The Gospel for this coming Sunday recounts the teaching activity of Jesus in the synagogues of Galilee, and particularly his visit to his hometown, Nazareth, where he enters the synagogue on the sabbath day and teaches the people (Luke 4:14–21). The scene continues in next week’s Gospel selection (Luke 4:22–30).
This scene is not unique to Luke’s orderly account of the things being fulfilled among us; it appears both in Mark 6:1–6 and Matt 13:54–58. In all three accounts, as this same incident is reported, it is introduced in a very similar way, and runs a rather similar route towards its conclusion. Yet, in reporting this incident, Luke reshapes, expands, and highlights a number of aspects which, as we shall see, are of fundamental significance in Luke’s distinctive portrayal of Jesus and those who follow him.
What Luke but hints at in this passage is made explicit in more detailed ways throughout the rest of his account of the public activities of Jesus in Galilee, as he journeys towards Jerusalem, and then as he teaches in the Temple precincts. As he signals some of the main features of his portrayal of Jesus, he also gives clear indications of what it means to follow Jesus.
The incident in Nazareth takes place in the synagogue, a commonly found place of worship for Jews outside of Jerusalem. It takes place on the sabbath —the seventh day of the week, long devoted by Jews to prayers and the study of the Law. Jesus takes a scroll, from which he reads words of scripture, drawn from the prophet Isaiah. The passage speaks of the work of the Spirit of the Lord, the figure within Jewish history who has often implemented the will of the Lord God amongst the people of God. Each of these elements in the story is fundamentally and unequivocally Jewish.
These factors signal the inescapable fact that Jesus is intensely Jewish in Luke’s Gospel. His story is set in the heart of Jewish piety, from the very opening scene of the Gospel which reveals a pair of righteous Jews who faithfully keep the commandments of God (Luke 1:5–6). The man, Zechariah, is devoted to the service of God in the Temple (1:8–9). His wife, Elizabeth, expresses an attitude of deep faith in God, accepting her surprise pregnancy as “what the Lord has done for me” (1:25).
Her relative, Mary, demonstrates a similar faith as she submits to a similar fate with the words, “here am I, the servant of the Lord” (1:38). In turn, the traditional hopes and expectations of the people are articulated in spirit-inspired hymns sung by Mary (1:46–55), Zechariah (1:67–79) and Simeon the righteous (2:29–32). The children who are born—Jesus and John—bear the weight of these traditional hopes and expectations as they come into being.
The sense of deeply devoted and strongly conventional Jewish piety continues in the reports of the early years of Jesus. It is only in Luke’s Gospel that we find the information that Jesus was circumcised (2:21) and dedicated in the Temple (2:22–24), and that he showed an early interest in the Law (2:41–51).
In recounting the events of his adult years, Luke notes that Jesus regularly attended the synagogue (4:16, 44; 6:6), where he was accorded the status of a teacher (4:20–27; 4:31–33; 13:10). Luke emphasises that Jesus regularly prayed to God (3:21; 5:16; 6:12; etc.). He knew the importance of the daily prayer, the Shema (10:25–28) and the Ten Commandments (18:18–21). Like other Jewish teachers of the day, Jesus taught in parables (8:4–8; etc.); Luke reports a number of especially well-known parables of Jesus (10:29–37; 15:3–32; 16:19–31).
Indeed, as Luke narrates events leading to the birth of Jesus, he indicates that Jesus will seek the renewal of the ancient promises which God made to Israel (1:46–55; 1:67–79; 2:29–35). Thus, the Lukan Jesus insists that the purpose of his mission is to fulfil the hopes once spoken by the prophets (4:18–21; 7:18–23; 24:18–27; 24:44–47).
He is clear that what he has to offer is a grand vision of the kingdom in which all are invited to share in the Messianic Banquet (13:29; 14:15–24). This is one vision within Second Temple Judaism—it was not shared by all, but it draws on Jewish traditions, especially as articulated in the latter sections of the book of Isaiah (Isa 42:1– 6; 52:7–10; 55:1–5; 60:1–7; 66:18–24). So the Lukan Jesus functions as a prophetic voice in Israel, calling for change from within.
Luke does not play Jesus off, over against ‘the Jews’, in the way that we find happening in the work of his near-contemporary, in the Gospel according to John. Rather, the Lukan Jesus is immersed in the midst of his religion; he is one of the people of Israel at his birth, and he remains so even up to his death and beyond. Luke’s Gospel—and its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles— will provide no basis for a rejection of Judaism as no longer in keeping with God’s will. On the contrary, the story which Luke tells is about the way that the hopes of Jewish faith are brought to fruition in the life of Jesus, and in those who follow the way set forth by Jesus.
This motif continues in the second volume of Luke’s orderly account. The earliest followers of Jesus remain involved in Judaism. They participate in the Temple rituals in Jerusalem (Luke 24:53; Acts 2:46; 5:12) and attend the synagogues of the Diaspora (Acts 9:20; 13:5,14; etc.).
At the close of his missionary activity, Paul is to be found participating in a ritual in the Temple (21:26). When he is brought to trial, Paul insists that he has remained faithful to Judaism (23:1, 6; 24:14–16; 25:8, 10; 26:22–23; 28:17). Even in the final scenes of the book, in Rome, Paul is engaged with Jewish leaders, debating with them the identity of Jesus (28:17–28). There is no point at which Luke has in mind a decisive, irrevocable and universal split between church and synagogue.
As we have noted, Luke portrays Jesus as a pious Jew, devoted to the Law of Moses, loyal to the people of Israel. Yet Luke was also aware that Jesus was not uncritical of his religion. This is crystal clear in the “hometown incident” which Luke reports. At first, the people in the synagogue in Nazareth marvel at the “gracious words” he speaks to them (Luke 4:22). But as they listen to more of what he says, they gradually sense the challenge that is being placed before them.
This incident sounds the first indication of the tragedy of the story of Jesus; the actions of the people in Nazareth foreshadow his ultimate rejection in Jerusalem. Eventually, they become ‘enraged’ at Jesus and seek to kill him (4:28–29). The cost of taking a stance is clearly articulated.
Jesus acknowledges the difficulty that people in the synagogue will have in accepting his words, in the terse proverb, “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown” (4:24). He stands firm for what he believes in— whatever the ultimate cost.
The same saying about the unacceptable prophet is quoted in the report of this incident—the hometown rejection—by Mark (6:4) and Matthew (13:57), and is inserted into another context in John’s Gospel (4:44). It is likewise attributed to Jesus in a scrap of Gospel-like material on one of the Oxyrhynchus Papyri (1:6) as well as in the noncanonical Gospel of Thomas (31). It seems sure that it is an authentic saying of Jesus. The cost of standing up for what one believes in is a thread running through many of the early Christian documents relating the life or sayings of Jesus.
What is it that leads the Nazareth crowd away from marvelling at the gracious words to wanting to kill out of blind fury? Jesus has presented a provocative challenge to his audience. The models of faithfulness which he puts forward in 4:25–27 contain a certain element of shock. His statements are implicitly critical of an exclusivist understanding of faith which is attested in some strands of Jewish religion in the Second Temple period. Jesus functions as an agent provocateur here, and indeed elsewhere in the Gospel.
This post draws on my work published as AT TABLE WITH LUKE (UTC Publications; UTC Bible Studies 2, 2000) ©John T. Squires 2000