Hometown Rejection

The readings for Sunday, Jan. 31, 2016, Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C, are Jeremiah 1:4-5, 17-19; 1 Corinthians 12:31—13:13; and Luke 4:21-30 .

Last Sunday’s gospel reading included Jesus’ first visit to his hometown, Nazareth of Galilee. On the Sabbath this faithful Jew went to synagogue just as Christians go to church today on their Sabbath. Jesus was lector (reader) at the liturgy. After reading a short passage from Isaiah, he sat down. He knew how to get the attention of the audience. We can assume there was an expectant pause during which there was profound silence. What will the new celebrity say? Luke writes, “and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked at him intently.” Here was a man whom they had known for perhaps fifteen years as their village carpenter. Jesus had left this first “vocation” as he became interested in the ministry of John the Baptizer, perhaps even became a disciple of John. This connection with the Baptizer led Jesus to gather like-minded searchers as disciples and to begin his own baptismal ministry. John was arrested, and Jesus withdrew northward to Galilee. Instead of continuing a baptismal ministry like John’s, he began a ministry of preaching and healing. Thus he acquired the fame which caused and would cause such a stir in Nazareth.The first words of Jesus’ homily on Isaiah 61:1-2 etc.: “Today this Scripture (the passage he just read publicly) is fulfilled in your hearing.” These words alone were astounding enough coming from the mouth of their former carpenter. How could he say that he (Jesus) was announcing good news to the poor, liberty to captives, sight to the blind, freedom to those oppressed by Roman occupation and taxes? Jesus would have added other statements to distract his audience from a beginning hostility, since Luke writes, “All were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”  Non-acceptance is implied in the questioning or murmuring of the audience, “Is this not the son of Joseph? Just how much of Luke’s description of this visit to Nazareth is historic-ally accurate is uncertain. Mark and Matthew also speak of such a visit with similar and different remarks of the audience and a very different outcome of the visit than Luke’s version.

We recall however that Luke is writing more than half a century after the event and that his primary purpose is not history but catechesis. Things may have happened exactly as Luke describes or not. The Holy Spirit inspires the author to reveal absolute truths of divine revelation. This does not mean that every detail of the story that conveys divine revelation happened exactly as described. Mark and Matthew use the visit of Jesus to Nazareth quite differently from Luke.  For Luke the visit presents an opportunity to reveal God’s mercy to the Gentiles (non-Jews). And so Jesus’ homily turns into a profound teaching about God’s universal care beyond those called the Chosen People of God. The lesson is simple: All peoples and nations are God’s Chosen.

How does the Lucan Jesus deliver this teaching? First he quotes a proverb, “Physician, heal thyself.”  Then he explains the meaning, “Do here in your hometown the deeds we have heard that you were doing (up north) in (the big city of) Capernaum.” For Luke the narrowness of the Nazarenes is typical of a popular idea that the Messiah would be sent to the Jews with little or no concern about the Gentiles. Luke proclaims universal salvation by quoting two stories.

The first story speaks of the ninth century B.C. Prophet Elijah. For three and a half years there was a severe drought and famine in the Kingdom of Israel. Even though there were many widows in Israel who might have provided for Elijah, God sent the prophet to a widow in a heathen land where he found food and shelter. The second example speaks of Elisha, the disciple and successor of Elijah. Although there were many lepers in the Kingdom of Israel, Elisha did not cure any of them. Instead God worked through the prophet to cure of leprosy the general of an army of a neighboring nation, a nation often at war with Israel. The message seems to come across to the Nazarenes as an indictment of themselves as narrow-minded and selfish — that the village carpenter should have done his healing among them instead of beyond them.

The reaction: “When the people in the synagogue heard this, they were filled with fury. They rose up, led Jesus to the brow of the hill (cliff) on which Nazareth had been built to hurl him down headlong.” In the versions of Mark and Matthew the outcome of Jesus’ visit to Nazareth is also negative but not violent.