Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up 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.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way (Luke 4:21–30).
This text continues from last week’s Gospel. There – Luke 4:14-21 – we have heard Jesus, speaking in the synagogue of his hometown, Nazareth, identify with the prophesy of Isaiah: “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 favor.” Luke alone makes this connection with Isaiah but both Matthew – 13:53-58 – and Mark – 6:16 make reference to Jesus returning to Nazareth. All three synoptics record the double reaction of amazement and rejection though “Luke greatly reduces the reaction of the townspeople in contrast to Mark 6:2–3 and Matt 13:54–56. In the other Synoptists, the contrast between Jesus’ wisdom and his local origin provides the point of scandal; Luke makes this a minor note within a more powerful theme (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991, 80).
proverb: The Greek word is parabolē, normally translated as “parable”. Johnson notes that the word here is “being used in the sense of mashal, or proverb, as in the LXX 1 Sam 10:12. Variations of the proverb itself are found in both Greek and Jewish writings; cf. e.g., “Physician, physician, heal thine own limp!” in Genesis Rabbah 23:4” (Ibid).
“Truly I tell you”: The Greek word is amēn and would normally be translated as “Amen”. In ordinary speech of that time, the amēn would normally come as a response as if to say, “yes” or “so be it”. In other words, it was a way of validating the speech of another. The Gospels have Jesus validating his own speech, “an unmistakable sign of prophetic self-consciousness” (Ibid). See also 12:37; 18:17, 29; 21:32; 23:43.
in the time of Elijah: This is a reference to 1Kings 17:1-16. Zarepta – or Zarephath – was near Sidon on the Phoenician coast. The widow in that story would therefore have been a Gentile.
Naaman the Syrian: This is a reference to 2Kings 5:1-14. Again, Naaman would have been a Gentile.
Beware the sight of white knuckles and the sound of grinding teeth! This applies particularly in matters concerning Jesus and our Christian commitment and practice. The white knuckles and grinding teeth would suggest we have missed the point, that we are purveyors of an ideology rather than members of the Body of Christ. Look rather for freedom and grace – in yourself and others. Where Jesus is, Jesus does, and Jesus’ doing is always loving, and His loving is always liberating.
One of the repeated themes throughout the Gospels is Jesus’ transcendence of family, culture and, yes, even religious practice. That is not to say that he abandoned the incarnational setting which necessarily includes those human structures and others. We cannot live without structures and institutions, laws and rituals, symbols and belief systems. But we can live without them defining us. Then, when we do not depend on the human structures for our sense of ourselves and therefore our security, we will be in a position to live within those structures in a transforming way – even if the others within those structures find our presence disturbing.
Jesus is an only child from a Jewish family in first century Palestine. He is a man who is faithful to the Torah and the weekly gatherings in the synagogue, with the associated rituals and prayers. He is not an anarchist. He is not even a revolutionary. Yet His presence is deeply disturbing because he is grounded beyond family, culture and religious practice. Jesus finds His sense of Himself, His security and His place in the world from the Father. He does not fit the expectations of those around him. In fact he frightens them. He is a person of freedom and grace. He begets freedom and grace in those who understand that being a disciple is about being in Love rather than being an ideologue.
In today’s Gospel – Luke 4:21-30 – the people themselves recognize that they are witnessing something special when he speaks – “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth”. Yet, locked as they are in the familial, cultural and religious world from which they get their own identity and security and expect Jesus to do the same, they are unable to accept Him – “They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ …. filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town.” Tragically, they perceive Jesus’ presence as a threat rather than a promise.
Two insights must be held in tension here. Firstly, Pope Paul VI, in his ground-breaking Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Nuntiandi (1975), reminded us that “we live in the Church at a privileged moment of the Spirit” (#75). Secondly, Pope Francis, when speaking to a gathering of the Italian Church in November 2015, reminded us that “today we are not living an epoch of change so much as an epochal change”. Our lives will blossom in freedom and grace if – and only if – we are grounded beyond human structures in Jesus.