Jesus rejected at Nazareth (Lk 4:21-30)

If you were here last week, you will remember that our reading from last week included Jesus’ ‘Messianic manifesto’. The agenda for action during his earthly ministry.

Luke tells us that Jesus returned to his hometown to set out his stall, just like a politician might return to their constituency to announce their candidacy for their party’s leadership. And so it was in Nazareth, in an otherwise small and insignificant community, where the Saviour of the World announced the start of his public ministry.

So what was in Jesus’ manifesto? Well, as we heard last week, Jesus unrolled the scroll of Isaiah that he had been given, and “found the place where it is written: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

With those words, the carpenters’ son was claiming to be the long-awaited Christ. Mary’s boy was declaring himself to be the Heaven-sent Messiah. Just imagine the scene in that Synagogue – mouths must have hung open, jaws must have dropped! It was a truly staggering claim for this thirty-year old man to make. No wonder Luke tells us that “The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him.”

Its important we understand what Jesus meant when he said that he’d come to proclaim good news for the poor, freedom for prisoners, liberty for the oppressed, sight for the blind and so on. Many people interpret this messianic manifesto in a very literal, political and socio-economic way. They think that Jesus was committing himself to a programme of revolutionary political activity and social action. But this is a mistake.

To understand what Jesus’ manifesto was (and is) really about, we need to go back to Isaiah chapter 61 – the passage Jesus read out in the synagogue. In that passage the people Isaiah was referring to are the people of Israel in exile. The poor, oppressed people that Isaiah was writing about were the people of Israel in captivity in Babylon – the people of Israel languishing far from home because they had rebelled against God and experienced the judgement of exile.

Isaiah’s original audience were a people who were spiritually poor, in slavery to sin, and imprisoned by guilt. People who were morally blind and in need of God’s favour and forgivness.

Of course, those Jews marooned in Babylon were no different to the rest of us. Our Bible and our conscience both say that all human beings are in need of a Saviour from sin, in need of someone to restore our relationship with God

And that’s where Jesus’ manifesto comes in. In his commentary on this passage, William Taylor writes: “Jesus’ manifesto has everything to do with his mission to rescue men and women from their own sin and spiritual ignorance, and from God’s judgement – and little to do with economics, fair trade, environmental action or medical aid” – worthy though all those things are.

Rejection – the wrong response to Jesus

And so, as we turn to our passage today, we discover how Jesus’ dramatic announcement went down with his immediate neighbours. How well was his messianic manifesto received in his hometown?

Well, the initial, superficial signs were promising. If you look at verse 22 today, you’ll see that “all spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips.” It seems that, initially at least, the residents of Nazareth were impressed by Jesus’ eloquence and authoritative public speaking.

But Luke quickly adds that they began to ask themselves “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” Could this young man, this carpenter’s son really be the Spirit-filled Messiah that all Israel had been hoping for? Could he really be the one who would fulfil their expectation of a ruler to throw out the Roman occupiers and exalt Israel in the eyes of the surrounding nations? Many, if not all, of those present in the synagogue that day must have seriously wondered whether Jesus was getting ideas above his station, and suffering from delusions of grandeur!

Jesus could clearly read their minds – or at least the read the mood of the room – because he said to them: “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.’”

Jesus knew that they wanted more proof of his Messianic identity. The residents of Nazareth didn’t trust the testimony of people in Capernaum that Jesus could perform miracles. They wanted to see signs and wonders with their own eyes.
The attitude of unbelief that Jesus detected in the hearts of the Nazarenes reminded him of the rough reception that Old Testament prophets had often received in their own home towns. The scepticism of the Nazareth synagogue was sad and sinful – but nothing new. “Truly I tell you,” says Jesus in verse 24, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown.”

He then proceeds to tell two Old Testament stories. Two stories about prophets of Israel who were sent by God to minister to Gentiles, because the people of Israel were unworthy of them. Two prophets (Elijah and Elisha) who ministered at a time when the nation of Israel was at a spiritual low ebb – a time when the nation was disobedient to God and disbelieving of his word.

In those circumstances, Elijah and Elisha were used by God to bless two Gentiles. One was a widow of Sidon who needed a miraculous provision of food in the midst of a famine. And the other was a Syrian military commander named Naaman who needed cleansing from leprosy. You can read about both events in the books of 1 and 2 Kings respectively.

By telling these two stories, Jesus was warning the residents of Nazareth in particular (and the people of Israel in general) that if they rejected him he would pour out his Messianic blessings on foreigners instead of them. Gentiles would get ahead of Jews in the queue.

And, of course, that’s exactly what we see in the rest of the New Testament, especially in the book of Acts. The persecution of the first Christians by the Jewish authorities led to the growth of the Church amongst Gentiles. Non-Jews came to believe in Jesus after many of his compatriots had rejected him.

Unsurprisingly, Jesus’ two stories went down very badly in the Nazareth synagogue. They did not want to be told that God might bless Gentiles instead of them. They did not want to be told they were spiritually blind by this son of Joseph – by this carpenter’s boy with an over-inflated ego!

And so verses 28 and 29 today tell us that, in their fury, all the people in the synagogue “got up, drove [Jesus] out of the town” and… tried to “throw him off a cliff. Thankfully their assassination attempt failed. Whether it was by a miracle or merely by keeping a cool head, Luke tells us Jesus was able to “walk right through the crowd” and continue on his way. One day, in Jerusalem, Jesus would be condemned to death by an angry crowd – but today was not the day. He still had his Messianic mission to fulfil. A mission that would never take him to Nazareth again. A mission that his home town, tragically, would play no further part in.

Trust him and tell others – the right response to Jesus

So as I finish, how are we to respond rightly to Jesus’ messianic manifesto? How do we avoid making the same tragic mistake as those who sat in the Nazareth synagogue? Let me make a couple of quick suggestions.

Our first obligation, obviously, is to take Jesus at his word. We are to trust his claims to be the Spirit-filled Saviour of the World. Living, as we do, on this side of his resurrection, we have ample evidence that he was indeed the God-given Messiah, not merely Joseph’s boy.

Secondly, assuming we are already Christians here this morning, then our obligation is to make Jesus’ manifesto more widely known. Do you remember Jesus’ final sentence in his messianic mission statement? He said he had come to “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” That’s a wonderful summary of our responsibility as Christians today – to announce the good news of the Gospel to our society.

Most people in our community are not Christian believers. They urgently need to know that in Jesus Christ their liberator, their Spirit-filled Saviour has come. Pray that the eyes of the spiritually blind will be opened, and that people will be liberated from feelings of guilt, grief and God-forsakenness by turning to Christ. Its our responsibility and privilege to be able to share with our family, friends and neighbours the salvation that is offered to all by Jesus – the carpenter’s son and Son of God.

Phil Weston