Hometown Prophets

Yesterday we looked at details of some verses in this coming Sunday gospel. Today we will continue the “deep dive” into this important text.

In the culture of Jesus’ native place, home and family carry obligations, especially that of giving preference to one’s own family and community. Jesus’ words gives voice to their expectations: 23 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.’” 

We have two challenges confronting us in understanding v.23. The first is that in our modern usage, this proverb is a retort directed at someone personally. But such an understanding does not explain the sharp shift in tone from the preceding verse. The second challenge is the English translation itself. In v.23 in the Greek there are no words “and say;” in other words what appears in all the major translations as two quotes, in the Greek, is one phrase. Perhaps a better understanding is that in Luke’s use the proverb in the early part of v.23 is interpreted by the later part.

In addition, there are many scholars that offer “yourself” (v.23; singular) while more properly referring to Jesus personally, is not a reference to Jesus, but to the hometown of Nazareth. Jesus has understood the crowd’s positive response; they are eager for him to begin to do the works of God’s grace among them. They are ready to share in the benefits that might accrue to the prophet’s hometown and miffed because he has already done wonderful things in other parts of Galilee and Capernaum. The result is that “Physician cure yourself” means bring the promises (vv:18-20) to your own people, and don’t allow Capernaum to get the benefits that we should have.

If you think about it, this is not far removed from the later requests of two of the disciples that Jesus would give them special status. The people of Nazareth are willing to accept Jesus on their own terms, for what he can do for them, for the personal advantage that they can claim and enjoy because he is one of them. They respond as those who see the needs of the world through the lens of their own personal and local needs, who tend to reduce all the problems of the world to their own problems.

What people of Nazareth do not understand is that those “benefits” are not just for Nazareth and Capernaum, or even just all of Israel, but also for the Gentile nations – in other words, Isaiah’s words were universal! Now you can begin to understand why Jesus shifts the tone and direction of the dialogue.

24 And he said, “Amen, I say to you, no prophet is accepted in his own native place. This is certainly a familiar phrase, part of our modern lexicon, and has a variety of non-biblical uses. Peter Parker (aka “Spider-Man”) can’t catch a break in his own hometown (because of the editor/owner of the Daily Bugle, J. Jonah Jameson). Parker laments that a superhero is appreciated except in his own town. Biblically the proverb occurs four times in the Gospels, each time in a different form:

  • Mark 6:4 “Prophets are not without honor [atimos], except in his native place [patridi], and among his own kin, and in his own house.”
  • Matthew 13:57 “A prophet is not without honor [atimos] except in this native place [patridi] and in his own house.”
  • Luke 4:24 “Truly [amēn] I tell you, no prophet is accepted [dektos] in his own native place  [patridi].”
  • John 4:44 “For Jesus himself testified that a prophet has no honor [timēn] in his native place [patridi].”

The people had heard about a miracle worker, but Jesus takes to himself the identity of a prophet. The people know what that implied. Prophets did not have a reputation for bringing miracles and good things to the people of Israel. Most often, the prophets of Israel brought a message that confronted the people with their own failures to be God’s people. They called the people to accountability for their selfishness, for their faithlessness to God, for their lack of justice and mercy toward others, and for their sin.

In this Jesus joins a long line of prophets who were also not received in their own place: Jeremiah, Isaiah, Habakkuk, Elijah, and more. Jesus would not be the first prophet told to leave town because his message hit a little too close to home (Amos 7:12). He would not be the first prophet to risk death because he dared to tell the truth to people who did not want to hear the truth (Jer 37:12-38:6). He would not be the first prophet who had the integrity to refuse to cater to the whims of the people (Mic 3:5-8).

As before, as it will ever be, a true 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 the OT prophets. Therefore, his ministry will focus not on the “faithful remnant” but on the excluded and unfaithful. Those who cannot accept this priority will find the prophet unacceptable.

Scripture quotes taken from New American Bible

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