Commentary on Luke 4:21-30
This is the second part of a passage that began in verse 14.
Jesus had triumphed over the devil in the wilderness and had “returned in the power of the Spirit” to give his inaugural address in Nazareth. He had done so by beginning with the prophet Isaiah and a passage about true reversal of fortune and hopeful change. However, in this passage he picks a fight with the congregation in his old home town and almost suffers a premature demise because of it.
The form of the saying is a pronouncement. It is therefore a correction. Jesus feels compelled to correct the thinking of the congregation, and, by extension, the reader. It is often the assumption of the listener that is most in need of correction; the unexamined, seemingly obvious “truth” that the individual and the community never bother to question.
What is interesting is that, as in the first part of this story, Jesus begins with scripture. Scripture is able to unsettle many assumptions that lurk in people’s hearts with stories demonstrating the opposite of what they think. That is the case here. Only this time it is with an antagonism that Jesus wields holy writ and upsets the apple cart. Jesus is not expressing any new ideas. He is not suggesting that God is doing something wholly different from what He did before. On the contrary, the Almighty has been at the same work all along, only now that work is fulfilled in Christ and will anger many people.
At first, the congregation identifies Jesus as one of their own. “Familiarity breeds contempt.” However, the congregation’s identification of Jesus as home grown may not have been malicious. After all, they had spoken well of him just a moment ago. All the more reason for the reader to be surprised at Jesus’ tough reaction! Was he offended that they thought of him in familiar terms? Luke does not give us a window into Jesus’ emotional state but it seems clear that Jesus thought it necessary to separate himself from the mundane opinions of his neighbors.
He is not the son of Joseph, but the Son of God. That is what Jesus needs to correct in the minds of the congregation and the reader. But this is not an acceptable thought to the congregation of his birth. Though he has proclaimed the acceptable year of the Lord, he will find no such acceptance himself. Notions of deliverance in general, we will discover, are more acceptable to the people than the person of the deliverer.
Fine ideas of freedom, acceptance, and understanding are easy to enjoy. However, when such thoughts become actualized, people often recoil from the concrete realization of those concepts, especially if that realization does not comport with their conventional wisdom.
Far from conciliating his audience, Jesus antagonizes them. He even goes so far as to put words in their mouths. This is hardly good diplomacy. But it is effective, if Jesus intends to alter the thinking of the congregation. Their complacent familiarity about Jesus will not do. He must wrestle them from their common thoughts, even to the point of angering them, so that they will let go of their mistaken opinions. Incidents like this belie the portrayal of Jesus as meek and mild. On the contrary, he was a man of bold courage who did not mince words or worry himself about offending others. In fact, he went out of his way to offend many (Luke 11:45; see also 12:51; 19:45) His purpose, rather, is to fulfill the kingdom of God, not the expectations or aspirations of his neighbors.
Jesus recounts two episodes in 1 Kings 17 and 2 Kings 5 in which Elijah, the second greatest prophet in Israel after Moses, and his student, Elisha, were instrumental in bringing God’s deliverance from death and sickness to Gentiles. Jesus begins by styling himself a rejected prophet. He has already anticipated the reaction he will receive. But his two examples of God’s mercy are not designed to sooth, but to indict.
This is no therapeutic Jesus who pats little children on the head. This is a bold antagonist who makes preemptive strikes against the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Roman rulers, the priests and scribes, Democrats and Republicans, Socialists and Capitalists, and any other creature who presumes upon the Divine.
Jesus speaks the “truth” from the pages of the Old Testament. The stories were well known, but their lessons had been lost. The Good News can as easily become an indictment as it is a promise. It is an indictment against those who presume to control it apart from its ultimate purpose and the witness of scripture. Jesus uses God’s word to point out the Gentile mission that God Himself had begun so long ago, not once but many times. It is the mission the church would begin to fulfill on Pentecost.
Jesus had rightly predicted the reaction to his little speech. The crowd tried to kill him. The pattern of rejection has been set early in Luke’s Gospel for the truth always exposes its opponents. Preachers who try to preach only messages of conciliation are merely preaching half a gospel. The other half is an attack on all fronts against human presumption.
Christ’s epiphany is not two-dimensional and easy to take. His disciples are charged with preaching the full and complete word, the hard word, the saving word. Let the chips fall where they may when the words fall from our lips. If it is time for the cross, it is time. If not, the Word will go on its way.
January 31, 2010