than the challenge that came from the one they had been waiting for. They would rather be comfortable and wrong than challenged and realise their own sin and uselessness in light of matters of Salvation. So enraged were that Luke described them as being filled with Wrath for the Messiah of God, as they charged him and drove him to cliff intending to kill him. They displayed the wrath that he came to spare them from, and by the stubbornness of their hearts and unwillingness to hear the Gospel of God and receive the Grace that would come through the promised Messiah, they had rejected the very one they had been waiting for. They were not ready to hear the good news of the Gospel of Christ, he who lived the life we could not live, died the death we deserved and in his death bore the price for our Sin; yet, death could not hold him, and by his resurrection and ascension he made possible for all to receive the Grace, Mercy and Salvation of God that these people had rejected! They were not ready to hear it; the question for today is are we ready to hear it?

As We Go

There are two things to consider as we go: first, if we are ready to hear that, we make sure we are listening; second, as we listen, considering how the Good News of Jesus has communicated and the effects it bears as it communicates. The Gift of Grace that we receive through Faith that is hearing the Good news of Jesus and counting it to be true, and before God acknowledging our sins and need of saving, is not something we do of our own accord. It is a very work of God the Holy Spirit who works in our hearts and minds to enable us to hear him, then as we listen and response, works in us to make us more into the image of his Son. Knowing that he (The Holy Spirit) who enabled us to listen continues to work in us and through as we listen to help us to know more of God and make God known more by our lives and living, so others might know the hope that is ours. To listen is not a momentary event but a lifelong journey as we travel with Jesus and dwell as his feet, trusting his wisdom at every stage and communicating that which we hear so that other’s two might know the blessing of faith until he leads us finally home. Then let us consider what we are listening to – The Gospel – and just how subversive to the ways of the world it is. Specifically, how the crowd reacted to the truths of Jesus here as they rejected him because they were not ready to hear. It is a lesson that warns us as disciples that beautiful to our ears will be vulgar to the worlds because it confronts the same ways of worlds. So as we listen and give thanks to God for the beauty of the truth that we have heard as the Holy Spirit actively works in us to sanctify us and reveal more of Jesus to the world, we also learn by how the same news is received to those who are not ready to give up the idols of their hearts. We learn and ready ourselves for difficult moments to come; trusting the voice that saved us is also leading us. Yet, we also learn from the subversive counter-cultural effects of the Good News as a reminder about how God’s kingdom itself is growing in the world; that as it goes so, we go. Meaning we must learn creative ways of Gospel rhythms and communication that subvert the world’s ways, undermine the powers of darkness and make known the hope of Christ that is ours. That is to say: as we listen, so we communicate in word and deed, so the Kingdom of God advances, the Gospel of Christ is proclaimed, and the Great Commission that is our call and privilege (The making of disciples in all nations) is fulfilled. As we go, I pray that we are ready to listen, listen, follow and communicate the good news of Jesus in a way that subverts the world but allows people to hear it.

  1. and the day of vengeance of our God;
    to comfort all who mourn;
    3 to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
    xto give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
    ythe oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
    zthat they may be called oaks of righteousness,
    the planting of the Lord, athat he may be glorified.3
    4 bThey shall build up the ancient ruins;
    they shall raise up the former devastations;
    they shall repair the ruined cities,
    the devastations of many generations.
  2. Eaton, Peter. 2009. “Homiletical Perspective on Luke 4:21–30.” In Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year C, edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, 1:311. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
  3. Ostendorf, David L. 2009. “Theological Perspective on Luke 4:21–30.” In Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year C, edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, 1:310. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.
  4. Wilcock, Michael. 1979. The Savior of the World: The Message of Luke’s Gospel. The Bible Speaks Today. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
  5. Ostendorf, David L. 2009. “Theological Perspective on Luke 4:21–30.” In Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year C, edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, 1:310. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

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