“And they took offense at him.”
After raising the little girl from the dead in Capernaum, Jesus set out on foot for his childhood home of Nazareth, a distance of about twenty miles as the crow flies. As far as we know, the trip was uneventful, and Jesus’ homecoming was probably similarly low-key. Nazareth was a hardscrabble farming village in the Galilean hill country. It boasted only a few hundred residents and was held in some contempt by neighboring communities. It had only one well. The Nazarenes may have been poor, but they were proud. There’s was a conservative town, fierce in its adherence to Jewish tradition in a part of the world that had been strongly impacted by Greco-Roman culture and mores. The villagers spoke Aramaic, a language with a strong poetic tradition, and young men were expected to be literate and good speakers. They worked hard to eke out a living and pay their taxes. They tried to live in peace. Being observant Jews, the Nazarenes valued the traditions of Moses and the prophets: they circumcised their sons, refrained from working on the Sabbath, celebrated Passover, and made pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem when they could. Community was born of shared traditions and shared hardship.
All that said, in Nazareth, as in most communities, there was a pecking order. Sure, they may have been a relatively egalitarian bunch, but some were inevitably “more equal” than others. We don’t know exactly what the Nazarene hierarchy looked like—the village rabbi was probably at or near the top, then the town elders followed by the top trades and crafts people. They were the ones who got to sit on the benches, resting their backs against the wall on three sides of the synagogue. Everyone else sat on the floor. And while we can’t say for certain who was privileged enough to rate a bench seat there in the synagogue in Nazareth, we can be pretty sure that Jesus’ wasn’t one of them. Heck, he might have made some of those benches, but he normally didn’t get to sit on them. I can think of at least one good reason for this: he’d left town! There’s no reliable record, biblical or otherwise, of precisely what Jesus was up to from the time his parents thought they’d lost him in Jerusalem (when he was twelve) and his baptism by John in the Jordan. But consider this: Jesus had likely been trained by his earthly father Joseph to be a carpenter, and there just wasn’t a lot of carpentry work to be done in a barebones place like Nazareth. And Joseph, for whatever reason, seems to have dropped out of the story by this point in the Gospel narrative. So, it’s not unreasonable to imagine Jesus coming and going, to and from his hometown quite a bit for who knows how many years, plying his trade in neighboring cities and towns in order to help his family make ends meet. And, in any case, by the time of our Gospel reading today, Jesus had been using Capernaum as his home base, tramping all over Galilee spreading the Good News of God’s coming kingdom for the better part of three years. Of course, there were stories and rumors of healings and other deeds of power done by Jesus elsewhere in the region, but not in work-a-day Nazareth.
And so, I suppose, it’s no wonder that the powers-that-be got a little bit of “whiplash” when someone they had known as Yeshua, “the carpenter’s son,” came to town speaking with authority, and threatening to turn their world upside down. Word had it that he was saying stuff and doing stuff—all sorts of signs!—that that made folks wonder if he might not just be “the One,” the foretold Messiah. But how could this be? The Jews had always been taught to expect a savior who would be a prophet like Moses, or a king like David… some larger-than-life deliverer who would smite their enemies and rescue God’s Chosen People from all of their troubles. And so, these Nazarene traditionalists might be excused for thinking that this upstart homeboy just didn’t fit the bill. You know, the Gospel writer doesn’t tell us exactly what Jesus was teaching that day in the synagogue. But I’m pretty sure it wasn’t high-and-mighty “messianic” stuff like the necessity of booting the Romans out of the ancestral Jewish homeland and bringing all of the gentile nations to worship at the feet of the God of Abraham. No. That’s the sort of stuff we think a messiah should talk about. Certainly, it’s the sort of stuff we’d be talking about if we were the messiah. But if Jesus was talking about the sort of stuff he usually talked about when he was teaching, he was probably talking about… putting God first, and then living one’s life as if that was the case. And loving one’s neighbors, even one’s enemies, and then living one’s life as if that was the case. And being faithful (Matt 5:27-32). About the need to treat others fairly (Matt 7:12), and the risks inherent in judging a brother or a sister (Matt 7:2). About the need to feed the hungry, visit those sick and in prison and take in strangers (Matt 25:35-40). And here’s where it gets interesting: about turning the other cheek… and sacrificing oneself… and going the extra mile (Matt 5:38-42), even when people have no right to ask such a thing of you. And I could go on.
Not very messianic stuff is it? At least not if what you’re looking for in a messiah is a prophet like Moses or a king like David. And so, the folks in the synagogue that day, likely egged on by their leaders, took offense and rejected Jesus. Perhaps a better translation of “they took offense” would be that “they were scandalized,” from the Greek “skandalon,” which means “a stone that trips a person.” Jesus’ teachings had somehow managed to trip them up… set all of their preconceived notions about religion topsy-turvy. And so, in order to regain some sort of equilibrium, the people in the synagogue that day had a choice to make: would they choose to believe Jesus’ message, amend their lives and buy into the new thing God was doing in the world? Or would they cling to old ways, and old beliefs, and send Jesus packing? And it seems that most (though perhaps not all) of the folks in Jesus’ hometown chose the latter course. “And he could do no deed of power there [as he had in Capernaum and other places], except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.” And here’s the thing, I’m guessing that it was the faithful few who found solace and healing in Jesus’ touch. How many times in the gospels do we hear Jesus telling someone who’s been healed, “Your faith has made you well,” as he did the woman suffering from the twelve-year hemorrhage in last week’s Gospel story? Jesus never forces healing on anyone. There’s a choice to be made. God’s arms are always open, but we must accept the embrace.
And so, I have a question for you. If you had been in the synagogue in Nazareth, all those many years ago, what choice would you have made? Or better yet, what if Jesus was right here, right now, asking you to give up all of your preconceived notions about the way the world should work, and politics, and justice, and personal accomplishment: who deserves what, and what constitutes a life well spent? What if Jesus was right here, right now, asking you to reconsider everything you think you ever knew? And to start living your life in accordance with this new understanding? What choice would you make? I like to think I’d make the “right” choice. I like to think I’d choose to open myself to the new thing God is doing in the world, a thing that requires my complete and unreserved “buy in” if it’s to become a reality. The reality of God’s Kingdom come. Not because God can’t do it on his own, but because God never forces healing on anyone. We, each of us and all of us, inch just a little closer to salvation—on our own appointed road to kingdom come—when we give ourselves completely and unreservedly to doing God’s work in the world. So, it’s a choice. And I like to think I’d do the right thing but, Lord knows, sometimes I seek the easy way. Sometimes I choose the path of least resistance, whereupon I can walk comfortably, secure in the knowledge that I won’t be challenged to venture too far outside my comfort zone helping to spread God’s message to the world. It’s a great job if you can get it, right? But it’s a false path and I know it. The work of evangelism is hard and unrelenting—but rewarding beyond belief. So, I do the best I can to be aware of the stumbling blocks God sets before me, not so much to avoid them, but because they help me know I’m on the right path. Whenever I’m a little uncomfortable, I know I’m generally on the right path. And when I’m really uncomfortable, when I trip and fall flat on my face, I know I’m “getting warmer.” So, stumbling’s not a bad thing. It’s what you do afterwards that counts.
Perhaps you’ll not be surprised to learn that I’ve got another song to play for you today. Third time in three weeks. I guess y’all are just lucky. The song is by Michael Card, and it’s titled “Scandelon.” I hope you find it edifying.
Watch the video: Scandalon