When John, rather than Luke recounts the story of Jesus’ life and ministry he says:
“He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” (John 1:11)
To begin with, when Jesus goes to those who were most his own, in the place where he had grown up, to begin with it looks as if John may be mistaken. Jesus goes to the synagogue in Nazareth. He is handed the scroll that contains the words of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolls it and reads the familiar promises:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
Then he sits down and preaches a one sentence sermon:
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
At first the response among his own is entirely positive. They had heard nothing like it before. No one previously had come to them and said that what God had been promising God would do. Yet here was Jesus saying exactly that. And for a moment, when he said it, it seemed entirely credible. They could believe that that is exactly what God is about to do.
All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.
For a moment Jesus is accepted be his own. Then the mood turns and John’s words turn out to be true after all. The turn in the congregation’s reaction emerges and is summed up in the question they pose to themselves about Jesus’ identity. They say:
“Is not this Joseph’s son?”
This question, and the underlying mood which prompts it, is ambiguous. It can mean more than one thing.
Some in the congregation continue to be amazed and impressed by what Jesus is saying. And their amazement and delight is increased by their recognition of Jesus as one of their own. They hear Jesus read the prophet’s promises and hear him say that they are fulfilled right here and right now, and they say to themselves, “and to think, this is Joseph’s son!” They have known him more or less his whole life, and they have known Joseph longer. They whisper: “To think that the one who God is sending us has been so close to us all along.” Their wounded pride as Galileans is soothed.
Their retort to those in Jerusalem who would say “no prophet is to arise from Galilee.” (John 7:52) can now be: “It seems you are wrong, since here is one of us who is indeed a prophet from Galilee.” And as Nazareans they can reply to those who ask, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46), “Yes something good does come from Nazareth, look what Jesus is doing!” Of course what this makes them think is that their proximity to Jesus, his familiarity with them will confer some special privilege. Because Jesus is their own, they will be able take hold of him and get him for fulfil their wishes. They imagine that their closeness to him will enable them to use him for their own ends. Typically Jesus catches on to their mood and says:
“Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ “
He knows that they will expect that charity begins at home. The doctor should heal himself, or if not himself, he should heal his own. There can be an expectation that those closest to Jesus should be those to benefit most, that knowing Jesus well should confer some sort of privilege. It is easy to fall into thinking that God’s promises should be fulfilled first and best for those who claim Jesus for themselves.
Of course some of those who asked: “Is not this Joseph’s son?” did so with a different tone in their voices. As much as that question can express amazement, it can also express scepticism. “This is Joseph’s son isn’t it?” How could someone they knew so well make such an astonishing claim about himself. They have heard what Jesus has been doing in Capernaum and those other places. But seeing is believing. It’s time for Jesus to prove to his own who he really is. Why should they have to rely on hearsay reports of what he has done for others? They would like to take hold of Jesus and make him prove what he can do.
Of course one such proof would never be enough. To people who harbour such scepticism Jesus would have to keep proving himself again and again. He replies to his sceptics:
“Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”
Familiarity, they say, breeds contempt. Well if not contempt, at the very least it breeds scepticism. Those who know Jesus best sometimes come to doubt that he really can do what he says. They know he is just like them, and they know they cannot do what he claims to do, and if they cannot, then surely he cannot, unless he proves otherwise. But no amount of proof could ever remove that lingering doubt. It is a hole in their souls which could never be filled They would hold on to Jesus always demanding that he convince them some more. He would never be free of the demands that grew out of their lack of faith.
Of course the congregation in Nazareth is mistaken. Their rhetorical question: “Is not this Joseph’s son?” rests on a kind of misidentification. The Jesus they have always know is the boy who grew up in Joseph the carpenters house. But those of us who have been reading his story have seen something which they have never been shown. In the first three chapters of his book Luke has gone to considerable lengths to demonstrate who Jesus is, and whose son he is. The miraculous character of his conception, the amazing events that surround his birth, his own sense of himself as a twelve year old, and the voice of God itself, have all pointed us to one truth about Jesus. He is God’s Son. The congregation at Nazareth are mistaken about what it is about Jesus that enables him to say and do what he does. And they will never be able to take hold of him and use him for themselves. Jesus reminds them of the stories of two ancient prophets. He alludes to the story of Elijah who in the midst of a famine was sent not to feed his own but a widow outside of Israel at Sidon. And he reminds them of the story of Elisha who of all the lepers he might have healed, he did not heal one of his own but Naaman who was a general in the army of their enemy Syria. Much as anyone might like to, they cannot keep God for themselves. God’s grace will go where it goes. No one can take hold of it and keep it for themselves. God will not act for you, just because you imagine you have some claim on God. God will act in Capernaum or Sidon or somewhere else, or God will here when you don’t expect it!
All this is too much for the congregation in the synagogue at Nazareth to take. Jesus has provoked them beyond their patience with one of their own. Still they want to lay hands on him, and take him and make him go where they want him to go. But if they can’t have him, no one else will:
They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.
Perhaps they thought that God would save Jesus from harm in such a fall, and they would get the proof the were looking for after all! The impulse to control Jesus and get from him what you want is very strong. When Jesus won’t deliver on your wishfulness, the desire to destroy him can be even stronger. But you cannot hold on to Jesus. He will slip through your fingers. You cannot make him do for you what you want, but no more can you hold him tight enough to destroy him. The people of Nazareth found they could not get him over they edge of the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way. Jesus goes on give the same announcement of Good News to anyone and everyone who will receive it. But he also goes on to provoke those who imagine they have a claim on him or who think they can control him for themselves. With the same result! Even when they can hold him down long enough to nail him to a cross, Jesus still slips through their fingers. And in the resurrection he still goes on to announce the Good News of God’s kingdom, wherever and whenever the grace of God wills it.
Is Not This Joseph’s Son by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0