We begin this week’s gospel passage very dramatically. Jesus is in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, a middle-class town on the top of a high hill. It looked over the three trade routes that connected the major countries of the Middle East. This wasn’t a backwater town. It was quite sophisticated.
He had been asked to read the scripture. He got up, chose a passage from the prophet Isaiah that announced the coming of the Messianic time. He then ended with his own prophecy. “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” He then sat down. For us this gesture would mean that he was finished. However, in the style of the rabbis, sitting was the posture for teaching.
The usual noise of the synagogue stopped. There was a nervous silence. What was he going to say after a bombshell announcement like that? We’re not told what he said exactly. Luke only tells us of the effect his teaching had on the congregation. On the one hand, “All spoke highly of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” On the other hand, they couldn’t connect their intimate knowledge of him and his family’s very ordinary life with the extraordinary eloquence of his teaching. Word had spread that he was a miracle worker in Capernaum. Why wasn’t he performing miracles for them?!
It would be a good guess to conjecture that Jesus had spoken to them about the need to readjust one’s life in order to walk in the light of the Messianic time. His reaction to them reveals the resistance he felt from them. He told them, “Surely, you will quote me this proverb, ‘Physician, cure yourself,’ and say, ‘Do here in your native place the things that we heard were done in Capernaum.’” As so often happened, they wanted him to perform a great miracle to prove the authenticity of his message. Faith in him wasn’t enough.
He was hurt by their ambivalence toward him. He also sensed the shallowness of their faith. He wanted to tell them about the kingdom of God. He wanted to assure them of God’s unconditional love for each of them, but his message was falling on deaf ears because of their lack of faith. To get to them, he tried some shock therapy. He pointed to two powerful images from their history.
Elijah, Israel’s greatest prophet, came to the rescue of a gentile widow and her son during a terrible drought. She and her young son were on the brink of starvation when Elijah asked her for some water and bread. She told him that she was just about to bake a small loaf of bread with the last of the flour and oil she had, but that she would share it with him. She had exhibited great faith by conceding to Elijah’s request. In response to her charity to him, he told her that that her jars of flour and oil would never be empty as long as the drought persisted. What he promised came true. The jars never emptied.
Jesus noted that there were many widows in Israel at the time, but Elijah was sent to this gentile woman because of her faith. Then, he reminded them that Elijah cured Naaman, a gentile Syrian general, of leprosy. Jesus reminded them, again, that Elijah didn’t reach out to any of the lepers of Israel. He reached out to a gentile who had faith.
These two examples of faith, stung the congregation. He was criticizing their faith, and by extension, the faith of the Jewish community. He held up gentiles as examples of true faith! They rose up in fury against Jesus, “drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town had been built to hurl him down headlong.”
So much for family and friends, and the faith community. This account, so early in his ministry, proved to be a prelude to the opposition he would encounter throughout his ministry. The scribes, the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the religious leadership in Jerusalem would harass him. Eventually they would successfully plot his death. But for the meantime, “he passed through the midst of them and went away.”
It seems to me that this passage leads us to question our own faith in Jesus. When we read the scripture, do we turn a deaf ear to the teachings that challenge our way of thinking or acting? Do we interpret his teachings as messages from a time past to people of the past? In trying to find answers to our personal challenges and dilemmas, do we skirt the ultimate question “What would Jesus do?” What are we afraid of? In all honesty, what keeps us from pondering that ultimate faith question? Why, in our own way, do we respond to Jesus like the Jewish community in Nazareth? Why do we demand miracles?
I conclude this reflection with a short dialogue found in the Gospel of John. Jesus had just told the crowds that “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him, and I will raise him on the last day. For my flesh is true food and my blood true drink.” (John 6:54-55) Hearing this teaching, many disciples left him. Jesus turned to the Twelve and asked, “Do you also what to leave?” Peter answered for the group, and for all people of faith who would follow him through the centuries. “Master, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” (John 6:68)