Preached at All Saints, King City, Sunday, 30 January, 2022. Readings for this Sunday: Jer 1.4-10; Ps 71.1-5; 1 Cor 13.1-13; Lk 4.21-30
All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” (Luke 4.27)
What hometown doesn’t love its heroes? In my home parish, the whole town crowded into the community centre to watch two of their own, figure skaters wo had trained in the local arena, compete in the winter Olympics. We love local heroes because we’ve seen them grow up and spread their wings, and while we want them to do well, we also enjoy some of their fame that reflects on their place of origin.
Today’s gospel, which continues the story of Jesus’ return to Nazareth, invites us to think who Jesus speaks to and who Jesus serves – besides us! Last Sunday we heard how Jesus read the words of the prophet Isaiah to his hometown synagogue – about God anointing one who would bring good news, freedom, and healing to the poor, to the captives, and to the oppressed. Jesus then implies that he is the one who has been anointed to do all this (“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” Lk 4.21) and awaits the reaction.
Jesus certainly does provoke a reaction from the hometown crowd, and that reaction is complex, moving from approval to murderous rage. It moves from approval at “the gracious words that came from his mouth” (4.22) to remembrance of who they think Jesus is (“Is not this Joseph’s son? 4.22) to homicidal rage when Jesus provokes them by saying his mission is not just to make his hometown look and feel good (4.23-29). What makes them change their minds so quickly?
The answer seems to me to be that the locals want Jesus to be the hometown hero, but Jesus isn’t that interested in the role. Sometimes it’s said that when the people in the synagogue say “Is not this Joseph’s son” (4.22) it’s said in disapproval, that Jesus has started acting above his station and should be cut down to size. I don’t see it that way at all. I see the “Is not this Joseph’s son?” question as being about ownership. It’s like they’re proudly saying, “Hey, this boys with all the wisdom, he’s Joseph’s son, he’s one of us!”. Remember that this point Jesus is still popular. Luke has just told us that he’s preached in neighbouring towns in Galilee and “was praised by everyone” (Lk 2.15). I think people are excited that the local hero is come how, and now they’re wondering what miracles and amazing things Jesus will do for them.
What they get instead is an antagonistic Jesus who basically says that he has nothing to offer his hometown. Jesus cites a proverb (“Doctor, cure yourself” 4.23). puts himself in the same company as the prophets Elijah and Elisha whose miracles benefitted gentiles but not their own people (Lk 425-27) and says that he won’t do the miracles and teachings he’s done elsewhere (4.23 – the reference to “the things we heard you did at Capernaum” seems to refer to the following verses, 4.31-37, suggesting that Luke’s chronology is out of synch here). In other words, Jesus seems to almost taunt the hometown crowd by saying, “Yes, I may be one of you, but I’m not here to serve you”. It would be a little bit like the local kid who won Olympic gold or a Stanley Cup to say “No, I’m not coming home to do the Fall Fair parade”.
Imagine a young cleric who pitches up at All Saints as a curate or as your new incumbent. Let’s say you’ve known him or her since they were in Sunday school. They’re a rising star, they have the whole Diocese buzzing, and you can’t believe your luck that this clerical prodigy has come home to be your priest. You have high hopes of this person filling the pews, breathing new life into the parish, and looking after you.
However, in their first sermon, that new priest says “Don’t expect to see much of me, because I’ll be out all night looking after the homeless, I’ll be in the shelter and in the food bank and with the John Howard Society and the ex cons, and if I’m not there I’ll be spending a lot of time up north helping First Nations communities with drinking water. Besides, I know you all, and I don’t see a lot I can do here to help you, especially when there’s other people that need me more.” How long would it take before the Wardens caught an earful of complaints? Anger and betrayal would be very human reactions. We all want our needs to come first, and most of us want our guy to put our needs at the top of the list.
However, Jesus never gave any indication that he wanted to be the hometown hero. Before he was born, his mother Mary knew that Jesus would be the one who would lift up “the lowly”, feed the hungry, and send “the rich away empty” (Lk 1.52-53). When the aged Simeon met the infant Jesus, he prophesied that the child would “salvation” for “all peoples”, “a light for revelation to the Gentoles and for glory to your people Israel” (Lk 2.29-32). In the Temple, the boy Jesus reminded his parents that his “Father’s house” was not their house (Lk 2.49). At his baptism, the voice from heaven called Jesus “my Son, the Beloved” (Lk 3.22) and in their duel in the desert, even the devil admits that Jesus is “the Son of God” who passes every test (Lk 4.1-13). So by the time Jesus returns to Nazareth, we as Luke’s readers know that Jesus is far, far more than just “Joseph’s son”.
From the very beginning Jesus has announced that he will be God’s son for all people, and not just a comfortable, chosen few. Now, in the Nazareth synagogue, that point becomes clear. Jesus bluntly tells the hometown crowd that he won’t be the local hero, that he will take the love and salvation of God to those who don’t yet know him. We need to be clear that this gospel is not about Jews rejecting a Jesus who wants to serve only gentiles. That is so not the point. The point is that Jesus does not come to serve the few, but to serve the many, and sometimes that’s a challenge for the faithful.
Today’s gospel reading calls us to whether we see Jesus as the hometown hero of our personal church family, or whether we are willing to share Jesus with a wider world that needs him, needs him even more than we do. Are we here to be served, or all we called to serve? How can we cooperate with Jesus’ mission to those who lack our comforts, our privilege, our faith? Yes, we all have our own needs and our own prayer concerns, and make no mistake, Jesus knows them and knows you far better than you know yourself. So trust that you are part of the flock that the good shepherd has safely in his keeping. But ask yourself who else has needs, who else has Jesus come to serve, and how you can you as disciples and church help? Do you expect Jesus to serve you, are will you help Jesus serve others? Those would be fruitful questions to explore with your next priest.