Text Study for Luke 4:21-30 (Part Two)

How will you read/play Luke 4:22 out loud this week? “And all were bearing witness to him and were amazed at the words of grace which were coming out of his mouth, and were saying, ‘Is not this one the son of Joseph?’” (my translation). The implied answer to that rhetorical question is, “Why, yes, this one is indeed the son of Joseph!” We can be sure that Jesus’ Nazareth listeners have no doubt about his paternity (although the audience, of course, knows different). But that doesn’t help us to discern the “tone” of the question.

AJ and Ben argue that the question “cannot be anything but positive” (page 118). Swanson agrees and notes that the question “would naturally be read as pointing out how strong the local community is: even a kid like Jesus, the son of a builder, a common person, is able to speak and live the tradition” (page 96). Justo Gonzalez suggests that the reaction is tinged with surprise, but overall, their response is positive. “They have heard about what he has done in Capernaum and elsewhere and are ready to listen to his words” (Kindle Location 1278).

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Diane Chen is less certain about that tone. “It is possible to interpret the question as a sense of hometown pride: ‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son? Look how well he has turned out!’ On the other hand,” Chen notes, “the question may betray a tinge of contempt” (page 71). She notes that in the Markan composition, the indication is clear that the home folks take offense at him in this setting. That may or may not be germane to the intentions of the Lukan author, but it’s worth considering.

Malina and Rohrbaugh argue that after an initially positive response, the home folks begin to wonder how all this can happen. “In asking if Jesus is Joseph’s son,” they suggest, “the synagogue participants are questioning how such honorable teaching could come from one born to a lowly artisan” (page 309). They claim that Jesus anticipates this challenge to his honor through the riposte he then offers.

Shively Smith continues in this vein in his workingpreacher.org commentary. “The matter here is not what Jesus says, but who Jesus is,” Smith writes. “As the son of a modest artisan, Jesus should not be teaching with such authority, honor, and influence. This story reflects the problem of the honor-shame code when it meets God’s prophetic disclosures and intentions. The prophetic word and messianic power,” Smith concludes, “rise up from below the social caste system rather than trickling down from above.”

So, as they say, it’s complicated.

I want to play this scene with a baseline of personal approval and local pride directed from the home folks to Jesus, the son of the congregation. But the sentiment that “he’s one of us” can shift quickly to “he’s one of ours.” And “he’s one of ours” can shift further to “he owes us his primary attention.” This proprietary sense of entitlement emerges, I think, during the course of the dialogue in the scene. In just a few phrases the Lukan author portrays this emergence: from compliments to amazement to expectation to entitlement.

I don’t know if this is really what’s happening, but I am reminded of the repeatedly banal conversations I’ve had with a few church leaders over the years about taking care of the home folks first. Charity begins at home. How can we give to the needs of others if we can’t even keep the lights turned on in our building? Why are those other people more deserving of our care than the folks living right under our noses? Let’s keep our giving local, where we know it will do some good for people we actually know.

These conversations unfold most often about the time of annual budgeting for a congregation. This happens to be that time of the year for those congregations whose fiscal year coincides with the calendar year. When someone advocates for an increase in giving to global missions or to the larger church or the world hunger relief or any other “non-local” cause, the argument inevitably arises that we must keep the home fires burning and attend first to those who “belong” to us.

I wouldn’t suggest for a moment that this perspective represents the majority of church folks I have known and loved. That is hardly the case. But such inwardly focused arguments are often raised by the loudest voices in local communities and appeal to the sense of scarcity that so often pervades especially smaller Christian congregations. We need to keep ours for us, the argument goes.

I wonder how much of that is at work inside the boundaries of the Nazareth synagogue.

These conversations are usually about more than fear of lack. They are also about the sense of entitlement that we all struggle with and against in our lives. Do for us what you did for those losers over in Capernaum! We’re your people. We helped raise you! Where would you be without us? You owe us that much, after all.

Of course, this type of conversation isn’t limited to annual budget season. It can be a regular feature of pastoral life in some congregations. If the pastoral leader spends too much time on larger community concerns or on prospective members or on the needs of the larger church, there will almost always be complaints from the local folks about mistaken priorities. Take care of the needs of the members first. If there’s some discretionary time left after that (and there never will be), then the pastoral leader can go and play in other sandboxes.

I’ve served congregations where that internal focus is complete and deadly. I’ve also served in places where there is a general openness to sharing our resources with the community outside the walls of the congregation. I would never wish to paint a picture which says that all Christian congregations are black holes of selfishness that punish any adventures outside of the communal event horizon. Yet, this is a common reality and the bane of existence for many pastoral leaders.

Equality is often experienced as loss by the privileged. Sharing is experienced as theft by those who assume entitlement. The response of the home folks in Nazareth, as reported (or composed) by the Lukan author, should serve as a cautionary tale for our congregations as we balance our “insider” assumptions with the needs of the larger community.

References and Resources

Chen, Diane G. Luke: A New Covenant Commentary (New Covenant Commentary Series Book 0). Cascade Books, an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publishers. Kindle Edition.

Gonzalez, Justo L. Luke: Belief, A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.

Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben III. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). 2018.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard L. Social Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels. Kindle Edition.

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.

Smith, Shively. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/fourth-sunday-after-epiphany-3/commentary-on-luke-421-30-5.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary Year C. 2006.

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