Luke 4:16-30 is the story of Jesus going to Nazareth where he grew up and preaching a sermon their synagogue. It’s a story I didn’t understand for a long time, but I think I do now thanks to God’s spirit and an amazing book by Kenneth Bailey.
Jesus has just begun his ministry after being tested by Satan in the desert. He has traveled around a bit preaching and done some healing. He enters Nazareth knowing that he will be rejected by his own people.
Bailey argues that Nazareth is a settlement community of Jews established about 100 years before Jesus was born. Most people in Galilee were not Jewish. Settlement communities were supposed to spread Jewish influence by growing. They were supposed to take over the region from the Gentiles through cultural dominance. The people of Nazareth had a mission.
Isaiah 61 is a text that fits right in with this mission. It was understood to mean that when the Messiah came he would restore the original land of Israel to Jewish rule and make all the Gentiles slaves or servants.
Jesus enters Nazareth and preaches a sermon on this very text. The only problem is that he changes the text. That’s right, he changes the Bible. He brings in verses from another place in Isaiah and he leaves out the verse where God takes vengeance on the Gentiles.
He then preaches a sermon that enrages his own people. He gives them two examples of faith. The two examples are Gentiles who lived in their own region. They aren’t even believers. One is a widow who Elijah helped. She had faith enough to give Elijah her last bread during a famine and God provided a miracle to save her. But she was a worshipper of Baal, the pagan god of the Sidonians.
The second example is Naaman, a Syrian general and enemy of Israel. He had faith to ask the prophet Elisha how to heal his leprosy and then to do what he was told even though it didn’t make sense to him. He did become a believer and worshipped God, but he also continued to worship the gods of his country.
Why would Jesus point to such people as examples of faith?
The people of Nazareth knew truth from the Bible. In many ways they were very close to God. But they had become captives to the idea that God was only at work in them and in this one task they thought they were called to do. They could not imagine that God was at work outside their church. Jesus says that they are blind.
We who are the church today are no different are we? I am no different. If I see something good happening or being done outside the church I don’t know what to do with it. I want to brand it as Christian and control it or else I dismiss it and ignore it.
I was sent a song yesterday by Peter Mayer called Holy Now. It is about this very question. Where is God at work?
Jesus came to open the eyes of the blind. Who are the blind?