Based on Luke 4:17b – 30
Why were they so angry? I’ve pondered this question lo, these many years. I overlapped today’s reading with a bit from last Sunday. Jesus returns to his hometown of Nazareth, goes to the synagogue, reads from the prophet Isaiah, sits down and tells the expectant audience that today the scripture has been fulfilled in their hearing. Then things kind of go sideways. They go from enthusiasm for the hometown boy, to wanting to push him off a cliff.
Why indeed were they so angry? I’ve had theories and heard theories, but on Nov 16th 2013, in a beautiful Greek Orthodox Church in the old city of Jerusalem, I heard this story from a new perspective. I listened to Naim Ateek, the leader of Sabeel, the Palestinian Christian liberation theology movement, preach on this passage from Luke’s gospel.
I want to share some of Naim’s words with you today. The Sabeel conference focused on the Bible and its role in the Palestine Israel conflict. Naim welcomed us and reminded us that the Bible has been used to justify slavery, war, apartheid, silencing of women and many other things. And now the oppression and killing of the Palestinians. How did Jesus use the scriptures, and what guidance does that offer?
We know from the gospels that Jesus was brought up in a small town called Nazareth in the Galilee area. The research of NT scholar Kenneth Bailey says that the northern part of Palestine, after the Exile (6th century BCE) was largely inhabited by non- Jews. Isaiah 9:1 speaks of “the Galilee of the Gentiles” (see also Mathew 4:15)
About 2 centuries before Jesus birth, the town of Nazareth, in Galilee was established – likely as a Jewish settlement, a working town built only three miles from where King Herod Antipas was building and beautifying Sepphoris, his first capital. Nazareth is not mentioned at all in the Hebrew scriptures. As a carpenter, perhaps Nazareth was a good place for Joseph to find employment. If this is the case, then Jesus grew up in a `settlement’. (Reminder- today, a `settlement’ refers to a Jewish-only community built after 1967 in the Occupied Palestinian territory. These settlements are deemed illegal under United Nations law.)
So, we know that Jesus, after his baptism, spent some time in Capernaum, a more international community, and now comes home, attends his synagogue and reads from the prophet Isaiah, chapter 61. And of course we’ve all memorized Isaiah chapter 61! (Not) We’ll get to it.
After reading it, Jesus says, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” It is a text that expresses God’s concern for the poor and oppressed. “The heart of the message, which the prophet Isaiah conveys to the people in exile, is about justice and that God is their liberator. They are words of comfort and hope for people who were broken by years of oppression.”
But here’s the `Aha’. “Jesus did not read the Isaiah text verbatim; he edited it. He omitted some words and added others from another section of Isaiah. By doing so, he made it more relevant to his hearers. His hearers were not living in exile; they were living under the Roman occupation. Jesus contextualized the message and made it relevant… for him the liberative message was more important than the literal words.
Moreover, Jesus did something more radical with the Isaiah text. He stopped midsentence and did not finish the reading of the passage. What did he leave out? The whole sentence reads: To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God.
The year of the Lord’s favour (refers to) the Year of Jubilee when justice is restored to the poor and the oppressed in the community. This Jesus read, but left out “the day of vengeance of our God.”
Naim said that on one of his first visits to Hebron some years earlier, he saw that all the Palestinian shops were closed, and the settlers had written on the doors the Hebrew word `neqama’ “vengeance.” The Hebrew settlers were calling for vengeance against the Palestinians.
When we visited Hebron later in our trip, we visited a Palestinian daycare, which had been vandalized two days before, with the words `Death to all Arabs” spray painted on the walls. The anti-Palestinian sentiment was palpable; it was a truly disturbing city to be in.
In a world where anti-Semitism is still very real, I want to be mindful and clear that is it not my intent to stir up that sentiment, but I stand with Jewish Voice for Peace (USA) and Independent Jewish Voices (Canada) who support equity and justice for Palestinians, and against the illegal practices of the current Israeli government and military.
Naim continued – Jesus refused to call for God’s vengeance on the non-Jewish enemies. He refused to read what for him was theologically offensive and unacceptable… Jesus’ understanding of God’s love for all caused him to stop midsentence.
Remember Jesus was speaking to a settler community who would love to hear that their God was standing with them and would pour out wrath and vengeance on their enemies… Jesus showed great courage by standing before a group of nationalists and confronting their bigotry. Looking at the next few verses in Isaiah 61 we see more of what Jesus would not read: “Strangers (non-Jews) shall stand and feed your flocks, foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines, but you… shall enjoy the wealth of the nations, and in their riches you shall glory.”
… In order to drive home his message, Jesus used two examples from their own Hebrew tradition.
- In order to care for the prophet Elijah during a period of famine, God sent Elijah to a Phoenician widow from Lebanon. The pagan widow had faith that the God of Elijah would provide for her and her family as well as the prophet… and Jesus uses her as a model of faith for the Nazareth settler community.
- 2. Jesus offended them when he referred to how Elisha the prophet healed Naaman, the Syrian general, who was a Gentile. … God’s love and care is not restricted to one small ethnic community….
The God Jesus talked about is a liberator God… Jesus was not seeking popularity and admiration; he sought to be faithful to God.
So if being faithful to God, means dropping bits of scripture, what does Jesus teach us about the place of scripture which is so central in our own faith tradition?
Naim says, “Like Jesus we can only say scripture is fulfilled when we are proclaiming justice and liberation for all the people of the land regardless of their ethnic, racial, or religion background … when we witness to God’s love for all people, …when we take a stand for justice and confront anything …that dehumanizes people.
Fulfilling scripture is to critique any misuse of scripture that justifies the theft of people’s land, the demolition of people’s homes, the uprooting of people’s olive and fruit trees, and the oppression of the people of the land.”
I expect we don’t have to look far to see parallels in our own country. Every religion, and every faction of that religions has a sense that it’s way is the best way, every political system, every race, – and those in power get to make the choices that affect those with less power, and very rarely do those choices reflect justice and equity for all.
In our country we live with the legacy of Japanese internment camps, and the ongoing effects of the residential schools system, and the Indian Act, and we can understand the anger of Jesus hometown crowd, because there is a part of us that cannot lie to ourselves about these things. We know, at some level, when something is fair or unfair. As theologian Dr. Fred Craddock observed about this story from Luke, “learning what we already know is often painfully difficult.”
Jesus did not say to the home crowd, “God doesn’t love you anymore.” He did, in effect, say “God loves everyone, and as children of God, I expect you to do the same.” May we be up to the challenge. Amen.