Sunday, February 3, 2013

Why were the people so angry with Jesus in Luke 4:21-30?

Last time we imagined that we were in the synagogue where Jesus opened the Book of Isaiah and said that the Scripture was fulfilled in him (Luke 4:14-21). I suggested that the passage says that Jesus is the Messiah, the Anointed King. He has come to proclaim the kingdom of God to the poor (and everyone else). Here let us take a look at the next passage in Luke 4:21-30. (Yes, I know that verse 21 is included in both readings. It’s deliberate.) 

What is surprising in 4:21-30 is the contrast between these two verses:

       “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips.” (Verse 22) 

       “All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this.” (Verse 28)

We can see why people spoke well of Jesus in verse 22, for Jesus had just said that he had come to proclaim good news. But why did they change their attitude toward Jesus so quickly? All spoke well of him in verse 22, and five verses later, they were furious (verse 28)! Why were they so angry with him?

The answer, I think, can be found in the verses between verses 22 and 28 — that is, verses 23–27.

In these five verses Jesus used two stories in the Old Testament to illustrate how the good news to the poor would work in practice. The first is about God sending Elijah to a Sidonian widow during a severe famine (Luke 4:25–26; 1 Kings 17). The second is about Naaman the Syrian commander being healed by Elisha (Luke 4:27; 2 Kings 5).

This made Jesus’ audience very angry. Why?

In Jesus’ day the Romans ruled over the Jews. The Jews were eagerly waiting for God to send a deliverer to rescue them from the hands of the Romans. This deliverer, it was believed, would be a son of king David — the messianic king.

The Romans were oppressors. They had killed many Jews, carried many of them away from their homeland and enslaved them. Not surprisingly, the Jews were very unhappy with the Romans.

In fact, before the Romans came, the Jews were oppressed by the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians and the Greeks (see, for example, the Book of Daniel). They were all “foreigners” and idol-worshippers. They were the enemies of the (ancient) Jews.

Amazingly, Jesus seems to be saying that he, like Elijah and Elisha, has come to bring healing and freedom to the “foreigners” — that is, a Sidonian widow and Naaman the Syrian. Some people in Jesus' audience might be asking:
How can God's blessing be given to the "foreigners" the "outsiders"? How can non-Israelites share the privileges of Israel, the descendents of Abraham? How can idol-worshippers be given the opportunity to participate in God's redemptive plan?
Widows and lepers (Naaman was a leper) both belonged to the lower end of the social hierarchy. It seems clear that Jesus has come to bring salvation and healing specifically to the marginalised and oppressed.

Of course, we know that Jesus has come to proclaim good news to all humankind. But here in Luke 4, the emphasis is on the foreigners and the socially inferior. That is, even the enemy of Israel can be recipients of the gracious gift of God.

Throughout Luke’s Gospel we find that Jesus is at loggerheads with the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law (ie. Scribes). Often we find that they are unhappy with Jesus because he spends time with tax collectors and sinners.

Here in Luke 4:21-30 we find one of the confrontations between Jesus and (some of) the people in the audience. They may not be Pharisees and Scribes. But they seem to be very unhappy with Jesus’ message. I think they are unhappy because Jesus speaks of a gracious act of God that is hard for them to accept.

The grace of God is all-encompassing and inclusive. The good news of Jesus envisions a society without social or racial exclusion. The Sidonian woman was a widow and Naaman was a leper. Yet God used his prophets to bring them healing. Likewise, the blind, the tax collectors and sinners, were not “outsiders” according to Jesus’ good news. They can be recipients of the good news of Jesus. 

Imagine that we were there 

Imagine that we were in the audience when Jesus told the stories of God’s gracious gift of healing for the Sidonian widow and Naaman the Syrian. Would we celebrate with Jesus the good news of God’s kingdom? Would we welcome this amazing good news? Or would we reject it because it envisions a community that knows no social and racial boundaries? 

Who are the people that we tend to "exclude" because we think that they don't deserve God's blessings? Do we realise that God's grace is available to them too?

Let us imagine a world where Jesus reigns as the true King of the cosmos. Let us proclaim that he is the Lord and rightful King. Let us embrace his good news.

Enter into the stories of Luke’s Gospel (4:14-21)

My son’s school has provided him with a weekly Bible reading on Luke’s Gospel. Since I really like this Gospel, I have decided to (try to!) write a reflection on each of the readings.

The first reading is Luke 4:21-30. But I think we should take one step back to look at 4:14-21 first. Here is the text.

Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (TNIV)

The passage before this one is Luke 4:1–13, and is about Jesus being tested by the devil. Jesus overcame the devil’s scheme. Then in 4:14–21 we find him reading Isaiah 61:1 (and 58:6) in a synagogue in his hometown Nazareth. It seems to me that most likely he is saying that he is the Anointed King anticipated by the prophets. That is, he is the anointed son of David, the messianic King.

I find this passage very encouraging. Jesus says that the promise in Isaiah 61:1 (and 58:6) is fulfilled in him. That means, Jesus himself is the one who proclaims good news to the poor. The blind will see and the oppressed will be set free.

We see throughout Luke’s Gospel that Jesus has indeed come to set the oppressed free. He heals the sick, and the poor hear the good news. Indeed, in Luke’s Gospel we find that Jesus has come to gather a community of disciples who will follow his way of life, and that this community includes all sorts of people, not least the poor, tax collectors and sinners.

Imagine we were there

Let us imagine that we were in the synagogue where Jesus spoke. Imagine that we were among those who were in need. Imagine that among our friends there were those who were economically poor, or oppressed because of their inferior social status. Wouldn’t it be good news that Jesus had come to bring us good news?

We live in a world out-of-joint. There is evil in this world. But Jesus has overcome the work of the devil (as demonstrated in Luke 4:1- 13). He is the Anointed King of God, and he has come to proclaim that the kingdom of God. This is good news indeed!

Next time we will take a look at Luke 4:21-30.