Two Kinds of Fury: SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Epiphany Week Four

 
Lectionary Commentary for Epiphany Week Four

Epiphany 4 (Year C): Luke 4:21-30

Big Picture:

1) Last week we saw Jesus launch his public ministry, including a stop at his hometown synagogue in Nazareth.  This week’s reading is Part Two of that story - a stunning conclusion in which the Gospel provokes a murderous fury.

2) The heart of Jesus’ message in his “inaugural address” in Nazareth is a declaration that the legendary, long-awaited Great Jubilee - the “year of the Lord’s favor” - has now begun (Luke 4:19).  As we’ll see below, understanding the Jubilee tradition may be a hidden key to unlocking how the crowds react to his teaching.

3) Though it isn’t clear whether the Jubilee year was ever put into practice in ancient Israel, the idea was that every fiftieth year would be a kind of “reboot” for society as a whole: slaves would be freed, debts would be cancelled, and “liberty” would be proclaimed “throughout the land to all its inhabitants” (Leviticus 25:10).  This would have especially benefited many of the most vulnerable in Israel, of course, and accordingly, the Jubilee ideal is often understood as a time of relief for the poor and a bulwark against dramatic or entrenched inequality.  Likewise, since Jubilee involved the return of property to its original owners, it would have helped preserve Israel’s founding clan structure by periodically restoring their landholdings - in effect preventing any one clan from becoming dominant over the others.  Jesus picks up on these ancient themes of liberty and equality, declaring a Great Jubilee, a new era of redemption, the in-breaking of God’s kingdom on earth. Great news for the vulnerable - and unsettling news for anyone attached to the privileges of the status quo.

4) Indeed, just a few pages earlier in Luke, with the infant Jesus resting in his arms, the old man, Simeon, turns to Mary and says, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed - and a sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke 2:34-35).  This idea is central to Luke’s vision: the Gospel draws out and lays bare “the inner thoughts of many.”  Anyone listening to Jesus (ourselves most of all) should tread carefully!

Scripture:

1) This story presents a genuine puzzle: Why does the hometown crowd reject Jesus so violently, particularly after such an apparently warm reception?  He is one of their own, after all, a boy they watched grow up, a boy they helped to raise (remember, Nazareth was a small village) - and now here he is, an impressive, well-educated young man.  He sits down to teach, and “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him” (Luke 4:20).  Afterwards they all speak well of him, amazed at his “gracious words,” whispering to each other, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” (Luke 4:22). And then, in a flash, everything unravels.  Jesus quotes a couple of proverbs and alludes to a couple of stories - and before we know it, a mob is chasing him out to the edge of town to throw him off a cliff!  What in the world happened?

2) One possible explanation is that the crowds are initially skeptical about the idea that Jesus is anointed by God.  They’ve heard the outlandish rumors, and they agree he’s eloquent - quite amazing, really. But, come on. “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”  We’ve known him since the beginning, one of the neighborhood kids - and sure, he’s talented, but let’s not get carried away.  According to this interpretation, the crowds’ kind words are tinged with condescension, and the question, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” has a patronizing, even cynical tone. Sensing this distrust, Jesus brings it out into the open (remember what Simeon said about “revealing inner thoughts”), and rebukes them: Doubtless you’ll want to see miraculous signs proving that I am who I say I am, he says, but you’ll get no such thing.  No prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.  But there are plenty of others who will trust in me, and just like in those old stories of Elijah and Elisha, if those who believe are supposed outsiders, even Gentiles, so be it.  The crowds get the message.  Outraged that Jesus would compare them to ancient “insiders” apparently passed over by God’s prophets, they drive Jesus out of the synagogue and out of town.  By the time they reach the cliff’s edge, their rage has reached a fever pitch.

3) Another possibility is that the crowds, initially believing Jesus is indeed anointed by God, interpret his visit as an opportunity for gain; for after all, won’t the hometown get special treatment?  According to this interpretation, the crowds’ kind words are tinged with self-serving opportunism, and the question, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” amounts to this: What an eloquent, impressive prophet - and look, he’s one of our own!  You know what that means: more for us!  Indeed, the crowds may understand only too well what Jubilee is all about: lifting up the lowly, a leveling “reset” for society as a whole, and so “the falling and the rising of many in Israel,” as Simeon presciently puts it (Luke 2:34).  In other words, the crowds may realize there will be winners and losers in the new era, at least on the surface, since Jubilee includes a re-leveling of certain privileges - and they assume their hometown status will give them an inside track to the winners’ circle.  Jesus senses this presumption, brings it out into the open, and rebukes them by referencing two stories of prophets who bless not insiders but outsiders. He knows this will get under their skin, and so predicts their reaction: “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown” (Luke 4:24).  The crowds get the message, and they are embarrassed, offended, and furious.  How dare you!  We made you what you are today!  And you have the nerve to come in here and imply that we’re selfish, and that God will bless outsiders instead of us…

4) Either way, for Luke, this story serves as an overture to the entire Gospel.  The good news is proclaimed and especially addressed to outsiders - and insiders are outraged.  Superficial acceptance turns to fury, and yet Jesus, evading the efforts to destroy him, “went on his way.” So goes the outline of this inaugural story of Jesus’ ministry, and likewise, so goes Luke’s Gospel as a whole.  The story’s final word - poreuomai, “he was going on” - is the same word Luke uses to narrate Jesus’ ongoing journey to Jerusalem, to the cross, and beyond.

Takeaways:

1) What explains the crowd’s sudden fury?  Are they patronizing and distrustful to begin with, and ultimately outraged at the suggestion that their lack of faith could leave them out in the cold?  Or do they believe, but in a self-centered and entitled way, and ultimately feel embarrassed and insulted that Jesus would call them out? Luke’s account is open to either interpretation, or a blend of both.  Biblical stories are often written in this kind of spare, open, multivalent style, making room for us to reflect on our own “inner thoughts” from multiple perspectives.

2) For Luke, provocation - even offense - is essential to the Gospel. Those supposedly inside Jesus’ tent (i.e., Christians today!) are precisely the ones he challenges to examine our motives, convictions, and ways of life. In what ways are we driven by distrust or cynicism, as opposed to faith’s bold, humble courage? In what ways do we live our lives for our own sake, or for the sake of the status quo, as opposed to living for the sake of all God’s creation and the Great Jubilee?  How does the Gospel most sharply provoke, challenge, even offend us today?

3) Finally, one common denominator between these two kinds of fury is anxiety and anger about the possibility of being passed over or left behind.  But please note, Jesus’ brief references to Elijah and Elisha need not be understood in this way at all. Luke’s vision for salvation is universal - and accordingly, the stories of Elijah and Elisha can readily be interpreted as emblems of God’s love reaching beyond conventional limits.  Like Rorschach tests, Jesus’ remarks bring out the “inner thoughts” of his listeners; it’s the crowds’ distrust, self-absorption, or both that cause them to hear the Elijah and Elisha stories as implying exclusion. But if we listen to Jesus through the ears of trust and love, we can hear the good news of the Great Jubilee, addressed first and foremost to the most vulnerable, and at the same time to the whole human community, Jews and Gentiles alike, and the whole creation besides.  Jubilee - even in the face of fury! Proclaim it from the mountaintops: “liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants!” (Leviticus 25:10).