Wednesday, 1 February 2017

A riot in the synagogue

Jesus taught in their synagogue, and everyone praised him… All spoke well of him, and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips… All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up and drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill… in order to throw him down the cliff… Luke 4:15, 22, 28-29

Hey, what’s going on here!

Jesus is just beginning his earthly ministry. He comes to his home town of Nazareth and goes to the synagogue to worship. He is invited to read and explain the scriptures. And what happens?… “Everyone praised him” (verse 15); “All spoke well of him, and were amazed” at his gracious words (verse 22). And then, “All the people were furious” and tried to sling him off the nearby cliff (verses 28-29).

What’s going on? The mood that day in the Nazareth synagogue swung wildly from amazement and admiration to anger and attempted murder in just half an hour or so. Why?

Well, what happened in that short time?

First, Jesus announced himself as God’s chosen Messiah.

He read from Isaiah 61, a passage about a messenger sent by God “to preach good news to the poor… to proclaim freedom for the prisoners… to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”. True, the word “Messiah” isn’t actually used, but the words “the Lord has anointed me” are – and “anointed” is the word from which “messiah” comes.

So, is this what upset them? No. Even if the translation “all spoke well of him” is going a bit far (and it probably is: “everyone was struck by him” might be better) their reaction is one of amazement and, perhaps, puzzlement, rather than anger.

Second, Jesus then challenged the wrong priorities of the congregation.

He quoted an old proverb to them: “No doubt you’re going to say to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ (as we might put it, ‘Charity begins at home!’)”. “All right, Jesus, we’ve heard about all those wonderful miracles you did up the road in Capernaum – well, give us a bit of the action too!”

They don’t actually say that – but Jesus can read it in their faces. And so he puts it to them that they’re interested in the wrong thing.

So, is this what upset them? Again, no. A few worried frowns might have been appearing on a few brows, but as yet they don’t try to stop him.

It’s then that the bomb goes off…

Third, Jesus reminds them that God’s love isn’t just for them.

This is truly explosive. He says, in effect:

“Do you remember those Old Testament stories, the ones about Elijah and Elisha? In Elijah’s day lots of people were in danger of starving to death. But Elijah only helped one – a poor widow, and she was from Sidon, not even an Israelite! And in Elisha’s day there were plenty of lepers around the place. But Elisha healed just one, and his name – remember it? – was Naaman, a Syrian, a captain in the enemy army…

This is the point at which “all the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this.” I wonder if any of them actually shouted: “Blasphemy! Israel first! God is for the Jews! This man is a traitor! Toss him off the cliff!”

A dramatic story. But where does it leave us? A couple of serious lessons strike me.

First, don’t follow the crowd – it can turn in a moment. We are called to focus on Jesus and follow him, even if we have to do so alone. The person who tamely “goes with the flow” is heading for disaster.

Second, don’t be mean-spirited and petty-minded. You may love your country, your town, your neighbourhood – and that’s fine. But remember: God’s love and his saving purposes are for all men and women, not just your tiny corner of the planet. Jesus can’t be domesticated.

Let me throw this in too: In these days of Brexit, and Mr Trump’s presidency, and aggressive nationalist movements around the world, does this story have anything in particular to say to us today?

Perhaps that’s a question best left hanging…

The world is the Lord’s and everything in it. God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son. Praise God for his gift of grace, given through Jesus to all humanity!

Lord Jesus, forgive me when I am blinkered and petty-minded. Please help me to see this great world as belonging to you, and all its people, of whatever colour, language or race, as those for whom you suffered and died. Amen.

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