Wednesday, January 13, 2016

A congregation angry at Jesus' authority (Luke 4:21-30)

Jesus teaching in the synagogue
Just after the "Temptation of Jesus" passage in Luke 4, there is the tale of two synagogues. The first is Nazareth, found only in Luke, and the second Capernaum
 
The Nazareth synagogue was where Jesus learned Torah as a boy, a poor Jewish village of between sixteen hundred and two thousand inhabitants. Nazareth's residents referred to him as "Joseph's son," not with the grand hospitality feted on a visiting rabbi, indicating that the small town was not open to thinking about him as more than a carpenter's son (Luke 4:22).[1] Still, Luke says that the congregation “spoke well of him” and were “amazed at his gracious words” (Luke 4:22). They were polite. They were properly religious. 

After reading from the scroll at Isaiah 61 in his hometown synagogue, Jesus explained the passage, pointing to something controversial, albeit true. What was it?
That the Kingdom is open to more than Jews. It is open to low-life Gentiles, even marginalized ones from particularly despised areas, the widow of Zeraphath and Naaman the Syrian his biblical examples (Luke 4:26-27; 1 Kings 17:1, 7, 9-24; 18:1). When Jesus' explanation of the scroll's text at Isaiah 61 began to sink in on the congregation, that God’s grace extended even to the Gentiles (Luke 4:24-27), something big changed. The congregation suddenly flared up at him. 
Their polite religiosity quickly evaporated before the heat of their fury at the truth (Luke 4:28). Jesus had dared violate their religious prejudice, their long-time way of doing things. Didn’t he understand that “we’ve never done it that way”? Their anger turned to violence and attempted murder. They were proving Jesus’ point -- Jewish Nazareth would not receive him, but non-Jews will.[2] But their offense was rooted in their self-centered reaction to truth. They had submitted neither to his authority nor that of the Word of God. 
They had spoken well of him only so long as he did as they expected him to, as long as he towed their line, as long as he was loyal to them and they way they did things. But when he didn't, their anger exploded. In fact their anger was so strong that they themselves broke the Sabbath by attempting to push Jesus over a rocky hill and execute him by stoning.[3] And Jesus? How did he handle that furious response? He didn’t defend himself. He didn’t fight back. He didn't even try to talk sense to them. Somehow he averted their murderous plans and simply walked away to the village of Capernaum. 
The synagogue had praised him for his ability with the biblical text (Luke 4:15, 20b, 22), but they did not recognize his authority to apply it to their lives. Their ethnic prejudice against Gentiles ignited and brought on their anger, but their rebellious attitude to Jesus’ authority was the source of it.
When Jesus read the passage from Isaiah 61:1-2, he did not read the end of verse two. “and the day of vengeance of our God.” While commentators have simply noted that this time was for salvation (Matt 4:17) and his time of wrath had not come (John 8:15; 12:47),[4] there may be something of interest here. In a scene where Jesus deliberately leaves off the phrase about God’s vengeance, vengeance ironically erupts, and the wrathful synagogue threatens to assassinate the One on whom “the Spirit of the Lord” is, an acknowledged Messianic title.

In this incident, the anger of the congregation is rooted in a rejection of spiritual authority. Unhealthy congregations respond to Christ’s authority in similar fashion. The truth sometimes offends our sensibilities. We know how to be polite and courteous. We know the correct religious platitudes and pseudo-gracious words and tones to use. We can communicate ulterior meanings with certain learned tones of speech. The Chinese have nothing on us -- we in many churches have our own religious tonal language, and we use them to get our point across.

Make it pretty. Make it comfortable. Make it happy. But don’t cross the line into applying the truth, or the fury will explode. "Don’t offend our religious prejudice or we will remove you, you vile speaker of truth." The root of course is the same as plagued the Nazareth synagogue: Disdain for Christ’s authority. Some of us have been in church so long that we actually begin to believe that Christ's church belongs to us, and that we are in charge. In fact we aren’t. 
Jesus is the one who sits in authority, not you and me. Jesus walked away from the synagogue at Nazareth. He’s a gentleman. He will not force himself on those who reject his Word. How many churches are there from which Jesus perhaps has walked away? 
And we wonder why our churches are dying.


[1] Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove: Intervarsity, 1993), 199.

[2] Mark Strauss, “Luke,” Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary, Clinton E. Arnold, gen. ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 1:361: “Luke’s description here and in Acts 13:14-48 represent the oldest written accounts of Jewish synagogue services.” Keener, 200.

[3] Strauss, 364; Keener, 200. “Stoning began with throwing the criminal over a cliff, and then hurling rocks nearly the size of one’s head on top of the victim. One aimed for the chest first, but at such a distance one’s aim would not be particularly accurate.”

[4] David H. Stern, Jewish New Testament Commentary (Clarksville, MD: Jewish New Testament Publications, 1996), 114; Strauss, 362.