As we said last week, the gospel today narrates the second part of the scene of Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth. It is not difficult to feel the tension that built up last week, which continues today. It builds up so much that those in the synagogue decided to kill Jesus. There is a glitch in the text which is not helpful. How can the people in the synagogue speak highly of him and the gracious words that were coming out of his mouth? It is simply one of the most gross translation mistakes in the New Testament. People are annoyed, disappointed, upset with Jesus, and the feeling does not change through the whole interaction.
Why are they upset? I suggest three reasons. The first reason is the one we discussed last weekend. Jesus has chosen a passage in Isaiah that describes the Messiah. He has read a text that describes who he is and what his mission is going to be about. The people in the synagogue expect another kind of Messiah, one that would liberate the people of Israel from the yoke of the foreign enemy.
They are also upset because these people know perfectly well that Jesus has cut Isaiah’s citation one line short. Jesus has read about the “year of favor” from God, but has intentionally decided to omit the next line, which reads “and a day of vindication by our God.” Jesus’s God is not one of political vindication. Conversely, many churchpeople still may be more comfortable today with the God of vindication than with the God of favor.
Finally, and that’s the core of this Sunday’s gospel, the people who are quite annoyed already recriminate Jesus for having done miracles in other places and not in Nazareth. Jesus replies by giving them two examples of situations in the history of Israel when God showed favor to the foreign—in a religious system that called the foreigner “impure” and forbid any interaction with them.
Now that we have done “exegesis” (studying the meaning of the text for the intended audience) how do we apply the lesson of Jesus in the synagogue in Nazareth to our lives? I suggest three applications. The first one is what we already preached last Sunday. We need to reflect whether or not as church, faith communities, families and individuals who call themselves “Christian” we are living faith according to Jesus’s mission statement: again, do we feel anointed? Do we bring good tidings to the poor with the actions we undertake inspired by our faith? Do we help to relieve captivity, in the many ways in which it presents itself in our lives?
Second, this reference to the “stranger” should make us reflect about the make-up of our faith communities. Do we welcome the stranger, the different? But I also believe it is an invitation to us to expand the limits of those we love and care for. Jesus may just be asking us to do with others (the stranger, even the enemy) what most of us do with members of our families and close friends.
Third and perhaps the most provocative: Jesus provokes conflict. He did not shy away from confronting the people in the synagogue. Our churches (the only “business” I feel a bit authorized to talk about) often become places where we simply pat people on the back. For instance, a pastor will be more popular if he preaches what people want to hear, instead of what people need to hear. If we want real growth, we have to embrace “constructive conflict.” Conflict makes us uncomfortable, but peace for the sake of peace is not conducive to real growth. If you have children, for instance, you know conflict is part of parenting. Never, for the sake of peace and safety, should we deny our convictions. It is the only path to growth.