Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Luke 4.21-30
4th Sunday after the Epiphany - Year C

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These week's verses continue give the people's response to what happened in last week's reading (Luke 4:14-21).

As I mentioned last week, both v. 19 and v. 24 use the word dektos = "acceptable," "welcome". The prophet who proclaims the acceptable year is unacceptable to his home-town people. What Jesus proclaims, he will not experience. He embodies the unconditional love of God, but he will be hated. He extends God's love beyond Israel, and because of that Israel rejects God's love incarnate. There's almost the sense of, "If we can't have it all for our selves, we don't want anyone to have it."

FULFILLED TODAY

In last week's note, I wrote some about the importance of the word "today" for Luke.

The word "fulfilled" intrigues me. In the Greek it is a perfect passive = "has been fulfilled". The perfect usually designates a past action with continued effects in the present, e.g., "he has died" = "he is dead;" so "this scripture has been fulfilled" = "this scripture is fulfilled".

The passive leaves it unclear who is doing the fulfilling. It is often interesting to try and change passive sentence to active ones. Is Jesus saying, "I have fulfilled this scripture in your hearing"? Is it a divine passive: "God has fulfilled this scripture in your hearing"? Could it be that "Your hearing has fulfilled this scripture"?

What does the word mean in this context? The basic meaning of pleroo is "to fill up" -- as "valleys being filled up" (3:5). What does it mean that this scripture has been filled up? One interpretation is that these things happened; which is often the understanding when OT passages "are fulfilled" in Jesus. However, we aren't told that these specific events happened in that synagogue when Jesus uttered these words. What is "filled up" can be many things and the way pleroo is translated varies. The following examples come from NRSV.

What does it mean that this scripture has been filled up? What does it mean for the poor, imprisoned, blind, and oppressed today? Should be limited to just those people? What about the abused the addicted the put-down, etc.? What does it mean for those who do not suffer such difficulties?

Although it is a different word (pimplemi) in v. 28; it can have the same meaning as pleroo -- the town's people are "filled" with rage. What will we be "filled" with -- this scripture in our hearing or our rage at Jesus not meeting our personal expectations of him?

What about the quoted passages has come true in that day? We know that God's Spirit is on Jesus. He has been anointed. He is preaching good news (euaggelizomai). He is proclaiming (kerusso) release and recovery. While the proclamation occurred that day in their hearing, it is likely that not all the captives were released or all the blind began to see or all the oppressed were freed. This may be another case were there is a now/not yet aspect of the fulfillment. The proclamation has been made today. The promise is given today, but we are waiting for its full realization. I recently read the analogy of when Lincoln announced the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, all the slaves were freed that day. However, many had to wait until the war's end before they realized their freedom. The powers working against their freedom were still active even after their freedom was proclaimed.

HEARING

Literally, the word translated "hearing" in NRSV is "ears". Its first meaning refers to the organ on the sides of our heads. From that, it can, by extension, refer to what those organs "do" -- namely, hear. It terms of parts of our bodies, the ears are, perhaps, the most passive parts. They do nothing on their own. The just set on the sides of our heads. For them to work, something outside of them has to do something -- namely, create vibrations in the air, which enter the ears and create vibrations on membranes and bones which are converted by the brain into (usually) recognizable sounds. Often, when people are doing something, such as cooking dinner, ironing clothes, or whatever, while we are talking, we think that they are not really listening carefully to us. Thus "doing" can be seen as a detriment to "hearing".

JOSEPH'S SON = A HOMETOWN BOY

Tannehill (Luke):

The people ask, "Is not this Joseph's son?" (v. 22). This question should be understood in connection with verse 23, which refers to what Jesus should do in his hometown. Thus the question is not intended to denigrate Jesus but to point out that he is a hometown boy. According to the culture, this involves obligations. One must give preference to one's own family and village. In verse 23 Jesus expresses for the people their assumptions about his obligations. The words "and you will say" in the NRSV are not in the Greek and should be ignored. They suggest that Jesus' second statement in verse 23 is unrelated to the first, but actually the second interprets the first. "Doctor, cure yourself!" means bring the promised release to your own people, and don't allow Capernaum to get the benefits that we should have. To this implied demand Jesus responds in verse 24: A prophet is not going to be pleasing to his hometown, for a prophet is not governed by in-group loyalties. Jesus, who takes the role of prophet during his ministry, is governed by the purpose of God and the precedent of scriptural prophets. Therefore, his ministry will focus not on the in-group but on the excluded. Those who cannot accept this priority will find the prophet unacceptable. [pp. 93-94]

Does the church exist to serve its own members or outsiders? Is the church governed by "in-group loyalties" or by outsiders' needs or by the "purposes of God"?

I don't know how many times (and in different congregations) I have heard people say, "We have to take care of our own members." Using the image of the church as a "hospital for sinners," who are the members of the congregation in this analogy? Are they only "the sinners" who need the congregation's care? Or are they also the hospital staff who provide the care for all the "sinners" who enter the "hospital"? Are the commissioned to provide care all the "sinners" in their congregation's "service area"?

Related to this: How might a council meeting be different if their primary concern is to discern the "purposes of God," rather than simply "taking care of our members" or "our building"?

I also see this tension in ways the pastoral office is defined. Is the pastor called to be the "shepherd of the flock" and thus responsible for the "in-group" who has been placed in his/her care? Is the pastor called to be the congregation's "missionary to the community" and thus responsible for bringing the gospel to the "outsiders," e.g., leaving the 99 to fend for themselves while seeking the lost one?

Is there a distinction between "pastors" and "prophets"? One, who is acceptable to the hometown crowd, and the other who isn't?

EXAMPLES FROM THE OT

Craddock (Luke, Interpretation Commentaries)

Jesus defends his ministry to outsiders by offering two Old Testament stories. Both Elijah (1 Kings 17:8-14) and Elisha (2 Kings 5:1-17), prophets in Israel, took God's favor to non-Jews. That those two stories were in their own Scriptures and quite familiar perhaps accounts in part for the intensity of their hostility. Anger and violence are the last defense of those who are made to face the truth of their own tradition which they have long defended and embraced. Learning what we already know is often painfully difficult. All of us know what it is to be at war with ourselves, sometimes making casualties of those who are guilty of nothing but speaking the truth in love. For Luke, the tension that erupts here and will erupt again and again elsewhere is not between Jesus and Judaism or between synagogue and church; it is between Judaism and its own Scriptures. [p. 63]

While I believe that supporting our work with arguments from scriptures is necessary, I also know that some people seem to live by the motto: "Don't confuse me with the Bible, my faith is already made up." It is also true that all Christian heresies looked to scriptures to support their beliefs.

Besides examples of God's graciousness extending beyond Israel, I also think that these stories along with Jesus' comments indicate that we can't tell God what God should do. God is not under our bidding. God won't do a miracle here just because we want God to. God will love and bless and help whomever God wants to love and bless and help. If God decides to miraculously feed a widow in Zaraphath, that's what God will do. If God decides to heal Naaman, the Syrian, that's what God will do. If God decides to give added blessings to someone who reads Playboy or to some devout atheist, that's what God will do. If God decides to something special for an Iranian Muslim or a Palestinian terrorist, that's what God will do.

We would rather have God under our rule than place ourselves under God's rule. We tend to limit God's activities to our image of what the divine should be doing, thus, seeking to create God in our image of a god.

Craddock notes that Jesus does not go elsewhere because he is rejected; he is rejected because he goes elsewhere. He will not place himself under the control of or be confined by his hometown people or even his own family.

RESPONSES TO HEARING

Paul talks about faith coming from hearing (Romans 10:17). Here the result of hearing Jesus is rage. Should we be preaching sermons that might enrage our congregation? Perhaps only if we are willing to be run out of town and the loss of a paycheck.

Perhaps on a less severe level, how many of us clergy have angered some people because we haven't lived up to their expectations. We haven't met their own, personal needs as well as they wished. They may not be able to understand all the time and energy that is spent in caring for the needs of other people and caring for the community who gathers to hear a word from the Lord through us, so time and energy is needed for sermon preparation and the other details involved in a meaningful worship experience. They may not be able to grasp the importance of extra-church activities, whether for local agencies or our synods. All that they know is that their needs have been slighted by the pastor whom they expect to take care of them.

At the risk of adding to the clergy's pile of guilt, the following statistics come from an article that gave results of a research study (John P. Marcum & Cynthia A. Woolever, "A Survey of Adult New Members in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)). They give these percentages for "The most influential reasons why people visited worship a second time" were:

Clergy live with the tension devoting time to care for individual's needs and to create and deliver quality sermons.

Because Jesus did not take care of his hometown people as well as he ministered to the people of Capernaum, the people are enraged and seek to kill him. Later, a crowd in Jerusalem, will succeed. The contrast should be noted between Nazareth's response of rage that wanted to kill Jesus in 4:28-29 and the response of praise by everyone in 4:15. One could explore factors that made such a difference in the people's responses.

WHY?

Why did Jesus' few words produce such anger? My hunch is that Jesus didn't act or say things the way the people expected. What would the people have expected? The following is a possibility that I think may speak both to their time and ours.

The people of Nazareth had been hearing reports of all the great things Jesus was doing over in Capernaum. He was a hometown boy made good. This hero was returning home.

If any city needed some good preaching, it was Nazareth. If anyone could turn the city around, it was Jesus. He knew of all the troubles in the city. There were heathens all around. Phoenicians lived to the west and north, Samaritans to the south, Greeks to the west. They were far away from the good influence of Jerusalem. They were surrounded by these pagan influences. It is hard to be a good, pious Jew in the city of Nazareth. It's no wonder that Nathaniel said to Philip, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth." Nazareth was not a good place for a Jew to grow up.

But now Jesus is coming back. Jesus will set the Hebrews on fire. Jesus will help run out the ungodly people and things in our town. Maybe Jesus can turn Nazareth around. Maybe he can make it a decent place to live. Maybe he can turn it into a godly city again.

I hear many of the same kinds of complaints about our world today. We are surrounded by pagan influences. Look at a magazine rack, so many of them are promoting some kind of idol. "Secular humanism" is all around the thinking that humans have the right and power to run their own lives. There is the problem of drugs in all segments of our society. There are lax morals unwanted pregnancies, cheating in business, stabbing others in the back both literally and figuratively.

"If only we could get the Christians all fired up," some are saying. "If we could drive out the sinners and their magazines and their books," "If we could just put God back into our schools." "If we could bring our nation back to God." "If we could do all this, we could become a moral, godly nation again a good place to live and worship."

The day arrives and Jesus comes. He goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath. He reads from Isaiah. He speaks a few words. The crowd whispers to each other how good he is, "Mary and Joseph certainly raised a good son."

Then Jesus says something about miracles. The crowd has heard all about the wonders that he performed in Capernaum. Many of the people had gathered to see some great event a little razzle-dazzle to get this crowd going. If Jesus would just do some healings or some other miracle, we would know that God's power was here and we could drive out these pagan Gentiles and their ungodly influences in the city. Jesus does no miracles in Nazareth.

Jesus says the wrong things for this crowd. He recalls a story from Elijah's time. God miraculously provided food for a poor, pagan widow. There were many poor, starving widows in Israel during the famine who didn't receive any miraculous food. The crowd in the synagogue starts mumbling to each other: "Is he saying that God likes Gentiles better than Jews? Jesus' had better watch what he says."

Jesus recalls a story from the time of Elisha. God miraculously cured Naaman, a pagan leper. There were many sick lepers in Israel during that time who received no miraculous cure. The crowd's whispers are getting louder. "Is he saying that God prefers the pagans" That's not what we came to hear? We want to hear some harsh words of judgment. We want Jesus to urge the Jews onto living and acting right. We want him to drive out the Gentiles. Why did he use those examples? Why did he talk about God helping pagan Gentiles? He should be warning us to stay away from those Gentiles. If God likes the Gentiles so much, what's the use in being a Jew, keeping all those commandments? He's going to destroy what little faith there is left in Nazareth."

In essence, the people declared Jesus a false prophet. He was blaspheming the faithful, pious Jew. He was praising the sinful, pagan Gentiles. The punishment for false prophecy is death. They try to destroy Jesus. He just wasn't what they expected. He didn't do the miracles they expected. He didn't say the words that they expected. He had to be a false prophet, because he didn't act like they wanted him to act.

WHY NOT REJOICE?

Isn't this story similar to the parables in Luke 15: the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son? In each case, others are invited to rejoice over the lost being found. We don't know the response of the neighbors in the first two parables, but we know that the older brother in the third one can't rejoice with his father and participate in the extravagant feast.

The people in Nazareth recognize and marvel at Jesus' "gracious words" (v. 22); but when illustrations of God's grace to outsiders are given; their feelings turn to rage. They are also hearing that God does not act the way they want God to act. Do we really want a gracious God? Certainly we do -- for ourselves; but can we have a gracious God if we don't believe that the same grace is given to those sinners outside our church doors, outside our faith, outside our boundaries of acceptability?

Next Sunday we are having a pulpit exchange to commemorate the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. One of the songs that will be sung is: "I'm so glad, Jesus lifted me." Why sing just about what Jesus has done for me? Should we have even more joy because Jesus has lifted others, e.g., "I'm so glad, Jesus lifted you"?


Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901
e-mail: brian.stoffregen@gmail.com