Luke XVII: Lk. 4:14-30
What is a prophet? A prophet is a friend of God, a member of God’s inner circle. As Jesus comes home to Nazareth, He comes as a prophet with a surprising message and His hometown gives Him a surprising reception.
What Jesus Does
After Jesus was baptized at the Jordan and spent forty days in the wilderness, He returns in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, mimicking Israel’s conquest movement into Canaan. But He comes into the land teaching in the synagogues (Lk. 4:15), and like the first inhabitants of Canaan, news spreads fast (Lk. 4:14). As Jericho came down on the seventh day of marching (Josh. 6:15-20), Luke emphasizes the seventh day synagogue ministry of Jesus (4:16, cf. 4:31, 33, 44). The synagogue was the “gathering together” of faithful Jews in “holy convocations” every Sabbath to read Scriptures and pray (Lev. 23:3). Luke introduces His teaching ministry beginning at home in Nazareth. He reads from Isaiah 61 proclaiming the release of captives and the year of jubilee (Is. 61:1-2). In the Old Testament law, every fifty years God had commanded His people to forgive debts, release slaves, and return ancestral land to its original owner (Lev. 25:10ff). Jesus finishes reading and says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk. 4:21). And all the people were amazed at these “words of grace” coming out of His mouth (Lk. 4:20, 22). The “words of grace” are the words of Isaiah’s prophecy, foretelling the great return of Israel from exile, a day of new Solomomic glory when Israel would come back into the land and be free, and instead of being subject to the nations, the glory of the nations would stream into Israel. While the Jews are likely thinking about the Romans and Herodians, the Gentile oppressors (Lk. 3:1), in the immediate context, the announcement of freedom and release would seem to be referring to the enemy Jesus has just defeated: the devil (Lk. 4:1-13). Jesus is like a David come back from defeating Goliath, announcing the victory – only He’s announcing a victory over an (apparently) unknown enemy.
How the People Respond
The response of the people is a mixture of admiration, wonder, but apparently most of all: ambition. Word has been spreading that this Jesus is a charismatic teacher and something of a miracle worker (Lk. 4:14-15). Now the hometown hero has returned and it seems likely that their eyes are fixed on Jesus thinking that now is the moment that He is going to reveal himself as a true “hometown boy” to join their cause. This is a very subtle scene as social dynamics are frequently subtle. Often the most significant signals are made with the raise of an eyebrow, a smirk, a tone of voice, and carefully chosen pronouns (“we” and “they”). This phenomenon is what C.S. Lewis called the “inner ring” – a closed circle of friends with unspoken codes of conduct, loyalty, knowledge, and influence. He writes: “I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods… one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.” If the Devil has just invited Jesus into his inner circle (Lk. 4:6-7), the leaders and people of Nazareth are holding out their hands to Jesus to welcome Him into theirs. But Jesus bursts their bubble with a proverb to expose their selfish ambitions. He 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” (Lk. 4:23). Jesus says that they are not really interested in God’s purposes through Him, they primarily want use Him (and His miracles) for their own purposes. Of course the Jews did not think they were preparing to rebel against God; they thought they were preparing to usher in His blessing. In the grand tradition of Ezra, the most conservative Jews were fighting for Jewish purity. But what they forgot was that Jewish purity was always meant as a sign that the whole human race was unclean and needed cleansing.
What the People Do
What Jesus says next is that part of the proof of the authenticity of His prophetic message is the fact that He won’t be welcomed in His hometown (Lk. 4:24). He says that this is part of the shape of true prophetic ministry. True prophets are rejected and sent away: like Elijah during a severe drought in Israel who was sent to a Sidonian widow outside Israel (Lk. 4:25-26), like Elisha who cleansed the leprosy of Naaman the Syrian (Lk. 4:27). In order to begin to comprehend the response of the people, we should remember several things: First, don’t underestimate the power of crushed expectations. Jesus says He won’t join their program; He won’t join their inner circle. In fact, He has come as part of a different program, a different circle, one for gentile widows, and enemy military leaders. This helps underline the second and third factors: Not only was Jesus not going to join the Nazareth Jewish Resistance, He is announcing that His program includes Gentiles. And not only Gentiles, but sworn enemies and oppressors. The response that Jesus elicits is highly revealing: the synagogue is filled with wrath and without hesitation turns into a lynch mob (Lk. 4:28-29). In other words, this club, this inner circle operates on the engine of force and violence. This synagogue (and by implication all the others) is a community of Jews who have bought into the creed of the Romans and Herodians. But while that kind of community will always seek to destroy God’s prophetic people, God is determined to cause them to pass through their violence unharmed (Lk. 4:30).
Luke begins with this story to emphasize the fact that Jesus has come for gentiles from the very beginning. It wasn’t something new to Paul.
But part of the point is also to underline that this is the case because Jews and Gentiles alike are all fundamentally under the same bondage to sin, death, and the devil. They all need to be set free from every “inner ring” based on fear and force. Do you feel that pressure to conform, to belong, to be inside the inner ring? Are you afraid of not being inside? Are you afraid of losing your position?
What Jesus teaches here but also embodies in this episode is the prophetic shape of God’s mission to the human race. This prophetic shape is God’s intention to draw the whole human race into communion with Him, into friendship with Him, into His inner circle by grace. Jesus breaks us out of our bondage to various circles (and cycles) by being rejected, crucified, and raised from death for us. He was rejected so that we could be received. These are “words of grace” – freedom from all captivity.
And when you are received as a friend of Jesus, His Spirit begins to shape your life to do the same.