Last week I promised you a cliff hanger and this week we find Jesus about to be literally thrown off a cliff. What could he have done to so anger the people of his own hometown? Let’s look at the text for this week and see if we can find any answers.
Those in worship last Sunday will remember the setting in the gospel of Luke. Jesus has just begun his ministry as an itinerant preacher and teacher. He has returned to his hometown of Nazareth and is teaching in the synagogue. He reads from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah about the Messiah that was to come, and then sits down and declares that he is this Messiah.
Jesus clearly lays out his belief in the mission that he has been sent on. The Holy Spirit has come upon him and he has been anointed by God to “bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Jesus has also made it clear that he will not be using vengeance, or the wrath of God, as part of his mission.
As he declares his Messiah status, the folks of Nazareth become naturally excited. The Messiah is in their midst and he is one of them, “Isn’t that Joseph’s boy?” They remember him from his childhood in the village, and they are happy to embrace him now as one of their own.
Their joy is short lived though, as things begin to take a negative turn. It is interesting to note that it is Jesus himself who starts to take things in a negative direction. Whether he is responding to the thoughts of their hearts, or he is simply eager to mix it up in the hometown, Jesus comes out swinging.
He assumes they will ask for a miracle, a sign, a chance to bask in his powers and glory. “Doubtless, you will say to me, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ and ‘Do here what you did at Capernaum.’” But Jesus has no intention of showing off for the hometown crowd as he says, “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”
That alone is enough to get the people disappointed. They haven’t even had the chance to find out more about him, they haven’t even had the chance to ask for a miracle. They have hardly had the chance to even think about Jesus being the Messiah, and he makes it clear he has no intention of bringing fame and fortune to Nazareth. Jesus says he is the Messiah, but he has no intention of being the Messiah in Nazareth. They will get no miracles or signs, they will get nothing. I am sure the people wondered just what Jesus was playing at.
Jesus then goes on to cite Biblical examples of Jewish prophets bringing miracles to non-Jews. Everyone remembers the stories of Elijah and Elisha who brought healing not to the people of Israel but to those outside the bounds of the chosen people. Jesus seems to imply that though he is the Messiah, the people of Israel, or at least the people of Nazareth, will see none of the rewards. They will receive none of the benefits of having the Messiah within their ranks. They will receive none of their just desserts for having raised this kid who now claims to be the Messiah.
It is no wonder that the people get really upset at this point. In fact, the author of Luke tells us that they are filled with rage and rightfully so. The things Jesus are saying are really offensive and Jesus is acting like a crazy person. He is clearly not the Messiah, or he would know that the Messiah was supposed to bring miracles of healing and justice to the nation of Israel and not to outsiders. He is clearly not the Messiah, because the Messiah would be proud of his hometown Nazareth, and would want to share his power and privilege with them. In fact, it appears that Jesus is nothing more than an ungrateful jerk who doesn’t think very much of them and the fact that this community had raised him since he was a boy, and put up with all of his silly and questionable behavior up to this point because they hoped he would amount to something. But this is just it, it’s the last straw. We can’t have that crazy guy out there telling the world that he is the Messiah, because it will make all of us look bad because he’s one of us, so let’s get him. Yeah, let’s get him. Let’s throw him off a cliff. (At least that’s how I imagine it went.)
Jesus of course, manages to get away. Either he used his magic Messiah powers, or people in the community helped him hide, or he put on his invisibility cloak, and he just sneaks away. Some people think it was a miracle, and that the people of Nazareth got the miracle that they didn’t even get a chance to ask for. I think that they were just so upset, and had tears in their eyes, and couldn’t see in the crowd and the mob, and he just slipped away. Just like he seems to slip away from us sometimes when we become distracted by the world.
I know we like to read this and think “man, those people are idiots”, but the more I look at this story the more I see us, I see myself, in their actions. Listen here, I’m not saying I’m going to push somebody off a cliff, but I am saying I can certainly resonate with their deep disappoint. And I really think their anger is justified. They raised that kid, they know Jesus, “isn’t he Joseph’s son?” He comes into the temple and before they can even respond to his outlandish claims he starts messing with them. Like some punk kid. And the things he says are offensive in the church. We want to hear about our status as God’s chosen people. The people in the synagogue have been taught all their lives that they are God’s chosen people. And that if they do the right things, if they tow the party line, then God will bless them. They are owed a Messiah, a Messiah for Nazareth, and Jesus refuses to be that. No wonder they are so angry.
I see this playing out all over in our world today. It would be a lie not to say that in some way, we all think of ourselves as God’s “chosen people”. God chose me to be a pastor and to serve God’s people. God chose this church to carry out God’s mission and ministry. God chose this country to be a place that was blessed by God. God chose us. And if we do the right thing, then we will be rewarded with blessings. Wasn’t that the deal? Wasn’t that what we agreed to?
Jesus seems to imply that that wasn’t the deal, or simply that the deal is off. Jesus is not here to be the Messiah for us. Jesus is here to be the Messiah for others. For those who weren’t chosen, for those who don’t go to church, for those who are outside of the fold. Like the good brother in the story of the prodigal son, we feel rightly cheated. Isn’t God supposed to be on our side?
Like the people of Nazareth, we see that anger and rage on the news every night. Tell me that desire to get what is rightfully coming to us, to get what we are owed, isn’t fueling the presidential campaign on both sides. Tell me that anger and loathing against those who aren’t the chosen ones, the fear of them getting our blessings, isn’t on the news every night. I am confident that the people of today would also try to throw the Jesus of the gospel of Luke off a cliff.
An old pastor friend of mine is very fond of the saying, “Where ever you draw a line . . . Jesus is on the other side.” That is the hard lesson that the people of Nazareth got that day. They had drawn a line around Nazareth and a line around the Jewish people, and Jesus was all about crossing that line. We also draw lines around our church, our nation, our identity as God’s people and the first thing Jesus will do is cross that line. Jesus has come to bring good news . . . good news to people on the other side of the line.
It’s such a hard lesson because drawing lines is our natural inclination. We are always finding differences between ourselves and other people. We are always finding reasons to draw lines. Lines make sense for safety, and for order, and for organization, and for functioning, I mean, we just need lines to make the world work. And Jesus hates lines. It feels like we can’t win, which is what I imagine it felt like for the people of Nazareth that day.
As we study the gospel of Luke this year, we will find that the Jesus in Luke can be really hard to like. The Jesus of John is great because he’s God, and the Jesus of Mark is just grumpy, and the Jesus of Matthew is busy being Moses, but the Jesus of Luke just seems determined to make us look bad. The Jesus of Luke makes us look rich, and wrong, and like outsiders to the kingdom. When the good news is for someone else, it is a very hard pill to swallow.
So, this morning’s text tells us that Jesus is the Messiah. He is coming with good news for the poor, release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and to let the oppressed go free. If we don’t find ourselves in any of those categories, then we might find ourselves disappointed. The people of Nazareth certainly were. Amen.