Ethnic Humility

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
     because he has anointed me
     to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
     and recovering of sight to the blind,
     to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” — Luke 4:16–21 ESV

Jesus returns to his home town. He’s been gone for a while having relocated to Cana. Relocated is an exaggeration since in reality Jesus had been wandering around Galilee for months. This was after causing a scene in Jerusalem by chasing out temple vendors with a homemade whip. He had even found time to take his disciples through Samaria where the first town he preached in wasn’t even Jewish, at least by Jerusalem standards. So, it’s been maybe a year since he’s spent much time in his hometown. Since then he’s gathered some disciples and word of his exploits have apparently gotten back to Nazareth. For the hometown crowd, these exploits have been interesting, but hard to fathom.

Clearly, the good folks at Nazareth were surprised by the rumors of their local carpenter’s son, recently turned rabbi, actually performing miracles and teaching all around Galilee. Their surprise is interesting in itself. It leads me to wonder if Jesus’ life in Nazareth was ordinary to the point that his new career choice was totally unexpected. Anyway, he’s welcomed home by Mary, and whatever group of siblings your theology allows, and when he shows up in the local synagogue he’s given the honor of reading the scripture. This, I think, was an honor but was probably ordinarily extended to other itinerant preachers traveling through town. It was also an invitation to preach. In truth, they were anxious to see one or two of those miracles they’ve heard so much about.

Jesus accepts the scroll and rolls it open. He reads not just any old Messianic prophecy but what could be described as “the” Messianic prophecy. The passage goes on to say this:

Strangers shall stand and tend your flocks;
     foreigners shall be your plowmen and vinedressers;

but you shall be called the priests of the Lord;
     they shall speak of you as the ministers of our God;
you shall eat the wealth of the nations,
     and in their glory you shall boast.

Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion;
     instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their lot;
therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion;
     they shall have everlasting joy. — Isaiah 61:5–7 ESV

You might imagine why this was a popular passage. It speaks of a day when tables are turned, when those maniacal Romans might be paying taxes rather than collecting them. The strangers mentioned here were those annoying gentiles who seem flush with cash in exactly the way Jews longed to become. Eating other people’s wealth and boasting about it must have sounded pretty sweet.

Now, I don’t know what going home meant to Jesus, but as a 12-year-old he understood where his father’s house was located, and it wasn’t Nazareth. As a child, Jesus grew up in Egypt. When Joseph and Mary returned to Judea, they ended up in Nazareth, even though they had lived several years in Bethlehem before they went to Egypt. For Mary and Joseph, Nazareth was where they grew up. However, it’s doubtful that the fact that Mary forgot to have a wedding feast has slipped their minds. Of course, it’s likely that some of the funding kindly supplied years ago by some wise men is still under the mattress so, If Nazareth is anything like the town I grew up in, a little money can make an awkward maternity a little more socially acceptable. Nevertheless, I don’t think it was entirely forgotten and I also doubt if folks failed to make Jesus, as a young man, aware of it.

So, Jesus was not a hometown hero. In fact, some folks might have felt a little snubbed since, thus far, all of his exploits have been elsewhere. Despite that, he’s handed the scroll and politely asked to speak. In terms of sermons, it was a short one. Luke let’s us know that anticipation was high and you could hear a pin drop as, after reading the scripture, Jesus sits down to speak. What he says is surprising, shocking, and just the sort of thing that could get you killed in Jerusalem. He says: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” But here’s the thing. No big reaction! Luke tells us, and I quote: “all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth.”

Hmmm… Apparently declaring himself to be the Messiah was no big thing. Maybe they just didn’t get it, sort of missed the point. It seems to me that someone has just told them the most important thing they’ve ever heard… and their response was a bit blasé, the equivalent of, “Oh, that’s nice dear… say, aren’t you Mary’s son?” While they could picture being fanned by Greek servant girls and sharing spiritual insights with those undeserving Romans, they couldn’t picture the local carpenter’s son as bringing this about.
It’s my view that Jesus responded in annoyance. He can’t let their tacit acceptance stand. So, in exasperation Jesus says:

“Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘“Physician, heal yourself.” What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.’” And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” — Luke 4:23–27 ESV

I can picture then stewing over this addendum to his sermon. What exactly was he saying? He seems to be saying that God went out of his way to help out some random gentiles while decent Jew’s were suffering. This just can’t be right can it? It didn’t take long for a few implications to sink in. Might Jesus have been implying that if a prophet isn’t welcome in his hometown then maybe he’ll be welcome in another town, like maybe even a gentile town? Like maybe that Samaritan town he was recently welcomed in. Is he saying this “year of the Lord’s favor” somehow includes gentiles? Pleasant dreams were evaporating all around. In their place, the idea of throwing this guy off the local cliff occurred to some. Their reaction was visceral and fierce, and they acted as a mob literally dragging Jesus to the cliff-side. Wow!

Honestly, there are two issues I have trouble with here. First, why on earth did Jesus respond the way he did? Second, why did the town react with such vehemence?

As to the second question, I think we underestimate the level of ethnocentrism that was ubiquitous in first century Jews. Their worldview and their faith demanded that they see themselves as special. God, after all choose them and only them. It’s hard not to conclude that you weren’t chosen for good reason. You are somehow superior. Of course, reconciling their current social and economic standing in the world must have created a little dissonance. They were an oppressed people in a depressed land. How can such a superior group of guys and gals be so dominated militarily and technologically for so long? Their worldview saw things in terms of honor and shame and currently, what they felt was shame. But wait! – maybe this is all part of God’s long-term plan. What he really wants to do is teach those gentiles a good lesson. He’s going to send a great leader, that Messiah we’ve read about, who will bring all of us ethnically superior people together and lead us to a place where it’s our foot on their necks. However, this particular Messiah was turning out to be uncooperative with this vision.

As to the first question regarding why Jesus responded the way he did, or to put it another way, intentionally sabotaged this warm fuzzy reception, is a hard one. To me Jesus’ reaction is both uncharacteristic and seems uncalled for. Like my Dad used to say, “Why toss a monkey wrench into a buzz-saw”. Of course, unlike other places Jesus preached, he knows these people intimately. This history might mean that we have been brought into the middle of this story and, like Luke, are ignorant of it’s beginning. I think it’s notable that none of his disciples are from Jesus’ hometown. Perhaps, not only is a prophet unacceptable in his hometown, but maybe the hometown is unacceptable to the prophet. This doesn’t mean that Jesus’ desire to seek and save the lost sheep of Nazareth is insincere but rather that we’re missing a relevant part of this story.

Whatever the reason, Jesus reminds his audience of a couple of Old Testament stories. Both are about God’s blessing during hard times. As to the first, Jesus says: “But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow.” The passage Jesus refers to (1 Kings 17:7-16) is about the judgement of God on an evil Jewish king. Elijah was literally hiding out in this widow’s house. Hiding out was necessary because kings are known to be cranky during a famine. Just like presidents during a recession, kings in those days would be blamed for lack of rain. God instructed Elijah to go to this particular widow, and God provided the widow with the means to do it. So… why all the hostility!

Likewise, Jesus mentions another story: “And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” This passage (2 Kings 5:1-14) refers to a diplomatic incident between the king of Israel and the king of Aram. This king sends gifts to the king of Israel in hopes for a cure for leprosy for the commander of the Aranian. The King of Israel sees this as an excuse for war and ruins a perfectly good robe to express his pessimistic view of coming out of this alive. Elisha hears about the king’s problems and heals the commander with the worst example of bedside manners ever shown by a healer. War is averted with the exception of Elisha’s servant; everyone walks away unscathed. Again… why all the hostility!

Well, sometimes is not what you say but how you say it. Jesus intentionally points out that both this widow and Naaman were gentiles. I’m certain Jesus could have pointed out dozens of other similar Old Testament passages, but it seems these two were all that was needed to start a riot. The good folks of Nazareth weren’t having it. The absolute gall of this upstart coming into their town, in their synagogue, telling them that God is occasionally nice to gentiles! A proper trial and funeral just seemed like a waste on this fellow. “Say”, someone says, “remember that cliff just outside of town.” Now, to me this seems like an over-reaction. For small town folks they went from patronizing to homicidal pretty darn fast.

Even so, why so much rage? It occurs to me that the Jews of Jesus’ day were a conquered people who had been dominated by stronger foreign powers for centuries. In their way of thinking, there’s only one way that could happen. That is that God is angry with them. How else could God allow his chosen to be subjugated by those gentile dogs. After all, they had been punished before. The solution… an uncompromising fidelity to the law. This of course, is the thinking of all fundamentalist movements, be they Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. God will be pleased only when his chosen obey in a way that demonstrates enthusiasm for a careful adherence to the law and intolerance for anything resembling non-conformity. Only then will God smile on his children and let loose his brewing anger on their enemies. And the enemy was everyone and everything that wasn’t them. To this way of thinking, distinction from their enemies was paramount. They must reject everything not Jewish and especially people who were not Jewish. And those within their ranks who deviate must be made to conform. Nonconformists are worse than the enemy because their fraternization with the enemy will delay the outpouring of God’s wrath and the blessings he longs to bestow on his obedient children. The apostate has therefore become the real enemy.

Now this Jesus, using their own scriptures, who dares to even vaguely insinuate that God might want to bless gentiles, has become the apostate. He has crossed a line for which they must actively demonstrate intolerance. And they demonstrate it with vigor. They put on the cloak of the mob in order do corporately what they would never do individually. They seek to murder in order to please God. This is the logic of hate and the fruit of their bigotry as they unknowingly seek to murder God himself. Of course, this they would eventually do, but Nazareth wasn’t the place, and this wasn’t the time. Jesus simply walks away leaving those who long ago rejected his mother to now reject the son. In doing so, they fully embrace God’s judgement. They have turned God’s command to be a blessing to the gentiles (Genesis 12:1-3) into a thirst for malice and a hunger for vengeance.

In my reading of the gospels I see this theme again and again. The thinking of Nazareth was deeply embedded in the disciples themselves. Jesus takes them across Israel constantly challenging their prejudices and their ethnocentrism. Many of his parables speak of God’s coming judgement on Israel and his invitation for those gentile dogs to enter God’s kingdom. To say that Jesus came solely to seek the lost sheep of Israel is a misunderstanding of his words and his mission.

After this rejection in Nazareth Jesus is welcomed in every other town in Galilee and Judea where some actually beg him to stay. It’s later that Jesus reminds Israel that they have refused to accept the invitation to the King’s banquet and strangers will be invited in their place (Luke 14:16-24).

Of course, we are the sheep of those other folds Jesus spoke of (John 10:16). The fear for me is that like the Israel of Jesus’ day, will we become lost in our own sense of specialness. Are we becoming increasing resentful of other people in other places? After having been blessed and loved by God, have we refused to, in turn, be a blessing? It’s hard, I think, to see your own ethnocentrism for what it is, and easy to see the foreigner as the person who is robbing you of our specialness, and of our God-fearing history. We tend to see those who are not us as eroding our cultural values and reshaping what we think of as our destiny. Are we embracing the thinking of Jonah and hope for God’s judgement instead of his redemption? Paul reminds those of us who have been grafted on to the branch that if God has cut off the original branch, he won’t be slow to do the same to those grafted branches who refuse to bear fruit (Romans 11:11-31).

Remember that we are charged to carry Jesus’ torch. We are the ones told to go into all the world and proclaim his good news (Matthew 28:19-20). The torch we carry is the very one that Jesus claimed all those years ago in Nazareth. We are anointed to proclaim good news to the poor. To proclaim liberty to the captives and the recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Maybe that’s best done with a little ethnic humility.

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