January 11, 2016

When Jesus went into the synagogue at Nazareth to read from the book of Isaiah, he knew his audience and they knew him. After all, he had grown up in their midst.

Jesus would have known the personal quirks, the family histories and the likely reaction of every person in the synagogue to his proclamation, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (Luke 4.21).

When he made that proclamation, "All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth" (4.22). Then, something changed.

Jesus not only spoke with the words of a prophet - "Truly, I tell you" - but went on to say the prophet is not accepted in his hometown, but only in a foreign land. He recounted the experiences of Elijah and Elisha who performed miracles for foreigners, when those miracles might have been performed for the people of Israel.

It is this which whipped his fellow Nazarenes - his long-time friends and family - into a frenzy. They dragged Jesus out of town to throw him off a cliff, but somehow he escaped. Luke phrases it mysteriously: "He passed through the midst of them and went on his way" (4.30).

Some have seen this mysterious "passing through" as Jesus rejecting the Jews. But it is nothing so drastic. Elijah and Elisha continued to minister to the people of Israel after rejections, and so did Jesus. Scripture scholar Luke Timothy Johnson describes the situation succinctly: "He is not acceptable in his own country because his mission extends beyond his own country."

Unlike Matthew and Mark, Luke places Jesus' visit to the Nazareth synagogue at the beginning of his public ministry. It is the hinge on which everything else swings. So, let us look more closely at the context of the story.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. - Luke 4.18

'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.'

Luke 4.18

The violence at Nazareth is a stark contrast with the calm of the story of Jesus' birth and youth. Yet, even there, when baby Jesus is presented in the Temple, there is a hint of foreboding.

The holy Simeon held Jesus in his arms and said he will be "a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel." Turning to Mary and Joseph, Simeon continued, "The child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed" (2.32, 34).


As an adult, Jesus was baptized in the Jordan and the Holy Spirit descended on him. He overcame temptation in the wilderness and only then, "filled with the power of the Holy Spirit," did he return to Galilee.

All went well until the incident in the Nazareth synagogue, after which Jesus left his hometown and moved to Capernaum. There, he taught the people, cast out demons and cured the sick of their illnesses.

One day, he went away to pray and when the crowds found him, he had had a realization: "I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also: for I was sent for this purpose" (4.43).

As he made his way through Judea, Jesus began to gather disciples to him as well as curing lepers, eating with sinners, healing on the Sabbath and proclaiming the necessity of loving one's enemies.


The reading from Isaiah which Jesus proclaimed in the Nazareth synagogue has rightly been seen as his mission statement: "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" (4.18-19).

Yet, it seemed to take Jesus some time to draw out the full implications of that proclamation for his ministry. At first, his was a one-person, one-town ministry of preaching and healing.

The Spirit, however, led him to reach further and further afield, both geographically and spiritually. Prayer gave rise to new forms of action which inspired more inclusive teachings. Those teachings then spawned more inclusive action.

In Matthew's Gospel, Jesus appears to come armed with a plethora of teachings, which he begins to preach in the Sermon on the Mount. In Luke, those teachings more clearly grow out of an interplay of prayer and action.

Jesus builds a community, but it is a wide-ranging community, one the likes of which have not been seen previously. Israel is not rejected, but expanded. Those who had been thought of as ritually impure are brought into the fold.

So too are sinners. Eventually, so are Samaritans and other Gentiles. The circle grows wider and wider.

In the incident in the Nazareth synagogue, Jesus saw where such inclusiveness would lead: People would try to kill him. Spirit-inspired prophecy leads to a tearing down of walls, but many would like to see those walls remain high and firm.

When Jesus dared to say Elijah mir-aculously fed the widow of Zarephath during a time of famine and Elisha healed Naaman the Syrian of leprosy, he roused the anger of the people of Nazareth. They guarded the privilege of salvation jealously as something not available to those outside the nation.


Such exclusiveness is the work of unclean spirits. As well, exclusion is not something reserved for the people of Jesus' time.

We too ought to be tearing down walls rather than erecting new ones. It may take us much prayer and several false starts to realize how we can tear down barriers of discrimination and exclusion. But if we want to follow Jesus, we ought to be bearers of his universal mercy.