Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ 22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ 23He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ 24And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. 25But 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; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ 28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.29They 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. 30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
Translation: And he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your ears." And all were witnessing to him and wondering upon the gracious words, the ones coming from his mouth, and they said, "Is not this Joseph's son?" And he said to them, "No doubt all of you will respond to me (with) this parable, 'Doctor, heal yourself,' and you will say, "As we heard came to be in Capernaum, you do, and here in your hometown."
But he said, "Truly I say to you, no prophet is accepted in (the prophet's) hometown, but from truth, I say to you that many widows were in the days of Elijah in Israel, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, just as a great famine happened upon all the land, and to none of them was Elijah sent, except into Zarephath of Sidon to a widow woman. And many lepers were in Israel upon Elijah the prophet and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian."
And, hearing this, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. and they rose up and threw him out of the town, and brought him to the edge of the hill upon which the town had been built so as to cast him down. But this one, passing through the midst of them, departed.
Background and situation: The lection is preceded by Luke's Christmas narrative (1-2), the message and imprisonment of John the Baptist (3:1-20), the baptism of Jesus (3:21-22), Luke's geneaology of Jesus (3:23-38), the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness (4:1-13), and the inauguration of his public ministry in Nazareth (4:14:21).
This week's lection is, as Paul Harvey would say, "the rest of the story." Last week, Jesus had gone to his hometown synagogue and read words from the great prophet Isaiah: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, to preach good news to the poor." Then, Jesus sat down--the peoples' eyes fixed on him--and uttered his first words addressed to the general public in Luke's gospel: "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your ears."
The original source appears to be Mark 6:1-5. Luke 4:24 also has a parallel in John 4:44.
Jesus' opening words: In Luke, the first public word spoken by Jesus himself is the word "today." The word is a favorite of Luke's. It appears twelve times in Luke's gospel. "Today" conveys a sense of immediacy. Fulfillment of the vision of Isaiah is a present reality.
Moreover, the words of Isaiah are "fulfilled in your ears." Hearing is an intimate thing. The words literally come all the way inside one's body where they are then "processed" and understood through ones neural connections. Hearing Jesus' words, connecting them with the fulfillment of scripture, seeing Jesus' ministry of "release" on behalf of the poor--all this is apprehended intimately, right now, today.
At this point, the people respond positively. "All were witnessing--emarturoun--to him and wondering upon the gracious words--logoi tes xaritos--the ones coming from his mouth." Then, they said, "Is not this Joseph's son?" This is not a derogatory title. Jesus has already been identified as "Joseph's son" twice in Luke (2:48, 3:23).
Jesus is a hometown boy, and, therefore, special favors for Nazareth are expected. In terms of middle-eastern mores of the first century, a person had an obligation first to their family and then to their hometown. "Is not this Joseph's son?" Was not Joseph one of us? Does not Joseph's son, then, have a special bond with us? Should we not be the first beneficiaries of his "gracious actions" which, we are now assuming, follow his "gracious words"?
Jesus the prophet: Jesus anticipates their reaction--this is not uncommon in Luke--and responds by saying that surely they will cite the proverb "Doctor, cure yourself." The hometown crowd has in mind that Jesus would bring the "year of the Lord's favor" first to them. The "doctor" is to cure not just himself, but also his own--his kinfolk, his neighbors.
The sentence that follows seems to corroborate that point of view--even more emphatically in this literal translation: "As we heard came to be in Capernaum, you do, and here in your hometown."
Then follows a "truly I say to you" passage, which is a call for special attention: "No prophet is accepted in (the prophet's) hometown," says Jesus. In citing this well-known aphorism, Jesus indicates his own identification with the role of prophet.
His first utterance had been the words of Isaiah (4:14). Later, the people themselves identify Jesus as prophet (9:19). "The law and the prophets" held special status in Israel. In Luke, and in all the four gospels, Jesus is firmly in the prophetic tradition.
Luke compared with Mark: The primary source for this story appears to be Mark (6:1-5). The placement is, of course, different. For Luke, this whole episode (4:14-30) marks the beginning of Jesus' public ministry. In Mark, Jesus had been at it for awhile.
The tone is different too. Mark's story seems oppositional and negative--the people "took offense" and Jesus "could do no mighty work." True, in Luke, the people did try to throw Jesus off a cliff, but Jesus strides confidently and courageously through their midst and they don't touch him. Luke heightens some of the tension by adding a threat of assassination, but uses this as a device so that Jesus emerges even more triumphal.
Luke retains two specific elements of Mark's story, but changes each significantly. (1) Jesus is "Mary's son" in Mark, often thought to be a perjorative. Jesus is "Joseph's son" in Luke, which Luke appears to have gone to some pains to establish (2:48, 3:23, 4:22).
Luke is not asserting that Joseph is what we might call Jesus' "natural father." That is not the point, and, in any case, he has already established that the child is of the Holy Spirit. His issue, I believe, is that he wants to steer away from the negativity associated with Jesus as "Mary's son." In small town middle-eastern life of the period, such a designation from the mother rather than the father suggested questionable parentage. Luke might regard that as "negative publicity," and Luke's main agenda is evangelism.
And (2) Luke has shortened Jesus saying about prophets. Mark goes for repetition and even a touch of absurdity: "A prophet is not without honor, except in his own country, and among his own kin, and in his own house." His own house?
Mark keeps upping the ante and dramatizing the point. Luke's purpose is different than Mark's. What Luke wants to do is offer additional confirmation of Jesus' prophetic role and make the simple point that the mark of a true prophet is to be rejected.
Ministry to outsiders: Jesus then provides two examples, well-known in Israel, of the prophet coming to the aid of outsiders: the Zarephath widow and Elijah, and Elisha and Namaan the Syrian (1 Kgs 17:8-24, 2 Kings 5: 1-19). In both cases, a prophet came to the aid of a gentile when there were people similarly in need in Israel.
Luke probably means us to see an additional contrast: The widow was on the margins of society and undoubtedly poor. Naaman, on the other hand, was powerful--the commander of Syria's army--but suffered from leprosy.
In citing these two examples, not only is Jesus further identifying with the role of prophet, but also telling his hometown people that they don't get special treatment. As Robert Tannehill puts it, prophets are not "guided and limited by in-group loyalties." The prophet ministers also to gentiles, and, not only that, but gentiles from widely differing socioeconomic and political status.
At this, the people in the synagogue "were filled with wrath." Jesus had just told them they weren't special and they were going to punish him for it. They "rose up and threw him out of town" and tried to throw him off a cliff. (Will Willimon suggests this cautionary note for preachers: "Preachers beware. This is what happens when you get the gospel right.")
Jesus, undaunted and unafraid, walks right "through their midst." They didn't lay a finger on him. He continues on his way.
Image: Frieze of the Prophets, John Singer Sargent