Cliffhanger! Jesus Rejected at Nazareth: Reflections on Luke 4:14-21

Lectionary Reflections
Luke 4:14-21
January 27, 2013

Do you enjoy cliffhangers? I am ambivalent toward them. That's why I like TIVO. You can wait until you have both parts 1 and 2 recorded, and then you have the choice of watching them back-to-back. Or not.

This week is a cliffhanger. Jesus comes back to preach on Homecoming Sunday. And who says you can't go home again? The forecast is sunny weather—at least up through verse 21. I say let's enjoy these first 21 verses of his public speaking debut with unfurrowed brows. As Jesus himself says later on in his ministry in another gospel, "The day's own trouble is sufficient for the day" (Mt. 6:34).

When I watch suspenseful movies or shows, I find holding my breath to be a helpful strategy. Just like when you're driving into a low-ceilinged parking garage, slouching in the driver's seat will keep your car from bumping the rail above you. So hold your breath and slouch in your seat, and let's hope for the best in the first 21 verses of Luke 4.

Who Does Jesus Say He Is?

In the season of Epiphany the question, posed by the popular Christmas carol, "What child is this?" is asked and answered. What child is this, who, since Christmas Eve, has been growing and becoming strong (Lk. 2:40)? It's no secret. Everybody we've met in the first three chapters of the Gospel of Luke has been whispering or shouting it out to us. From the angel Gabriel, to Elizabeth and Zechariah, to the angels, to the shepherds, to John the Baptist.

Who is this child?

In today's episode, he's all grown up and coming back to the town where he was brought up to bring the message of the morning at services. His home townies fidget with excitement in their synagogue seats, waiting for the boy who knows how to make the best shelves in town, whose habit, strange for a teenager, was to pray alone in the hills, and who didn't get on the bus on that field trip to Jerusalem, making his mother go gray with worry. They wait for the boy who, by all accounts, has made good in the big bad world. They've heard the buzz—people are saying he is filled with the power of the Spirit. As he teaches in the synagogues around the area, he is praised by everyone (Lk. 4:14-16).

And now he's coming home. There have been too many years of first one cruel, crackpot Gentile ruler after another—the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, now the Romans; Alexander, Nebuchadnezzer, Cyrus, and Herod. But now their boy is coming home to put their backwater town on the map, to put some money in their pockets and some bread on their tables.

So they sit in their synagogue seats craning their necks to catch a glimpse of him. The town sign maker is yawning; he stayed up late finishing the banner that is now draped across the entry gate to town that says, "Welcome to Nazareth, home of Jesus of . . . .". The City Council members in the front row are jazzed. They can't wait to show him the drawings for his Ministry Center to be built on some prime real estate just south of town. They've contacted Primetime, 60 Minutes, and 20/20; they are working up a broadcast deal with Trinity Broadcasting and a book deal with Warner Faith Books. They've got him a webmaster and got him all set to start blogging and uploading his sermons to YouTube.

There is their boy, striding down the center aisle of the synagogue. And now he's reading what is given to him to read—a passage from the prophet Isaiah (Is. 61:1ff) that speaks of a mysterious suffering Servant.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.
He had sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight of the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor (Luke 4:18-19).

The people buzzed with admiration. "Such a beautiful passage that speaks of a mysterious servant whom God calls to lead the nations, who is horribly abused, takes the punishment due to others and is ultimately rewarded. Such an inspiring description of the Servant preaching the good news and bringing healing and justice to the nation. The Servant must be a metaphor for us, for our nation! What a lovely passage! And his voice, so melodious! His eyes, so glowing. His manner, so confident! We see what all the fuss is about now. What a fine speaker!"

He's rolling up the scroll, giving it back to the attendant, and sitting down. We can't take our eyes off him. We are mesmerized! What uplifting and comforting words will he have for us?

Listen to what he says now: "Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." Could he be implying that he thinks he is the Messiah? Or at least a prophet like Elisha or Elijah? Is he saying that he is the one God has sent to bring them release from all captivity, outward and inward? Is he saying that he will bring good news to the needy, forgiveness of sins to everyone? That's some pretty big talk!

1/17/2013 5:00:00 AM
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  • Alyce McKenzie
    About Alyce McKenzie
    Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.