I told you last week that the lectionary gave us only half of a story: Jesus came to his hometown synagogue and proclaimed himself the Messiah. Everyone seemed happy about it.
This week (the 4th Sunday after Epiphany) we get to see the the rest of the story, in which the mob tries to throw Jesus off a cliff.
And what an interesting tale it is, especially when you compare it with the other Gospels.
First Luke tells this story at a very different time than the other Gospels. By Luke’s telling, as soon as Jesus was baptized by John and tempted by the devil, he went around teaching.
This visit to Nazareth is an early stop on that tour. Luke has, up to that time, told of precisely zero miracles and he records precisely zero bits of Jesus’ teaching. That makes his claim to have fulfilled Isaiah’s prophesy especially bold.
In Matthew and Mark, Jesus first went to Capernaum. Much later on he went back to Nazareth to impress his old neighbors with his learning. (That’s Matthew 13:53-58 and Mark 6:1-6. John scatters bits that sound like this story in chapters 4, 6, 7, and 10.)
And at least one detail of Luke’s version of the story doesn’t really make much sense without details from Matthew and Mark, as we shall see.
It plays out like a three-act drama.
Act One: They Like Jesus
Okay, Act One started last week, but it continues here. Once Jesus proclaimed himself to be the Messiah, everybody seemed to approve.
Everybody spoke well of him, according to verse 22.
The Amazon reviews poured in:
He’s Joseph and Mary’s kid — I was at his bar mitzvah. I knew he’d do well.
It’s the old story: hometown boy makes good.
Act Two: Jesus Taunts Them
But it seems Jesus didn’t know how to handle the compliments. As Act Two begins Jesus starts to taunt them.
He suggests that they have some secret critical thoughts about him. And some of them are kind of odd.
Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb,
‘Doctor, cure yourself!’
To me that doesn’t make a lot of sense. Jesus had claimed that God’s Spirit had anointed him to start healing others. But he hadn’t shown himself to have any problems that needed curing — so why would they say he needed to cure himself?
In case the congregation was confused by this accusation, Jesus came up with another:
And you will say,
‘Do here also in your home town
the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ (Luke 4:23 NRSV)
That had to be even more baffling, since Luke hasn’t mentioned him even going to Capernaum, much less doing anything special there.
Ah, but maybe someone spoke up and Luke just didn’t record it:
I was reading this other Gospel, you know? And the writer, Matthew, said that before Jesus called any followers he moved away from Nazareth and made Capernaum his new home.
Then maybe someone else spoke up:
Oh, right. You know I was reading a Gospel by a guy named Mark, and he said that after he first preached in Galilee and called some disciples, then Jesus went to Capernaum and did a bunch of miracles there — he cast out a demon, and healed Peter’s mother in law, and then a huge crowd, like the whole town, came and he healed everybody.
The first guy agrees:
Yeah, what Jesus said to us this morning totally makes more sense if you’ve read Mark.
Spoiler alert: All that stuff happens in the next passage according to Luke’s timeline.
*Luke frantically scribbles notes for the second edition*
Jesus, however, thinks he’s really made his case:
And he said,
‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town.’ (Luke 4:24 NRSV)
Now if they hadn’t been confused about the doctor thing or the Capernaum bit, here I think they must have been brought up short:
Hey, what does he mean he isn’t accepted here? Didn’t we say he was amazing? Didn’t we say his words were gracious? I, for one, was feeling really proud of him.
So then, just when he has them where he wants them (maybe, sort of, well…) Jesus drops the ambiguity:
He tells two little Bible stories about times God left the people of Israel behind and offered help to foreigners.
But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land;
yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.
There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha,
and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian. (Luke 4:25-27 NRSV)
Implication: Jesus, in the role of Messiah and rejected prophet, will from the very beginning turn his saving attention to outsiders rather than to the hometown crowd.
Act Three: They Try to Kill Him
Thus begins the final act. Really it’s no surprise they were a bit peeved.
But I can’t tell you how many times I had read and heard this passage before even noticing the high drama of the final act. It’s all action:
Praise turns to rage and hatred.
The members of the congregation leave their seats, and rush to the podium.
They drag Jesus down the aisle and out the door.
(Okay, Luke doesn’t mention dragging. But they “drove him out.” It sounds forceful.)
They had a goal in mind. Nazareth was built on a hill. There was a really nice scenic overlook, just off the main road out of town where you could see way down into the valley. That would do fine.
They got him up there with the intent to kill. They would, in Luke’s words,
…hurl him off the cliff.” (Luke 4:29 NRSV)
Dramatically it’s a shame Luke tells all of this in one tiny little verse. It is such an emotion-packed moment.
If he already had disciples, like in the other Gospels, they would be seriously questioning their career choices.
Instead as the mob carried Jesus to the brow of the overlook, those guys who had read Matthew and Mark started muttering,
This is gonna be way shorter than those other Gospels.
But then, in a mysterious heartbeat it all changes:
But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” (Luke 4:30 NRSV)
Somehow Jesus is free.
Somehow Jesus splits the crowd — like Moses parting the Red Sea.
Somehow Jesus walks quietly into the sunset — like at the end of a Western.
And that’s Luke’s way of saying that Jesus is really far more in control than we had any reason to suspect.
- whom Luke has shown us is the miraculous son of Mary and God,
- whom Luke has shown us to be the Second Person of the Trinity at his baptism,
- whom Luke showed us defeating Satan in a three round grudge match in the wilderness
really is very much the Messiah whom that passage in Isaiah predicted him to be.
My annual lenten prayer class is coming soon! We’ll work on classic approaches to prayer that help re-ground us in Christ and bring focus to our prayer lives. Click the button and get on the waiting list if you want to be notified when it is open for registration.