The people in Jesus’ hometown synagogue in Nazareth are incensed, rise up to drive him out of town, “and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built, to hurl him down headlong” (Lk 4:29). What got Jesus’ hometown crowd so twisted and contorted? Not only did he stand up earlier in this account of Luke and proclaim that he, the carpenter, was the fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah, but it was to the widow of Zarephath that Elijah came and Naaman the Syrian that Elisha healed.
All three of these points may be a big ho-hum to us, but they were a big deal to his people. Being a carpenter, more likely a simple day laborer, was not high on the social status ladder even in a poor town like Nazareth. The gospel writers even show the sensitivity of this. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is mentioned in this scene as “the carpenter” (6:3), in Matthew, “the carpenter’s son” (13:39), and in today’s Gospel of Luke, “Joseph’s son” (4:22). By the time we get to Luke’s account, Jesus is not even associated with the trade of carpenter, how could someone of such simple and humble means assert the mantle of Messiah?
Jesus does not go quietly in the night as the people’s wonder at his words turn to doubt and consternation. Jesus instead gives two seemingly obscure examples of people who receive God’s blessings. There were many widows and lepers in Israel, but it was to the widow of Zarephath that Elijah came and from Elisha that Naaman the Syrian received healing. The significance of these two people was that they were Gentiles, they were other, they were not part of the chosen people. Jesus is aligning himself in the prophetic tradition and the universalism of God’s salvation. Jesus is invoking a choice that will consistently ripple throughout the remainder of his public ministry. People will either embrace his universal ministry or they will oppose it.
Jesus said to his own people, from his hometown, “Amen, I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his own native place” (Lk 4:24). We may look and wonder why Jesus would say such a thing and why after speaking of the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian that these same people were “filled with fury” and sought to throw him headlong out of town.
Yet if we resist domesticating Jesus and allow ourselves to hear his words echoed today from our podiums and ambos, we might feel some of the same angst the people of Nazareth felt. Jesus speaking today would most likely not bring up the widow or Naaman to us, but instead, those considered as other in our society, the oppressed of today that he might mention could be Dreamers, immigrants, refugees from Syria or from south of our border, as well as the homeless, hungry, and addicted in our own communities. Jesus might come to proclaim liberty to those in our jails, prisons, on death row, as well as those detained by I.C.E officials.
Jesus might come to bring healing, to accompany, and be present to recover the sight of those blinded by prejudice, bigotry, paternalism, misogyny, racism, violence, arrogance, elitism, and nationalism. Jesus could come to return dignity to the unborn, the LGTBQ community, those impoverished in our urban, rural, and reservation communities. He could shine his light on the darkness of human trafficking, domestic violence, molestation, child abuse, pornography, war, terrorism, hatred, and violence in all its forms.
As we imagine ourselves sitting and receiving his message, to whom might we bristle at Jesus reaching out his healing hand. Would we embrace his message or begin to cross our arms and seeth? Would we too want to rise up and reject Jesus outright or worse do our own thing in Jesus’ name which has nothing to do with Jesus in actuality? If we are humble this Lent, we can walk up to Jesus and ask him to heal us of our own prejudices and biases, we can come to realize what gifts he has given us, and ask him to show us what ways we can be engaged in bringing glad tidings of his universal message to those in our communities. The choice is ours to make. Will we be an obstacle to Jesus’ healing or be open to receive the same Spirit that fills Jesus to overflowing to also fall afresh upon us?
Photo: Jesus in the synagogue of Nazareth from Jesus of Nazareth, Franco Zeffirelli film, 1977