Jesus preached in his hometown and at first they liked what they heard – gracious words. But when he said that God’s love and mercy may be given to outsiders, the congregation protested. “Now he’s gone too far. Isn’t he the son of that teenage girl who was pregnant when she married the village carpenter? “And now that boy” – he was about 30 years old – “says he’s the object of Isaiah’s prophecy? He ought to show more respect for us, or at least go a little slower.” Jesus sensed their criticism. “You expect me to repeat here what I did in Capernaum” (where he healed a man who had an unclean spirit).
“But even if I did, it wouldn’t make any difference to people like you. A prophet is not acceptable in his own country.”
Well. People who consider themselves religious are often dissatisfied with God, and since Jesus was being critical of these religious people, they were unsatisfied with him. Hence, a prophet is not acceptable especially to those who know him. They wouldn’t pay attention to Jesus because he said that God could have mercy even upon a Syrian. In fact, they spoke with certainty about God as though they knew him better than a lot of other people.
Such people put a fence around God, and then speak on his behalf. Jesus knew all that when he reminded his congregation that all the lepers in Israel had been bypassed by Elijah in favor of healing a Syrian, a foreigner, an outsider. Jesus showed them God’s love that goes beyond the Jewish nation. That was something they hadn’t expected to hear from Joseph’s son.
They expected the wrong thing of God. Their ego was wounded. Their position had been called into question. They were ready to accuse him of being unworthy of their synagogue.
They even roughed him up, hurried him down the street to the edge of the hill the city was built on. They were about to push him onto the rocks below. But he silenced them with the force of his personal power — don’t you know the air was charged and crackling with a tension you could almost see? – and, with the strength that came from being so right that no one dared touch him, he simply walked away, right through their midst. No one raised a finger.
Here were people who already knew everything about God and religion — they thought — and they had reduced everything to a carefully regulated way of thinking, of living, of decision-making. Here were people who were so legalistic they strained at gnats of legal problems while they swallowed camels of misguided thinking.
Jesus wanted people to recognize their sins and turn to God as Father, but the Pharisees wanted to earn God’s favor by their religious perfection. They criticized Jesus because they saw their failure to understand the liberty he came to announce. Later in his ministry, in the eighth chapter of John, Jesus told a group of Jews, “If God were your father, you would love me, for I came from God, not of my own accord but he sent me. “Why do you not understand what I say? It’s because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father, the devil, and your will is to do that father’s desire.”
His opposition in the synagogue and his outburst against the Pharisees help us see a more realistic picture of Jesus’ ministry than if we suppose he went about merely healing the sick and telling nice stories. Above all, he still goes about in our midst, and we need so much more than a nice little story. I think he touched a sensitive nerve when he told these professionally religious people how God gave relief to the widow outside Jerusalem and to the leper outside Israel.
They believed their God was not interested in other people of the world. They didn’t matter. As a result, the people in the synagogue believed they could speak with authority about God but Jesus could not. If you want to know something about God, just ask us, they said, because he has given us all the answers. Here was a new teacher claiming that God loves people other than the Jewish nation. Not only did Jesus claim he was the Messiah, but now he’s claiming personal responsibility for bringing God’s love to the rest of the world.
“Joseph’s son is supposed to remember who he is, and who we are.” No wonder they were angry. “Here’s a childhood friend come home after a long absence, and now he looks down his nose at those of us who have kept on with the old ways.” If Jesus had lived in our times, and went around picking arguments with the people who are in charge of things, we would label him as insulting, crude, egotistical. But he was right. What hurts is that we know in our hearts we would have wanted to push him over the cliff for telling us our thinking about God has been wrong.
If someone who did not have a proper family line came in and told us that what we think about God is wrong, we would be offended. Jesus is saying that the Gospel proclaims the will of a loving God, not the will of people. We usually feel that what is acceptable to us is also acceptable to God. After all, what’s the use of being faithful if God does not intend to honor our efforts on his behalf? We in the church love the sentiment in the parable we call the prodigal son until we realize that God is running down the road to embrace somebody else whom we may not even like.
Or we weep with joy at the angels’ rejoicing over finding one lost sheep, until we realize they’re singing about somebody else, someone who is different from us. What all these stories say is that the great rejoicing in heaven is for outsiders, foreigners, the unchurched, the so-called lost. Now we come to ourselves. Indeed, what about us? For many of us, looking back over our own spiritual history or deeds is not always pleasant or rewarding.
There are deeds that cannot be undone. There are words spoken once that can never be silenced. There are mysterious chambers where old passions and failures still play their part in our ongoing stories. The door may be marked Private, but God does not keep out.
Do we want to keep on carrying the same old heavy loads, or do we not believe that line in the confession when a called and ordained minister of the church of Christ and by his authority declares to us and for us the entire forgiveness of all our sins? Is there anyone who does not need the grace-filled love of God? Maybe we are not as much the insiders as we first thought.
Jesus at Nazareth challenged our limited view of truth, our limited view of God’s love, and we tried to lynch him.
Jesus is saying here that God is a mystery, and we cannot put him in our box. He will help and love and have mercy on whomever he chooses. Our favorite and most-quoted text is that God so loved the world. That is God’s choice, thank God.
But his congregation at Nazareth didn’t see it that way. You might say Jesus started his ministry on the wrong foot and things went down hill from there. He showed how religious people might be so insistent for God to fit into their notion about him that they miss him when he appears. When the cruelty reached full bloom, they — maybe, we — crucified him.
Even now, as we look to the beginning of his ministry in its epiphany, in its coming forth, we catch a preview of the sounds of holy week. We already see the shadows of soldiers coming to arrest this man at prayer in a garden. We hear a noisy crowd, and see a thorn-crowned man dragging a cross through the streets. We hear hammer blows, and finally an expiring cry.
We can miss all that by denying that we helped take him to that agony.
We can miss his abandonment on the cross. We can miss being joined with Christ by not finding our own crosses of service, self-sacrifice and love for others.
But we can see God in Christ as he loved the world. In him we can see the light of the resurrection.
With the eyes of faith, we see the love that
God has for the whole world,
each one of us, one by one