Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
February 3, 2019
Commentary on the Texts
1 Corinthians 13:1-13
There is no Lectionary Commentary for this reading,
but there is available a
Since this week's reading is a continuation of the passage from last Sunday, the comments for last week's text will be taken as the starting point for this one. As noted last week, this text is the conclusion of a larger literary unit, verses 16-30, and fits closely into the unfolding of a carefully constructed whole that includes the entire book of Luke as well as Acts. In dealing with these few verses, we have to keep in mind both the literary unit here as well as the larger context.
With that in mind, it still might be helpful to ask what the implication of dividing this text might be. That is, what is the impact of pausing at verse 21 before we continue into the last half of the unit this Sunday? The first half of this text has presented us with a new future in the person of Jesus. In no grand manner, but yet unmistakably, Jesus had returned to his hometown and aroused expectations that the hoped for "day" of God's new work in history was "today!" The unfolding of the hopes of centuries was at hand! The "days are coming" of the prophets was turning into "today," according to Jesus.
If we stop there, the question that hangs heavily in the air is, "what now?" In some way, Jesus has "made his move" before the hometown crowd. He has proclaimed the "year of the Lord's favor" (v. 19). The next move is up to the people. How will they respond? What will they do in light of this new future? Will they embrace it? Pausing at verse 21 allows us to contemplate the response, even allows us to formulate our own response. Perhaps pausing here says, even if for just a moment, that the future with this One who comes can go either way.
If we enter this final portion of the text with this dimension of response in mind, we may actually be in a better position to hear Luke's theology of the church as presented in the Gospel story. The effect for us as we move into the text from this pause is a subtle but significant shift away from the person of Jesus to the crowds in Nazareth as they are confronted with this incarnated future. And if, indeed, Luke is building a theology of the church, the crowds in Nazareth will likely tell us more than we really want to know.
The immediate response of the "hometown folks" to Jesus' comment, "Today this Scripture has been fulfilled," was very positive. They were amazed at his words and spoke well of him (v.22). However, the turn at the end of verse 23 is abrupt and grating, even leading some to suggest that Luke has actually combined two different stories here.
Some New Testament scholars (for example, Nolland in Word Biblical Commentary) see the impact of the people's question, "Is this not Joseph's son?", as well as Jesus' reply in verse 23 in an entirely negative light. They understand all of these statements as part of the rejection motif and expressions of scorn and doubt that are a direct response to Jesus' claim. Following this line, the people of Nazareth rejected Jesus on the basis that he was only Joseph's son. They were suspicious that someone who grew up in Nazareth, someone that they had watched grow up, could possibly do the things they had heard, and even more unlikely that he could bring the future they were expecting.
This interpretation follows very closely with the way both Matthew (13:53-58) and Mark (6:1-6) characterize this event. Both place the people's comments about Jesus being Joseph's son in a very negative context, with the concluding observation that they took offense at him (Matt 13:57, Mk 6:3).
However, we have already observed that Luke has significantly altered this narrative from the way Matthew and Mark present it, both in terms of the chronology in Jesus' ministry as well as by elements included, omitted, or emphasized differently. This again suggests that Luke is shaping the Gospel tradition to stress aspects that will serve the larger purposes for which he is writing this Gospel and Acts. If this is true, even without knowing what those larger concerns might be, the differences between Luke's version and the other Synoptic Gospels point us in a different direction and call us to hear how Luke is telling the story.
If we examine the response of the people in Luke, there is no specifically negative reaction from them until much later in the narrative, as Jesus gives them particular examples from Old Testament history of his point. And their response there is far more than simply taking offense; they respond in murderous rage (vv. 28-29). That suggests a shift in emphasis in Luke, with the intervening words of Jesus being the cause for their reaction rather than simply the fact that Jesus was a hometown kid.
The earlier question from the people, "Is this not Joseph's son?", does not in this context seem to have any particular negative connotation. In fact, Luke links it with the people's amazement at Jesus' "gracious words" (v. 23). As such, it is more an expression of amazement that the hometown kid has done well! This realization lessens the tension between the two halves of verse 23. Along with the omission of any reference at this point to taking offense at Jesus, it also puts a different connotation on Jesus' words and illustrations that follow.
It seems at first that Jesus had won acceptance at Nazareth. They marvel at the gracious words spoken by Joseph's son now become a man. But the people have not yet truly responded, at least not on the level necessary to engage the future that Jesus is bringing. Beginning in verse 23 with a series of rhetorical statements, Jesus drives to the heart of the issue, and to the heart of the people.
The two statements in verse 23 demonstrates that Jesus understood the motivation of the people, a feature of Jesus' ministry that Luke will emphasize repeatedly. In the rhetorical style of the prophets, he expressed the unspoken motivations of the people in a series of statements that verbalized what the people were thinking yet did not dare express themselves (cf. Mal 1:2, 6, 7, 13, etc.)
The first statement is ambiguous, or at least it is for us, so there is a variety of opinion as to what it means. In this context, in light of the second statement Jesus makes, it seems to be a way to claim Jesus for themselves. That is, they would ask Jesus to take care of the local problems at hand before worrying about more far reaching issues. Linked with the following statement, as well as the illustrations Jesus later gives, this becomes a mild rebuke to Jesus for his earlier activity in Capernaum. "Why didn't you start out doing those things here first, Jesus? After all, charity begins at home!"
There is little doubt about the intent of Jesus' second statement: "Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did in Capernaum." Their motive in accepting Jesus is laid bare! That willingness to accept him as the One who brings a new future revolves around a sense of privilege that comes from having a miracle worker as one of the kids that grew up down the street. They want the future, but they want it for them!
It is a sense of selfish pride that sees an inside track into a future that they want to shape and mold to their own needs and their own ends. It is not far removed from the later requests of two of the disciples that Jesus would give them special status. They 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.
We can almost hear them. Why, yes, we have blind people here in Nazareth. We are all poor and need good news. Yes, there are people here that need release. We are oppressed and carry heavy burdens! Yes, we want the year of the Lord's favor, because we want the release from debts and taxes that it might bring. Yes, we welcome this future that will bring us all we want. Amen! Gracious words! Welcome home, kid! Do it here in your hometown!
But that is not the future Jesus is bringing! He begins by casting himself in a different role than the miracle worker about which they have heard. He takes to himself the identity of a prophet. They would 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 (see On Being Prophets Today). They called the people to accountability for their selfishness, for their faithlessness to God, for their lack of justice and mercy toward others (Mic 6:6-8), for their sin.
As soon as Jesus identified himself in a prophetic role, he would no longer be accepted with favor. He 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).
Jesus had already faced the temptation to compromise his mission by using miracles as a short and easy way to solve problems (Lk 4:1-4), by focusing on ambition and self interest (4:5-8), or by attracting attention by showy displays of power and forcing God to serve him (4:9-12). He stood before the people of Nazareth, not as the hometown boy who had returned to shower his kinsmen and friends with favors, but as a prophet of God come to call them to be servants, to be light, to the world.
As Jesus would do throughout his ministry, he did not directly challenge the selfishness of the people, nor directly try to expand their narrowness of vision. Instead he told a story from Israel's history, and let the people themselves bring their own condemnation as they applied the truth of the story to their own motives and attitudes. The point of both stories is that God had worked before through prophets to help those outside of Israel, outside of the exclusive circle of the "chosen people." And Jesus himself had already been to work in Capernaum, not in his hometown.
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 (for example, 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.
As they were herding Jesus out of town to kill him, he slipped away. In Luke's Gospel, he never returned to Nazareth. The next passage, just beyond the ending of our reading for today, tells of Jesus returning to Capernaum and again doing great and wonderful things there, and the reports of him circulated throughout the country (4:37, 43-44). The contrast could not be greater. Those who should have known his mission and participated in it, those who knew him best, could see no further than their own wants and their own their own interests. They drove him out because he not only had dared to share the good news with others, he had brought them face to face with their own narrowness and closed future.
Over this story falls the shadow of the cross, for this will not be the last time that Jesus would take the good news to others who are not the "hometown folks." And it will not be the last time by so doing that he would confront those who should know better with their own lack of vision and narrow exclusiveness. He will be rejected by his own again.
Luke is clearly foreshadowing the crucifixion here. But he also has in mind the larger mission of the church in the world. Jesus came to his own, yet they did not accept him (cf. John 1:11-12). But he came not just to his own, but to the whole world. It was precisely because he came to others that his own people did not accept him. They wanted him to themselves, or not at all.
The proclamation of Jesus' Good News began in Nazareth's synagogue. But they did not stop the story by rejecting Jesus there. It moved from there throughout Galilee to Jerusalem. And even though they rejected Jesus in Jerusalem, and even succeeded in killing him there, they did not stop the story. It would be played out in Acts, as the apostles and followers of Jesus also suffered rejection at the hands of those who should know better. But they did not stop the Good News. It simply moved on to Judea, to Samaria, and to the farthest reaches of the Earth (Acts 1:7). The Good News that Jesus read about and proclaimed that day in Nazareth, the mission that he defined, was carried out in spite of rejection.
As mentioned at the very beginning of today's study, the call for response to Jesus' proclamation permeates the text, especially emphasized by pausing at verse 21 and using it first as the concluding summary to the first half of this reading last week, and then using it as the introduction to the second half for this week. There are two dimensions of that response that emerge from the text, one negative and one positive.
The negative path tracks very closely to this text of Scripture and how it functions at the beginning of Jesus' ministry. It focuses on the people of Nazareth and their incredible missed opportunity to participate in a new future because they could not see beyond themselves. In one sense, we should not be too hard on them as if we would not have made the same mistake, because they really illustrate that tendency, prevalent all too frequently among us, that is willing to settle for a God just small enough to meet our own needs.
This way of thinking can emerge in many subtle ways, such as in expecting God's great new work in the world to begin where we are, because of our efforts, or in answer to our prayers, as if there is no one else as deserving of God's grace. Or it can be seen as some assume that all the prophecies of Scripture and the teachings of God's people over 4,000 years of history are directed at us and our country and our time, as if God should only really be concerned with us "hometown folks" in the USA. or Britain. or Canada. or at least English speakers! Or perhaps it comes out in the sometimes unspoken but real jealousy that erupts when another church across town, or another minister across the state, or another denomination or religious tradition different than ours is experiencing a renewal of the working of God. Or it can emerge as we try to dictate to others exactly where and when and in what manner God can make himself known among us, what people must do to get him to work, and what the evidence is of his presence, all based on our own limited experience of God.
And on an even larger scale, the "hometown syndrome" can begin to affect who we are as God's people and how we carry out our mission. We can become so preoccupied with our own corner of the world, that we can assume that the only work of God that is really important is to give all us hometown folks a new demonstration of his power, that renewal of the saints is more important than new proclamation to sinners. In such an environment God's work is provincialized into maintenance rather than mission, taking care of those who should be healthy instead of seeking out those who need healing (Lk 5:31-32). It is expressed in a willingness to settle for security rather than risk everything for the Kingdom. It is a willingness to leave things as they have always been rather than embrace newness. It is an eagerness to face the future only if that future is the same as yesterday.
Yes, we believe in what Jesus can do, but we have decided that it really is for us, not them. "Heal yourself, Lord." "Do it here, also, Jesus!" Which is really a way to say, "We've got enough here to keep you busy, so you don't really need to bother with all those others."
And it does not take much for this narrowness of vision to become narrow-mindedness and intolerance. Narrow vision often causes resentment that God would bestow his grace so freely on "whosoever will." And like Jonah, we would rather die, or kill someone else, than allow it! The murderous rage of the people of Nazareth is incongruous and shocking. How could they go in such a short time from marveling at Jesus' gracious words to trying to kill him? The staggering and sad truth is that it is not that far from, "Do it here also," to "filled with rage." The actions of the people prove that.
This rage is the reaction of a people who have been brought face to face with their own failure, who have been given a vision of the world and the future, and yet see only Nazareth and the present. They cannot deal with the truth that this prophet brings, and so they turn on him. Fred Craddock observes, "All of us know what it is to be at war with ourselves, sometimes making causalities of those who are guilty of nothing but speaking the truth in love" (Luke, IBC, p. 63). And it may just be that Jesus and the power of the Spirit will not return to such a place.
The second positive path tracks more closely with the larger story Luke is telling here. This response is from the perspective of Jesus, and those who would follow him. The proverb to which Jesus refers proves all too true. Prophets have no honor in their "hometown." That clearly suggests a price to be paid for those who would be prophets or who would follow Jesus into the future he has proclaimed.
As Luke wrote his Gospel, the early church was spreading throughout the world, to Rome and beyond. And Christians have come under severe persecution that will only get worse. This will not an easy road to follow, making this journey with Jesus. From the very beginning, there was alienation and rejection. People most often do not want to hear the truth, and often do not even want to hear the Good News if it requires too much.
And yet, there is more to the mission, more to the world than "hometown." Jesus does not despair because the "hometown folks" don't accept him. There are people in nearby Capernaum who do (v.31)! The people of Nazareth may want to kill him, but the crowds seek him even in deserted places (v.42), because they are willing to respond to his authority. And Jesus himself is constantly driven into the future by an overwhelming sense of mission that he has already nailed down at his baptism and in the wilderness temptations: "I must proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose" (v. 43). And the Spirit of the Lord is upon him to bring that good news!
Finally, the mission is passed on to his followers, to the church, to us. It is easy to get sidetracked by the narrow vision of some, and forget that the whole world awaits. It is easy to be so preoccupied with failure that we forget we go in the power of the Spirit. It is not our mission, but God's. Jesus may never have returned to Nazareth, but finally, he didn't need Nazareth to carry out his mission. He could not allow the grasping of some who should have known better to interfere with why he came. In fact, in the early church, it was the very hardships the early followers of Jesus suffered, the very persecutions that intended to destroy them, that allowed them to fulfill their mission and be the light to the world.
This all suggests that a true embrace of mission, a true vision of the future will call us out of our comfort zones, may propel us into places that we would not choose, or may call us to paths that we would not walk if we had a choice. But it also affirms that if we have a clear sense of what we are to be about as Christians, and if we allow the power of the Spirit to lead and empower us, God will bring His future in whatever city, in whatever arena we happen to be. It may not be in hometown Nazareth. It may not even be in Jerusalem. or Judea. or even Samaria. It may be in Rome or beyond. It may be somewhere far beyond our hometowns and our comfort zones. But it will come.
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