FOURTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (NEXT SUNDAY)
Gospel: Luke 4:21-30 Link to all three Readings on USCCB SITE.
Jesus began speaking in the synagogue, saying:
“Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”
And all spoke highly of him
and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.
They also asked, “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?”
He said to them, “Surely you will quote me this proverb,
‘Physician, cure yourself,’ and say,
‘Do here in your native place
the things that we heard were done in Capernaum.’”
And he said, “Amen, I say to you,
no prophet is accepted in his own native place.
Indeed, I tell you,
there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah
when the sky was closed for three and a half years
and a severe famine spread over the entire land.
It was to none of these that Elijah was sent,
but only to a widow in Zarephath in the land of Sidon.
Again, there were many lepers in Israel
during the time of Elisha the prophet;
yet not one of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.”
When the people in the synagogue heard this,
they were all filled with fury.
They rose up, drove him out of the town,
and led him to the brow of the hill
on which their town had been built,
to hurl him down headlong.
But Jesus passed through the midst of them and went away.
We are fortunate this weekend in that the Gospel selection from Luke follows last week’s text sequentially. In, fact the two texts overlap, last week’s concluding sentence (4:21) is this week’s opening sentence. “Today this Scripture passage (Isaiah 58) is fulfilled in your hearing.” I commented last week that the response to Jesus’ statement in his home synagogue was hostile, but in researching Joel Green’s The Gospel of Luke (213ff) I discovered that the text is considerably more complex and involved.
Green explains that the initial reaction to the claim in verse 21 is very favorable. As Luke himself writes, “all spoke highly of him” and were amazed at the words that came forth from his mouth, particularly Jesus’ statement that today the promises of Isaiah were being fulfilled in Nazareth, through him. The reader of the entire Gospel narrative to this point, notes Green, knows that this imminent fulfillment has already been taking place since the moment Gabriel appeared to Zechariah in the Temple three decades earlier. You and I know more of the full story at this juncture than the Nazarenes in the synagogue.
The question then comes from the assembly, is this deliverer of Good News the same son of Joseph? This is more an expression of surprise, even praise, than insolence, something like bragging that you and Bernie Sanders attended Warren G. Harding High School together. But it does reveal that the Nazarenes do not have a clue about the origins of Jesus, which again puts today’s reader at an advantage. We know from Luke’s narrative that Joseph is not the father of Jesus, but rather, it is through the power of the Holy Spirit that Jesus is conceived. As Green writes, “Their understanding of Jesus was erroneous,” (215) and their expectations regarding redemption were parochial, a hometown savior of their own blood come to buttress their vision of Judaism, which by Jesus’ day was corrupt and ineffectual.
So it is Jesus, then, who voices his discontent with their position. He will correct them and set them straight. He begins with the old saying from antiquity, “Physician, heal thyself” (or “your own”). The sentence makes sense in light of his next utterance regarding healings in Capernaum, most notably, the healing of a paralytic dropped through a ceiling into Jesus’ presence. (Mark 2; Luke 7) Capernaum carries a certain symbolism in that it is “not home” in the sense that Nazareth is, and in the Gospels of Luke (5:17ff) and Mark it is a place where Jesus stretches the definition of his messiahship far out of the contemporary box with his announcement that he has come to forgive sin.
Jesus goes on to quote from the Hebrew Scripture (specifically Nehemiah 9:26) a truism about prophesy, that no prophet is accepted in his home town. Here Jesus is stating clearly (1) that he is a Spirit-filled prophet, indeed the Spirit filled prophet, and (2) that true to popular wisdom, he will be without honor in his hometown, an implicit admission that his townspeople are incapable of grasping the fulfillment of God’s plan and the attendant salvation that comes with it.
Jesus then goes on to give several well-known Biblical examples of salvific acts extended to those outside of Israel’s territorial and theological boundaries. He compares his ministry to the great prophets Elijah and Elisha from the Book of 1 Kings, affirming again his own role as a prophet but particularly as a universal prophet.
Green offers a number of critical points about these two examples. In the first place, Israel was poor (“there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah” during a multi-year drought). Second, Elijah was sent to a widow in Sidon; the passive voice indicates that God did the sending. Likewise, with Elisha, there were many lepers in the homeland of Israel, but again the prophet is ordained (by God) to heal only Naaman the Syrian. This narrative of Luke is his own way of conveying the God of Israel is the Lord of all the nations. Think back to the First Reading of the Feast of the Epiphany, where Isaiah 60 describes a day when all nations of the earth will stream to the holy city of Jerusalem on the mountaintop bearing innumerable gifts. This text is aptly paired with Gentile Magi bearing gifts to the child Jesus. Jesus the Messiah would be neither a local deliverer or protector of the status quo. Membership in the Kingdom of God would no longer be defined by blood or shopworn legal observance, but by faith in God’s universal Son.
This first exercise of Jesus’ ministry almost cost him his life. His final exercise would indeed lead to his crucifixion. Green sees in this (possibly miraculous) deliverance from a violent death a prefiguring of God’s saving his Son at the Resurrection. In any event, Jesus is delivered from premature martyrdom and “went on his way,” an idiom for the continuation of the mission for which he was anointed.