16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.
Context is always important and without it, we turn scripture into isolated one liners. “Is this not Joseph’s son?’; “Physician, heal thyself” and “No prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown” all become Hallmark Homilies. They are each interesting in themselves but more so in the context of the narrative.
Luke tells us that he is seeking to provide an orderly account of Jesus’ life and ministry. He weaves the threads of Jesus’ early years to point to the final revelation of Jesus as Messiah. This particular passage is very early in Jesus’ ministry. He has been chosen and called in his baptism and has spent a trying period in the wilderness to discern the nature of his call. Then, leaving the wilderness ‘filled with the Holy Spirit’, Jesus begins to proclaim the Good New. He has just begun to make a name for himself when he returns home to Nazareth.
This is a familiar trajectory in ordinary life. We are nurtured and molded, we gain some sense of purpose or call and we start to establish ourselves. We leave home and school, we try to figure out what we are going to be when we grow up and then start the tasks of adulthood. We are young, inexperienced, anxious and confident. We are in the midst of claiming our own identity and proclaiming that new self. This is where we find Jesus in this passage. He is going home for the first time after beginning his ministry elsewhere. He is a small town boy who has made good. These people knew him as an infant, as a child and as a teenager. Now he was coming as a man of authority. The student was presenting himself as a teacher. It is akin to our experience when we come into our parent’s home as a first time parent. How will we be received? Will our parents respect our new role or will they insist on offering unsolicited advice? In Jesus’ case, will the people who saw him grow up, accept his new role as teacher?
At first the answer is a resounding yes. “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” But then, when the very first question is asked, Jesus starts to get prickly. He starts to anticipate dismissal and starts telling the people what they ‘really’ mean—“Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ Where did that come from? We are so used to hearing Jesus’ story backwards—from the end of his life to the beginning, we forget that Jesus was fully human and had to ‘grow in wisdom’.
Even if we credit Jesus with prescient knowledge of the crowd, his interactions did not encourage learning or relationship. In fact if you read further, you discover the crowd ended up wanting to throw him over a cliff. As a literary foreshadowing, this event has the flavor of Palm Sunday followed rapidly by a crucifixion. This parallel may well be intentional. It may well be part of Luke’s orderly account. Luke has already selected the stories in a specific way to lead us to understanding. In any case, we cannot know. That said, I find it helpful to think of Jesus as ‘growing in wisdom’ in a way that parallels our own human experiences. For me such an approach helps me reflect upon claiming and proclaiming the Good News.
In real life, when any of us are just beginning, we are often anxious and we often anticipate dismissal. Anyone who has said:—- “You look great today” and gets the response back “What do you mean today?. Are you saying I don’t look good other days?” or “Why are you focusing on my looks rather than my intellect?” —knows that intent and response can go seriously awry. One of my clients has just been assigned a major project. His boss’s boss sent him an email saying: “I’m glad you’re taking this on. It will give me a chance to see what you are capable of.” For some, that email is a compliment. For others, the same email is a threat.”
Was the question: “Is this not Joseph’s son?” a question of appreciation and respect—look at what he has become! and/or was the same question implying that Jesus had no authority because they knew his background and foibles? If people remember when you ignored your parents and did what you wanted to do (when Jesus broke curfew and stayed in Jerusalem in the Temple), will they listen when you speak of honoring your mother and your father? In real life, what we hear is often different from what was intended. Likewise, we are often clueless to how we sound because we know we meant well.
Jesus goes on to anticipate what the crowd: “And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” Well, of course they are going to want the same things. But Jesus doesn’t explain or teach that the hope he brings is about a way of life more than it is about a change in circumstance. Jesus’ response is more confrontational—-‘you don’t get it. That’s not what I’m about’—-(“Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”) In the next verses, he pointedly reminds them that God acts as God acts—and no one can claim or explain ‘special treatment.’ There are assumptions, missed communications and misunderstandings throughout the conversation. Jesus’ point is well taken but it certainly seems that it wasn’t heard. He may have been right but does it matter if no one is listening. (FYI Jesus survived this encounter and throughout the rest of his ministry used a style of communication (speaking in parables) that invited and ever required curiosity far more often than he used direct truth telling.)
It is dangerous to tell people what they ‘really’ mean. But it is also important to claim our truth and proclaim to others. In real life, lectures and sermons are far more likely to fall upon deaf ears. I still remember vividly my son’s eyes glazing over as I told him for the five hundredth time what I expected of him. I even knew he wasn’t listening. He was just waiting for me to finish so he could escape. But that didn’t stop me from trying one more time. Especially when we are ‘right’ or when we see someone we care about careening into a brick wall, we are tempted to make our point again—-and again—and again. The problem is that such a tactic rarely helps.
We need to find the words to claim and proclaim our hope but ultimately, we must live it. Jesus claimed his truth by living it. Jesus’ life was dedicated to noticing and loving the unseen and the outcasts of our world. He came to give the hope that no matter what happens to us in life, we matter. We are God’s children. He even came for those who worked against him. This is way beyond our capabilities but it is the direction of life that gives life. That is our hope in the darkest of night. That is our hope when our world is collapsing and when our bodies are failing. That is our hope when we are beyond hope— when our hope must be held by others. It is the hope that gives light in the deepest darkness.
He discovered very quickly however, that simply telling the truth does not mean anyone will listen. Most of us want results. Most of us want an outcome that we like or prefer. And most of us are angry and disappointed with a ‘God with us’. Such a Messiah is very unsatisfactory if your nation has been defeated and you have been exiled—or if you have stage 4 cancer, are alone and estranged, disabled or desperately poor. Unfortunately, there are just as many captives, oppressed people, blind people and desperately poor people in our day as there were in Isaiah’s or Jesus’. Jesus did not fix that problem. Jesus did call us to a way of life that was mindful, that showed regard and love for all people. He claimed that way of life led to life. He promised that all of us deserve such care—no matter what happens in our lives. That is hope. That is good news.
I can’t give you the primary source but in FIRL, a quote to live by was offered. It is something like “the one who can give thanks can survive the worst life can send.” We have heard this hope, we have seen such hope is possible. This hope has been held for us and it is proclaimed by a life lived in hope. It is odd to give thanks at our darkest moment—and, in real life, sometimes it is impossible—but it will transform you. It will give new life.
Jesus lived the life that he preached. It is the very best way we can claim—and proclaim our hope. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.
Let it be so.