When he visits the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:16), Jesus claims that the Spirit has equipped him for his public activity (4:18). The gift of the Spirit had not yet been poured out on the faithful followers of Jesus; that comes at the beginning of Luke’s second volume, on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2). Jesus will call his companions to follow him (5:27; 9:23; 14:27; 18:22), confident that the Spirit will sustain them in their response; even before he explicitly issues this call to be faithful, the Lukan Jesus speaks about who may be called to such faith.
As he interprets the reading from Isaiah in the synagogue (Luke 4:16–21), Jesus retells two very short stories about faithful people long ago in the history of Israel. A faithful prophet, Elijah, is sent to a faithful widow in Sidon (4:25–26). Another faithful prophet, Elisha, is sent to a faithful Syrian (4:27). We hear these two stories within the Gospel section offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday (Luke 4:21–30).
The prophets who are described by Jesus were faithful to God’s call. Both Elijah and his successor, Elisha, are known as men who struggled with what it meant for them, personally, to be obedient to God’s claims on their lives. As prophets, these two men represented a class of people within Israel who dared to speak forth God’s word, recalling Israel to the covenant that they held with Yahweh. Jesus stands in that tradition, functioning himself as a prophet in his words and his deeds.
From their knowledge of the scriptural stories, those to whom Jesus spoke in the synagogue would have known that the woman who provided hospitality to Elijah declared to him, “now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth” (1 Kings 17:24). Likewise, they would have recalled that the man healed by Elisha was prompted to declare, “now I know that there is no God in all the earth except in Israel” (2 Kings 5:15).
The figure of the prophet is important in Luke’s Gospel. This work contains the most direct description of the prophetic role of Jesus, when the crowds in Nain declare him to be “a great prophet” (7:16). There are prophets present at the start of Jesus’ life, amongst those who foresee his importance: Zechariah, who “speaks a prophecy” (1:67); Simeon, whose spirit- inspiration and predictive oracles surely qualify him as a prophet (2:25–35); and Anna, “a prophet the Acts of the Apostles, Luke makes mention of various prophets, both male (Agabus, Acts 11:28; 21:10–11; Barnabas, Saul and three others in Antioch, Acts 13:1) and female (the daughters of Philip, Acts 21:9).
In the stories about the ancient prophets, Elijah and Elisha, we see how they engage with people who have a representative function. The widow of Sidon and the soldier from Syria are singled out because, together, they indicate what is it that characterises the community of God’s faithful followers.
There are four aspects of those who are identified as such in Jesus’ hometown sermon: gender, social status, the inclusion of edge-dwellers, outcasts, and outsiders, and the inclusion of Gentiles alongside Jews.
1. The two prophets identified by Jesus in his Nazareth sermon, although both male, are sent to individuals of different genders. Elijah is sent to a faithful woman, who typically remains unnamed; Elisha is sent to faithful man, identified as Naaman. Each of these figures receives the prophet and their message. Once more Jesus does not elaborate on the point but it must have been self-evident to his Jewish audience from their knowledge of the scriptural stories (1 Kings 17:8–24; 2 Kings 5:1–14). The individuals who responded with faith and obedience represent both male and female genders. Each is equally capable of a faithful response.
This characteristic of discipleship is found in all four canonical Gospels, but is particularly noticeable in Luke’s orderly account: from the two faithful pairs early in his narrative, Zechariah and Elizabeth (1:5–25, 57–80), and Simeon and Anna (2:25–38), through to the end of his Gospel, where those who watched Jesus die on the cross include both genders: “all his acquaintances, including the women” (23:49), and women serve as the first witnesses to the empty tomb (23:55–56; 24:1, 10).
2. It is not only the gender of these two individuals which is significant for understanding discipleship in Luke’s Gospel. The pairing links another set of contrasting factors. Jesus refers to a faithful person of means, the military commander; this is balanced by his reference to the faithful person with no means, the widow. The snapshot of faithful followers which the Lukan Jesus provides is inclusive in terms of social status.
The widow represents those of the lower classes; specifically, she stands amongst those who are described as “the poor” (4:18, citing Isa 61:1). This is a term which recurs in Luke’s Gospel; the precise term used refers to the real struggle for survival which was faced by people without the security of income which came from being in a patron-client relationship. “The poor” were literally beggars.
In Nazareth, Jesus appropriates the scriptural task of “preaching good news” to the poor (4:18); as he subsequently reports to the messengers sent by John, this characterises his ministry (7:22). His preaching is marked by his thematic beatitudes, in which he reassures the poor, “yours is the kingdom of God” (6:22), and promises the hungry, “you will be filled” (6:21).
Alongside the poor widow, Jesus refers to Naaman (4:27), whom we know from scripture to have been a man of means, with servants (2 Kings 5:13), owning silver, gold and fine clothes (2 Kings 5:5), and commanding many troops, horses and chariots (2 Kings 5:9). If Jesus in Luke’s Gospel makes more references to the poor than in the other canonical Gospels, then he also makes more references to people drawn from the upper classes of his society.
Luke reports how Jesus engaged with a centurion who was wealthy enough to contribute to the building fund of a synagogue in Capernaum (7:1–10); a synagogue leader in Galilee (8:40–42, 49–56); and a chief tax collector who had grown rich from his business dealings (19:1–10). A number of his parables include characters drawn from the upper strata of his society (12:13–21; 14:28–30; 14:31–32; 15:11–32; 16:1–13; 16:19–31; 17:7–10; 18:1–8).
3. We have seen how the two faithful followers to whom Jesus referred differ from one another (in terms of gender and social status). Now, we note the ways in which they are similar. One characteristic that they share is that they are displaced from the mainstream of society. The community of faith thus includes edge-dwellers, outcasts, and outsiders.
Without a relationship to a husband, as her legal and financial protector, the widow of Sidon is dislocated from her place within society and is completely dependent on the goodwill of her late husband’s family. Being thus vulnerable to exploitation, widows were to be granted extra privileges (Exod 22:22–24; Deut 24:17–22).
From an Israelite point of view, the leper Naaman ought to have been banished to the outskirts of the society. He would have been forbidden to enter the city (Num 5:1–3), and must avoid anybody who might come into contact with him (Lev 13:45–46). Because his disease rendered him unclean, a leper was liable to undergo various rites of purification (Deut 24:8; Lev 13–14) and was certainly unable to participate in the temple rituals until purified (Lev 13:3, 8, 11, etc.).
Once again, we find that this particular characteristic of these figures points to a significant tendency running throughout Luke’s Gospel. Once again, also, we find that Luke takes a motif already present in his sources, and intensifies it. Jesus welcomes and incorporates those on the edge into the fellowship of his followers: women, lepers, those suffering from physical limitations, those described as being “possessed by a demon”. See https://johntsquires.com/2019/08/26/disreputable-outsiders-invited-inside-parables-in-luke-14/
There’s a further post on this passage to come, considering all four characters together (two prophets of Israel, the widow of Sidon, and the soldier of Syria) …
And see also https://johntsquires.com/2019/02/01/scripture-fulfilled-in-your-hearing-luke-416-30/