Jesus preaches in Nazareth

Luke 4:14-30

Have you ever thought that there’s something a bit odd about this story? Within the space of about five minutes we go from “all [the congregation] spoke well of [Jesus]” (verse 22) to all of them being so angry that they’re trying to kill Him (verse 28)! That’s no mean achievement even for someone who sets out to be deliberately provocative. So what’s going on here? Is there more to this incident than meets the eye? Maybe Luke hasn’t told us the whole story…

Well, there is some information that Luke hasn’t given us, and it’s in Mark’s gospel (Mark 6:1-6). There we find that Jesus hasn’t just turned up in Nazareth on Saturday morning to fill a preaching slot. He’s been in town for several days, probably visiting His family (because with His elderly mother and all His brothers and sisters, each with their families… that’s quite a lot of obligatory visits) as well as doing the usual miraculous stuff that He does everywhere He goes. Except that… for some reason, He hasn’t done very many miracles in Nazareth. There have been a few healings, but only a few. His power has met with some sort of resistance – Mark says that it’s because the people don’t have faith. What’s going on?

Many years ago, we were members of a large charismatic church when the Toronto Blessing suddenly swept round the world. And we encountered it when we went one evening to a small group leaders training session and found that the church elders had all been to a conference somewhere and been zapped by the Toronto Blessing. So now they were very keen to pray for all of us so that we would be zapped by the Holy Spirit too. Well, they went round the room, praying for each person one by one (about 20-30 people were there), and one lady rolled off her chair and lay giggling on the floor, and about twenty minutes later somebody else started laughing gently – and nothing else happened at all. And we were sitting there thinking, ‘Was that it?’ It was a bit of an anti-climax!

And maybe something like that is what happens at Nazareth. For thirty years the local people have known Jesus only as the local carpenter – Joseph’s son. Then suddenly He disappears off down to the River Jordan to see John the Baptist, and the next thing they know He’s building up a tremendous reputation as a teacher and a healer all over Galilee – but in other places, not in Nazareth. He hasn’t shown His face in His home town at all for several months – and when He does finally turn up, the show is a bit disappointing. And we can perhaps guess what people are thinking… [If our Jesus thinks He’s the Messiah then shouldn’t He be giving His home town some special attention? How dare He ignore His own family and neighbours! Or is the whole Messiah thing just an exaggerated rumour?]

If those are the kind of thoughts that are running through their minds, then by the time Saturday morning comes round it’s no surprise that the atmosphere is already slightly frosty. But nevertheless, they’re willing to listen to what He has to say in the synagogue service. And He gets off to a good start, because the passage He chooses to read (Isaiah 61:1-7) is one of their favourites: it’s one of Isaiah’s prophecies about the Anointed One, the Messiah, who will bring good news of freedom and blessing from God, defeat all their enemies and bring in the Kingdom of God.

Except that… after reading “the year of the Lord’s favour” Jesus stops abruptly in mid-sentence, rolls up the scroll and puts it away (verse 20). [Why has He done that? Hey! You’ve left out “the day of vengeance” and all the good bits about passing judgement on the Gentiles and having dominion over them!] Then He says, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (verse 21). Now that really should be wonderful news, shouldn’t it? What Isaiah promised for the distant future has become a reality in the present. Here, sitting right in front of them, is their long-awaited Messiah! And they would love to believe it – but He hasn’t come up to their expectations. That undercurrent of resentment is bubbling away, and Jesus knows it. So He takes the bull by the horns and points out that “no prophet is accepted in his home town.” (verse 24) All through the Old Testament, the great prophets of the past were more successful in dealing with the heathen than with God’s own people. For example: both Elijah and Elisha had lived and worked in that very part of Israel (in Galilee) at a time when the Israelites were being unfaithful to God and worshipping idols. Both of them had reached out to Gentiles as well as to their own people – and both of them had done miracles for Gentiles. And what amazing miracles they were! The widow of Zarephath (I Kings 17) was fed miraculously during the three-year famine and had her son raised from the dead; and Naaman the Syrian (II Kings 5) was healed of leprosy.

But the congregation don’t like this at all. They don’t like being compared to the corrupt Israelites of the past, the ones who rejected God’s prophets. They don’t like being reminded that God loves the whole world, not just the Jewish nation. But they hate even more the idea that the coming Kingdom isn’t going to mean the fulfilment of their national aspirations: that the Messiah isn’t going to defeat their enemies but bless them. They suddenly realise that Jesus wants to tear up the Messianic agenda as they’ve always understood it. So He must be a false Messiah and a false prophet – and that’s why they consider it their duty to try to kill Him (verses 28-30).

This reaction seems very extreme, but actually pretty much the same thing happened a few years later when Christians started sharing the gospel with the Gentiles. All through the book of Acts, the apostle Paul’s footsteps are dogged by hostile Jews who try to kill him and do their utmost to destroy the Gentile churches that he plants – mainly because they can’t bear the thought of sharing their God and His blessings with anyone else.

But we can’t enjoy the fullness of God’s blessings unless we share them. “Give, and it will be given to you… with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.” (Luke 6:38) That verse isn’t just about money. Think about Jesus’ ministry: very few of His miracles were done purely for the benefit of His disciples… Think of all those healings. Think of the water being turned into wine, and the feeding of the five thousand. Now His disciples ate that food and drank that wine too, but only as part of a larger gathering. The good things of the Kingdom aren’t just for our benefit – we’re meant to share them.

That’s one reason why we ought to share our needs and problems with one another – so that we can pray for one another, and not just for ourselves. That’s one reason why we ought to be looking for ways to benefit the community around us, and not just be content with meeting together on a Sunday. That’s one reason why we ought to be more proactive in sharing the Good News of the Kingdom. If we want to enjoy the fullness of God’s blessings, we must be prepared to share them.

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