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).

Photo by Mikhail Nilov on Pexels.com

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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Text Study for Luke 4 21-30 (Part One)

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).

Photo by julie aagaard on Pexels.com

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.