How quickly and how easy it is to fall out of favour with someone else.
That is what we see happening in our Gospel passage today. After Jesus’ inaugural address at his home-town in Nazareth, at first people’s opinion of him was positive. We read in verse 22, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips.”
But just a few verses later, the whole mood and temperature of the passage swings completely the opposite direction.
In verse 28 we read: “All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this.”
The Greek word ‘thoomos” speaks of being filled with passion, as if breathing hard. And can be translated as filled with fury, fierceness, indignation and wrath!
But the passage does not end there. It goes on: “They got up, drove him out of the town and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff.”
What went wrong in just six verses between verses 22 and 28?
How could it be that the synagogue could swing so quickly from speaking well of him and being amazed at his words, to becoming filled with fury, enough that they were ready to kill Jesus then and there... ready to throw him off a cliff.
What went wrong? What did Jesus say that could spark such a reaction from the synagogue congregation?
To understand it we need to go back to the passages that Jesus quoted from in Isaiah. They are a composite of verses from Isaiah 58 and 61. Words originally spoken to Jews who returned home to Palestine after a 70 year exile in Babylon.
What is interesting in the quotation is not just the words that Jesus quotes, but also the verses that Jesus leaves out.
Where Jesus speaks of proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favour, the original passage in Isaiah followed it up with a verse speaking of the day of the Lord’s vengeance. In other words, the prophet Isaiah looked forward not only to a season, or a time when God’s favour would restore the fortunes of the people of Israel, but also, he looked forward to the day when God would pour out God’s wrath and vengeance on the foreign nations, those who had treated Israel so badly.
In this passage from Luke, significantly Jesus leaves out any reference to the day of vengeance of our God.
Scholars will tell you that this is an important theme that runs through Luke’s Gospel, the theme "no more vengeance". For Luke, in Jesus, the day of vengeance has come to an end.
Later on in Luke’s Gospel, when James and John want to call down fire from heaven upon those who rejected Jesus, just like the prophet Elijah does, Jesus will have nothing to do with it. No more vengeance.
When in the garden of Gethsemane, the soldiers come to arrest Jesus, Peter pulls out a sword to defend Jesus and ends up cutting of one of their ears, Jesus immediately says: “No more of this”... no more vengeance. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says: “Those who live by the sword die by the sword”. In other words, violence only begets violence. No more vengeance.
And on the cross, after Jesus has been betrayed, mocked, abused and tortured, Jesus does not respond by hurling insults at his enemies, rather he prays that God would forgive them because they do not know what they are doing. No more vengeance.
Luke’s Gospel suggests that part of the saving work of Jesus on behalf of humanity is that he comes to end the cycle of violence, that endless tit for tat, eye for and eye, tooth for a tooth violence that by its nature never comes to an end. Jesus comes to break that cycle, with himself as the sacrificial victim in order that humanity might know peace.
His listeners in the Nazareth Synagogue at first do not pick up the fact that Jesus has omitted to speak about the day of God’s vengeance on their enemies. It only becomes evident to them when Jesus begins to speak of God’s favour and grace expressed to foreigners (in other words, their enemies) in the Old Testament.
In verse 24-25 “Truly I tell you... there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zaraphath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha, yet not one of them was cleansed – only Naaman the Syrian.”
Jesus is in effect saying to them: The year of God’s favour is not just meant for you, but also for your enemies, for they too are children of God.
In the passage, it is too much for his listeners. They are enraged by the suggestion that maybe God is not interested in meeting out vengeance upon their foreign enemies. They are enraged by the suggestion that foreigners should also be the recipients of God’s promises and God’s grace.
In their rage, they drive Jesus out of town, take him to the edge of a cliff in order to throw him off.
I have always been fascinated by verse 30 “But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.” It is like in that moment something came over them, and they were unable to do to him what they wanted to...”
It reminds me of a very powerful story from South Africa. In the 1970’s and early 80’s, Joe Seremane was a member of one of the militarised groups called the PAC, who were trying to use violence as a means to bring about change in South Africa. In the early 1980’s he was arrested and sent into solitary confinement. In solitary confinement, he would be forced to listen to his fellow prisoners being tortured, knowing that his turn would be come. And sure enough it did come. Over a period of weeks he was tortured on a regular basis for a few hours at a time. On the last occasion when he was tortured he was so badly beaten that in his semi conscious state he knew he was dying. This was it. The end was near. In this state of torture induced delerium, as he felt his life beginning to slip away, in that moment he tells how he said to God, "Here is my life, I give it back to you".
He says that at that very moment, the torture and the beating stopped and he was filled with a deep deep peace and serenity, and instead of dying as he thought was going to happen, he calmly got up from the table where he was being tortured and began to walk out back to his cell. He says that his torturers tried to stop him and continued to try and beat him, but it was as though there was something stopping them. Even though he could see their fists flying out towards him, none of their attempted blows could reach him.
That was a turning point in his life. From that moment he became a person of deep faith and trust in God and the way of Christ. Although he continued to advocate for change in South Africa it was no longer by violent means. And the South Africa he began to work towards was a South Africa that would include room for everyone, both black and white. No more vengeance.
“And they took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd, and went on his way.”