Past as Prologue

Yesterday we looked at details of some verses about the perils of being a “hometown prophet.” In today’s exploration of this coming Sunday gospel, we will continue the “deep dive” of those perils when the prophet’s attention is not focused on just Nazareth, but it is even available to people outside of Israel.

 25 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. 26 It was to none of these that Elijah was sent, but only to a widow in Zarephath in the land of Sidon. 27 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.”

The people of Nazareth had heard Jesus’ declaration of the fulfillment of God’s promises as a guarantee of God’s blessing on them, but Jesus affirmed a fulfillment that was not limited to Israel only—God would bless all the poor, all the captives. Neither was the fulfillment Jesus announced radically different from the work of the prophets. Israel’s Scriptures themselves bear witness to God’s blessing on Gentiles as well as Jews. Reminders of the mighty works of Elijah and Elisha follow naturally after the proverb about the prophet and the prophet’s home.

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 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.

The sense of privilege, of having some special status with Jesus quickly evaporated as it dawned on the people that they were going to get no special treatment. What should have been joy at the prospect of many being helped by Jesus turned to rage that he would so freely bestow “the Lord’s favor.” It is hard not to think of Jonah here, who would rather die than see God’s forgiveness and grace extended to the ruthless Assyrians in Nineveh. The people of Nazareth would rather kill Jesus than share him with others. Their response is its own condemnation.

They had not learned from their history the nature of the God whom they served, and so on this occasion were ready to kill his son. They should have known better. They should have remembered that they had been called to be gracious to others because God had been gracious to them (e.g., Deut 15:12-15). They should have remembered that the commission given to Abraham was to be a blessing to the world. They should have remembered that Isaiah had talked about this day as the time when Israel would be a light to the nations. They should have remembered why they were called into existence as God’s people.

Scripture quotes taken from New American Bible

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