Jesus Raises a Ruckus Pt. 1
March 1, 2020
Imagine the scene with me: Jesus has just returned home to Nazareth, the place he grew up. His public ministry has freshly begun and word of him has already traveled back to his hometown. There’s something special about him; some think he’s a prophet some wonder if he’s more. Tidbits about Jesus’ miraculous healings and prophetic signs come on the tongues of messengers. And now as Jesus shows up, a crowd forms to see whether the rumors are true. Is this really Joseph’s son? The carpenter?
We can imagine what it would be like if someone grew up in Cheney and went off to play professional football in the NFL or went on to become a prominent politician or lawyer. When they returned to Cheney it would be a big deal. People would gather to hear them speak. Their old elementary school teachers would talk about how “I remember when he was just this tall and picked his nose in my class.” There would be a sense of pride and ownership: our town produced this young person! This is the hometown boy who is off in the big leagues but has returned home to visit.
And so Jesus, the hometown boy, goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, as was his custom. And of course a crowd gathers. We can imagine almost everyone in town would show up to see this, as they wait for Jesus to work a miracle or produce some wondrous sign. As Jesus stands up in the midst of the crowd, he is handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. It was customary for someone like Jesus to stand up, read a passage from the Hebrew Scriptures and then interpret or expound its meaning.
So Jesus unrolls the scroll and searches for a specific place in the scroll that he has in mind. He finds it and reads it out loud: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Then he rolls up the scroll, hands it back to the attendant and sits down. We can imagine the palpable air of expectation as the crowd eagerly awaits what Jesus will say next.
As silence fills the room, Jesus says, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In other words, “yeah, that passage is talking about me.” The crowd is gushing with excitement now. The hometown boy is back and seems to be specially favored by God. This passage would have been a well-known one to the Jews. It spoke about God’s coming Messiah, the one who would free them from Roman oppression. This was good news if one of their own was specially appointed by God! And this could mean only good things for the town! They want to see his signs and wonders to confirm whether it’s true. They expect special treatment.
As if he knows what they’re thinking, Jesus basically says to them, “I know you want me to show you the signs that I am indeed the fulfillment of this amazing proclamation of good news. You want me to do the signs I did back in Capernaum.” The crowd is sitting on the edge of their seats, ready for a miracle.
But then Jesus says something strange and unexpected: “Truly I tell you that no prophet is acceptable in his hometown.” And then he goes on to share two stories that to our ears seem completely out of left field.
He recalls two stories from the Hebrew Scriptures that feature two of Israel’s most prominent prophets: Elijah and Elisha. In one, Elijah visits a widow during a great famine. There were many widows in Israel, but Elijah chose to go to one particular woman. Her name was Zaraphath, and she was…wait for it…a Sidonian. Gasp!! Now if this doesn’t mean anything to you, then don’t worry, you’re in good company. Just hang on.
And in the second story, Elisha, Elijah’s protégé, heals a leper. There were many lepers in Israel, but Elisha heals one in particular. His name is Naaman, and he was…wait for it…a Syrian. Gasp!! Now if this still doesn’t mean anything to you, then don’t worry, you’re still in good company.
Though these stories leave us a little more than confused, the crowd is absolutely livid. Luke says that they were filled with wrath! We may not know what Jesus did wrong, but the crowd certainly did. They rise up and drive him out of town. They force him out to the brow of a hill so that they can throw him off the cliff. Well, that took a quick turn. From hometown hero to hometown zero in the matter of one afternoon.
But as if this turn in the story weren’t strange enough, Luke concludes by telling us that as Jesus is surrounded by the angry mob about to push him off the cliff, he simply walks through their midst untouched and goes on his way. If you’re left scratching your head, then yes, you probably read this passage right. Stories like this in Scripture remind us that of course we can’t just open this 2000 year old book and expect to understand absolutely everything on our first read through. We need some context.
And so to understand what the heck is going on in this passage and why the crowd turned from star-struck fans to angry mob in a matter of moments, we need a brief history lesson.
In Genesis chapter 9 (yes, we’re going back all the way to the beginning) there’s a man named Noah who planted a vineyard (this is after his exciting boat ride), then he gets drunk and ends up naked. His son Ham sees him, tells his brothers, they cover him up and from there things get ugly. Noah wakes up, realizes what has happened and curses Ham’s family, beginning with Ham’s son Canaan. Because that seems fair, right?
In the ancient world, cursing was a big deal, especially when it was from your father. It was more than just words – it about your father’s favor, your father’s blessing, your father’s validation. To be cursed was devastating—it stayed with you, it haunted you, it hung over your life like a dark cloud.
So Ham’s son Canaan was cursed, which meant that Canaan’s sons were cursed. And Canaan’s firstborn son was Sidon. Recognize that name? Yep, the same Sidon who Zarephath is a descendant of, the widow Jesus tells the story about, whom Elijah came to during the famine.
So Sidon was cursed, but he eventually becomes the father of a nation – they were known as the Sidonians and they pop up in the Bible again and again and again.
In Judges 10 the Sidonians conquer and oppress the Israelites.
In 1 and 2 Kings the Israelite king Ahab marries the Sidonian princess Jezebel, who turns out to be major trouble.
The prophet Isaiah predicts terrible things for the Sidonians, telling them to be silent and ashamed, and that they will find no rest because of all the wrong they’ve done (Isaiah 23).
The prophet Jeremiah talks about the coming day when there will be no help for Sidon (Jer. 25, 47).
And Ezekiel, never one to miss a chance to heap judgment on his neighbors, talks about the Sidonians going down with the slain in disgrace (Ezek. 27, 28, 32).
The Sidonians, as I’m assuming you’re seeing here, are the bad guys in the story. They’re the proverbial bad neighbors, the evil empire, the oppressors next door.
Also, just a side note – it’s interesting to see how all of this bad blood and fighting starts with a father cursing his son, but the wound festers for generations and eventually the son’s nation is oppressing the father’s nation. Wounds always linger and spread, don’t they?
So the Sidonians are bad guys. That’s been thoroughly established. And by citing the story of Elijah caring for Zarephath, the Sidonian widow, Jesus has just tossed on a few gallons of gasoline onto the fire. He basically told them: “you thought the year of the Lord’s favor was only for you, but it’s also for these people you hate.
And who is this other guy Jesus refers to? Naaman? A Syrian? Oh yeah, the Syrians are real bad too. I’ll save you the gory details, but the Syrians were another nation who were locked with Israel in battle over and over again. Amos, Jeremiah and Zechariah all speak against Syria, prophesying that Syria’s capital shall burn to the ground, her young men shall fall in the streets and all her soldiers shall fall silent (Jer. 49). But Naaman isn’t just any old Syrian, he’s a General in the Syrian army.
So now, just to make sure we’re all on the same page, Jesus has in effect told his hometown that he didn’t come to do signs and wonders for them, but he came for the bad guys – the Sidonians, the Syrians, the Gentiles. If you want to woo a crowd this is not what you tell them! This would be like a Democratic presidential candidate standing up at the Democratic debate and saying that we need to first and foremost take care of Republican concerns. Or it would be like the president of a nation stating in a public address that his mission is to care first for the needs of the surrounding nations, before their own.
That would be ridiculous! They’d be called a traitor. We’d take them to a cliff and try to throw them off. Jesus has just gotten himself in big trouble.
In Jesus’ day generations of animosity had been building against these other nations. The Syrians didn’t really exist anymore at this point, but the Sidonians certainly did. And most people from the Jewish tribe wouldn’t even dare to go to Sidon or to talk to someone from Sidon. This bias went all the way back to the story about Noah, and as we know from our world, when bigotry and hatred have generations to fester, they can become very, very entrenched.
So that was the common belief among Jesus’ tribe: we’re the faithful the chosen, the ones God loves. We’re in; enemies like the Sidonians, the Gentiles are out. We’re on God’s side; they’re not.
Does any of this thinking sound familiar to you at all? It’s probably because we still think the same way. Some things never change. We still divide ourselves into groups to determine who is in and who is out. “Oh us democrats are definitely on God’s side, and those Republicans can’t be.” “As Americans we’re God’s special and blessed nation; unlike those other nations.” As individuals and as groups we carry grudges from wounds that have festered and we assume that God has those same grudges. We all assume God’s special favor should rest upon us, upon our group, our tribe. Jesus is our hometown boy!
We are not so different from the Nazarenes who assume they own Jesus’ allegiance and favor. And they have pretty good reasons to believe that Jesus is in fact on their side. The Syrians picked fights with them; the Sidonians were cursed.
And Jesus couldn’t care less. He simply dismisses the history of his tribe with these other tribes. In his first public act of ministry he declares that he has come exactly for these people. He came to heal the wound between tribes, literally by healing actual people from Sidon and Syria throughout the Gospels.
And then, to take it way, way further, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus insists that these hated enemy Sidonians are actually in better standing with God than the people who believe they have favored status with God. According to Jesus, better to be a Sidonian than a devoted religious person who thinks the Sidonians are cursed and ill-favored by God. Whoa.
And check this out – this is so cool: Jesus is reading to the crowd from Isaiah 61. He quotes verbatim, but he doesn’t finish the actual passage—the passage goes on. He stops short. He ends with “I have come to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” What is the very next verse that Jesus leaves out, you ask? “To proclaim the day of vengeance of our Lord.” Jesus intentionally leaves out the bit about vengeance, the bit that the hometown crowd thirsted for and knew came next. Jesus tries the shut the book on vengeance. He in effect says, “No, this isn’t why I came.”
“In a highly religious culture like the one Jesus lived in, people held their views and convictions and loyalties with clenched fists. (Hmm, kind of like now.) Stories about who had God’s favor and who didn’t, who was cursed and who wasn’t, held tremendous power.
We are very interested in who is in and who is out, who has God’s favor and blessing, and who does not. But according to Jesus, God is interested in something else. God is interested in how open you are to what the Spirit is doing in this moment. How receptive is your heart to a fresh word about grace? Are you hungry to learn, to grow, to be transformed? Do you want to see things in a new way?
Because if that’s the desire, it doesn’t matter where you’re from.
Should we kill our enemies? No, Jesus said to love them.
Should we make judgments about who is in and who is out? Whenever people did, Jesus quickly and decisively acted to include whoever had been excluded.
What about the curse that was so important to Jesus’ tribe for so many years? He invites his tribe to leave it behind.” (Rob Bell)
But the thing about grudges is that we don’t want to be told to leave them behind. We like to let them sit and fester because that gives us power, it gives us ammunition, it gives us a smug sense of self-righteousness.
Jesus’ hometown wasn’t ready to give up their hostility or their grudge. They liked the idea of Jesus—they liked the hometown boy who they thought would come shower them with favor and blessings. They were ok with the idea of Jesus, but not the incarnation of Jesus. They liked the idea of the Messiah who came to save them, not the Messiah who came to also save their enemies. They didn’t like this Jesus. This Jesus threatened their power and way of life. He threatened their grudges and their self-identity as a tribe who are God’s chosen ones!
Some of us don’t like this Jesus either. We prefer the Jesus who is for us and against our enemies. We like the personalized savior version that comes on a neat little key chain that we can keep in our own pocket at all times.
But the Jesus who showed up was different than we expected. He asks us to leave our grudges behind. He calls us to reconcile with our enemies. He asks us to get rid of our group mentalities that exclude and leave out. He jostled our expectations about who he is and who he belongs to. The moment we begin to think that Jesus belongs to our group and that he’s our hometown boy is the moment that he passes right through our midst and goes on his way, just as he did in Nazareth. When we try to claim Jesus all for our own, he passes through our midst like a cloud of vapor.
Jesus came to show us a new way to live, a new way to reconcile and heal old wounds. And for all this Jesus was eventually killed on the cross.
Jesus was killed because he didn’t play by our preferred rules of the game. He broke the rules and called the whole game into question. He raised a ruckus. From the very beginning of Jesus’ public ministry here in Luke 4, we already see that Jesus’ journey will inevitably lead him to the cross.
But even as Jesus was killed on the cross, he says, “Father, forgive them.” Jesus’ forgiveness extends not only to the Sidonians and the Syrians, but also to his hometown Nazareth, and to you and to me.
The cross reveals how exclusive, how unforgiving and how unmerciful we can be. But the cross also reveals how radically inclusive, how incredibly forgiving and how extravagantly merciful our God is. Jesus beckons us, much like his hometown, to seek this new way of living.
Jesus invites us to open our hearts to receive a fresh word of grace. A word that has the power to transform the whole world, starting with us here and now. This word is grace. It is a word that does not belong only to you and to me; it is a word that belongs to the whole world. Because God’s grace does not know how to exclude; God’s grace only knows how to include. Amen.
(Much credit for this sermon idea and content goes to Rob Bell, from his chapter on the Sidonians in What is the Bible?)