4 Epiphany C 2022
How did things go so wrong so quickly? It seems that one minute the Nazareth folks are astonished at the quality of Jesus’ teaching and can’t say enough good things about the hometown lad. The next minute, they are chasing him over a cliff. How did things go off the rails in a narrative blink of the eye?
The standard interpretation is to blame the Nazareth folks for being prototypical “recalcitrant Jews” who are willfully obtuse and wildly vengeful. That’s just not accurate, even in a variety of toned-down versions. Richard Swanson puts it this way. “The puzzle to be solved in this scene is not found in the rejection of Jesus at the end of the story. The puzzle is to be found in the way Jesus picks a fight with people who approve of his appropriation of the faith of the community” (page 96).
Levine and Witherington spend several pages on our text in their commentary on the Gospel of Luke. They don’t agree on the provenance, impact, or interpretation of significant aspects of the text. As a result, they offer a good summary of the issues that face us as ethical preachers of the text. For this reason, I want to share rather closely some of their conversation and conclusions. For the sake of brevity, I will refer to the authors as AJ and Ben.
They note that there is nothing in the initial response of the Nazareth folks “to suggest hostility.” Rather they bear favorable witness to his words (page 117). The question about his parentage in verse 22 “cannot be anything but positive…At this point in the Gospel, there is no reason for the congregation to think that Jesus showing off or rising above his station” (page 118). The crowd is not equipped to see Jesus as the Son of God, in contrast to the us as readers. But that’s no justification for rejecting him.
Swanson agrees that the hometown response is unequivocally positive. “They look at Jesus and see someone who shares their hopes,” he writes. “Gentile Christian interpreters are so trained to see the disjunction between Judaism and their own faith practice that they leap immediately to the rejection that looms at the end of this scene. Because Gentile Christians understand their faith so much in terms of its ‘over-against-ness,’” Swanson continues, “they spend most of their energy explaining the origins of the rejection with which this scene ends” (page 95).
I don’t focus on this to be politically or theologically “correct” in some way. My concern first of all is to get the text right. As AJ Levine puts it in another context, “bad history leads to bad theology, and bad theology is bad for everyone.”
If we read the text honestly, we see that Jesus is the one who “picks a fight,” as Swanson notes. “The comment about acceptability tips the scene from one of gracious appreciation to one of hostility,” write AJ and Ben. “Jesus predicts what the congregation will do before they do, or even say, anything” (page 118). They note that the scene broadly reflects the rejection of the Jesus message and movement in Galilee in the first century. As a result, the message and movement relocated to Jerusalem and then to the Diaspora.
AJ and Ben disagree on the historicity of the Lukan account at this point. Ben leans in general toward something like this actually happening in Nazareth at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. AJ sees it largely as a composition of the Lukan author. “We agree that Jesus may well have claimed for himself the fulfillment of messianic prophecies,” they write, “and he may well have cursed the people of Nazareth for rejecting him, as he cursed the people of other Galilean towns” (page 119). AJ regards the reported event as one of Luke’s apologetic tactics “to keep Jesus’ followers of out of synagogues and to cast synagogues as places of danger for them” (page 119).
Jesus uses the examples of the widow of Zarephath and Elijah and Naaman and Elisha to make some points with the home folks. But what are theses points to be made? That’s the question whether one sees this incident as historical or composed. AJ and Ben briefly review assessments from major commentaries in this regard, commentaries which are relatively uniform in seeing this text as affirming the recalcitrance and rejection of the Nazareth folks. The conclusion, to put it somewhat crudely, is that they get what they deserve.
“Such misreadings,” AJ and Ben argue, “give rise to replacement theology, that is, the notion that the covenant between God and the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob has been abrogated, with the (gentile) followers of Jesus taking their place.” AJ and Ben note at least three reasons why such readings are mischaracterizations of the text and the tradition.
First, the two stories are part of Jewish tradition and support the longstanding notion of the “righteous gentile.” This would not be news to the Nazareth folks, nor would it be offensive on its face. Second, there are no historical reasons to believe that the Nazareth folks and the Jews they represent would find Gentiles to be excluded or unworthy. Synagogues welcomed Gentiles as “God-fearers,” and the Temple itself had a “Court of the Gentiles.” Third, these Gentiles do not create purity issues. If anything, these are stories about restoring Gentiles to states of ritual purity (pages 120-121).
While AJ and Ben disagree about the historicity of the events narrated and thus about details of the impact and intention, they “agree that fair commentary on what happened is not polemic against Jews in general, nor is it a sign of a replacement theology…” (page 121). Nor do the people at Nazareth have a scarcity problem. They are not enraged that Jesus might suggest an expansion of God’s mission beyond the bounds of Israel. After all, that expansion is firmly embedded in the words and work of the Hebrew prophets.
AJ and Ben cite a 2009 article by John Poirier to assist in making sense of the scene. Their cryptic summary (page 122) was not enough for me to understand the point, so I needed to read the article itself. Even though the events in Luke 4:16-30 are presented by the Lukan author as Jesus’ inaugural sermon, that can hardly be the case (so much for the Lukan “orderly account”). The Lukan author notes that Jesus had made a tour of other towns and villages before he came home (4:15). And he attributes mention of works in Capernaum to the Nazareth folks even though Jesus’ doesn’t get there in the Lukan account until chapter seven.
If there is history behind this account (and I think there is some), then the home folks have good reason to expect that the gifts of healing and exorcism Jesus exercised elsewhere will be brought to bear on the needy at home as well. In addition, Poirier notes that Elijah and Elisha were viewed by the first century as models for the prophet who would come at the end-times to restore the kingdom to Israel. That reminds us that this “restoration” concern haunts the Lukan narrative all the way to the Ascension account in Acts 1 (at least).
“My own view is that the crowd originally welcomed Jesus, and that they probably even relished hearing that this passage was now being fulfilled in their midst,” Poirier writes. “But they were not prepared for the negative design that Jesus was about to draw. Instead of saying that he would perform, in their midst, the works that had gained him acclaim in other synagogues,” he continues, “Jesus presses the parallels between his ministry and the careers of Elijah and Elisha in a rather different way, by comparing the Nazarenes with the apostatized public of Elijah’s and Elisha’s day” (page 362).
Poirier’s conclusion is that the violent reaction of the crowd portrayed in the Lukan account “has nothing to do with any sort of insularity or anti-Gentile sentiments, as scholars have often claimed, but rather with Jesus’ implying that the Nazareth crowd is the antitype to the Israel of Elijah and Elisha’s day” (page 363). Jesus, in this perspective, is not critiquing any Jewish “narrowness” or “sense of privilege” on the part of the hometown folks. Instead, he is simply saying that they are not faithful to their own traditions.
AJ and Ben do not come to a consensus on either the historicity or Lukan theology of this text. They do agree “that stereotypes of early Judaism as a graceless religion or one opposed to the inclusion of gentiles in contrast to the universality of the Jesus movement do no justice to early Judaism” (page 123). Just because Jesus pissed off the home folks by calling them out on their hypocrisy (which perhaps he knew with great intimacy) doesn’t make this text a blanket description or condemnation of “recalcitrant Jews” in general.
Again, this is about getting the text right rather than slipping into the path of least resistance used by a dominant and dominating Christian culture. What would happen if Jesus showed up in our worship and began pointing out our shortcomings in light of our professed principles? I suppose we might start looking for the nearest cliff as well.
References and Resources
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben III. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). 2018.
POIRIER, JOHN C. “Jesus as an Elijianic Figure in Luke 4:16-30.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, vol. 71, no. 2, Catholic Biblical Association, 2009, pp. 349–63, http://www.jstor.org/stable/43726546.
Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary Year C. 2006.