Commentary on Luke 4:21-30
The whole passage (Luke 4:14-30) is structured around a pattern of proclamations by Jesus and responses from the hometown synagogue audience.
First proclamation: In last week’s reading (Luke 4:14-21), Jesus announced the inauguration of his ministry with a synagogue reading from Isaiah and the assertion that there is good news for the poor, release for captives, sight for the blind, and freedom from oppression (v. 19). He finished up by proclaiming that this was the year of God’s favor (v.20) and that today this anticipated prophecy was being fulfilled in their hearing (v. 21). Jesus points to himself as the fulfillment of the prophecy and as the one able to offer salvation to all who hear him. Such salvation should be understood broadly as God’s redemptive work through Jesus with special attention given to those who are marginalized. When we think about our own proclamation of the good news of Jesus, we might ask ourselves “Is our message good news for the poor? For the captive? For the oppressed? Does our proclamation envision that all can be saved?” If our message is not as broad as Jesus’ message, then we must ask “How can we proclaim the good news of Jesus so that it is good news for the very people whom Jesus pointed towards in his announcement of the gospel?”
In this week’s reading we find out what the synagogue audience thought of Jesus’ prophetic declaration and explore the rest of the dialogue between Jesus and his audience.
Notice how the whole group reacts as one. All who witness this message respond in the same way, with wonder — with admiration or amazement. This is not the first time in Luke that people respond with wonder to the message about Jesus. In Luke 2:18, all who hear the shepherds’ story respond with wonder. Jesus’ parents respond with wonder to Simeons’ declaration that Jesus is God’s salvation for both Gentile and Jew (Luke 2:33). The proper response to the good news of God’s at work in the world through Jesus is wonder and amazement. Can you hear the synagogue buzzing with the voices of those saying, “Wow, what amazing news. Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” The synagogue audience is right, this is Joseph’s son; however, the reader knows what the audience in the synagogue does not. The reader of Luke knows that this is the one true son, the Son of God (Luke 3:38), and not simply the biological son of Joseph.1
Jesus interrupts the wondering voices with a second proclamation in two parts.
Part One — Proverbial Sayings (vv. 23-24): Jesus describes the desires of the hometown crowd using two sayings that he interprets. The first popular classical proverb probably means, “Well, if you are the fulfillment of this amazing proclamation of good news, then show us signs that this is the case.” The crowd wants Jesus to do the same miracles in Nazareth that he did in Capernaum. There may be some rivalry between the towns but most likely the people of Nazareth feel that the hometown son should show them special favor and consideration, especially if he is the messenger and fulfillment of such good news. Jesus continues his proclamation with a second saying, “No prophet is acceptable in his home country” (v. 24). For the first time in Luke, Jesus is identified as a prophet, but this will bring rejection rather than acceptance in the place where he is well known.
Part Two — Prophetic Stories (vv. 25-27): Jesus continues his proclamation by alluding to two famous prophets: Elijah and Elisha. Of all the stories about these two famous prophets, he picks two about prophetic ministry to people who were not part of the people of Israel — ministry done on behalf of those who are not part of the hometown crowd. The implication is that Jesus too has a ministry that is directed at those beyond the borders of his hometown. Once again, Luke is reminding his readers that Jesus’ salvific ministry is available to all — in Luke’s gospel there is an emphasis on salvation for both the Jew and the Gentile (e.g., Luke 2:31-32; 3:6). And here in Jesus’ initial proclamation of good news, he makes it clear that he will not be a prophet who serves the special interests of his hometown but rather a messenger of good news for the whole world and especially the vulnerable.
Just as in the first response, all of them have the same reaction. The hometown crowd is full of anger. They heard Jesus proclaim good news; they want proof (in the form of signs) that Jesus is the prophet he claims to be; and they hear, with anger, his declaration that his ministry is directed to all. So, they respond with anger, and as a group they rise up and try to kill him (v. 29). Jesus’ ministry begins with the proclamation of good news; his proclamation is ultimately rejected; and the crowd attempts to kill him. In many ways this is a foreshadowing of the way that Jesus’ ministry will unfold in the years ahead.2 Jesus’ proclamation of a kingdom in which the poor inherit a kingdom, in which the hungry are filled, and in which the rich and full are pulled down ultimately will lead him to the cross.
But for now, just as Jesus came (Luke 4:16) to the synagogue with a proclamation of good news, so now he goes away (4:30), and in the verses that follow we find Jesus continuing to teach and heal in the places that he goes.
Perhaps the most disturbing part of this passage is that Jesus does not do any miracles in his hometown. Why should they not receive a little benefit from Jesus’ ministry? Yet this very sense of being disturbed can be a helpful pointer for our own preaching and teaching. Do we feel entitled to the work of Jesus among us? Do we think that Jesus should do ministry for the church first? Or, do we share with Jesus his concern for the marginalized and vulnerable and for those beyond the boundaries of our local congregation?
1 Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, NICNT, 1997, 215.