Sunday, January 23, 2022

A Rough and Tumble Reception

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Below is a rough translation and some preliminary notes for Luke 4:22-30, the gospel reading for the fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary. 
This is a very confrontational scene, which ends with the people of Nazareth pushing Jesus to a cliff and trying to kill him. Last week’s reading (vv.14-21) was quite different. Last week we learned that Jesus was ‘nurtured’ in Nazareth and that one of the customs that was given to him was to go to the synagogue on the day of the Sabbath. Last week, the synagogue in Nazareth was the place which had the scrolls of the prophet Isaiah that Jesus read. 
But that was last week. This week, things go sour in a hurry. 
One way of looking at this story is to ask whether the people of Nazareth had a sense of exceptionalism, a feeling that they were entitled to a greater share of the good news that this anointed one – one of their own – was given to share. I relate this issue to a larger issue that any people of God face when they view themselves as elected - a valid way of viewing oneself, in my opinion, but a view that has to face the issue that Jesus raises here. Does being the elect mean that the good news is to us, or that the good news is to others through us? I feel that something like that question is latent throughout the Hebrew Bible and is at play here. 
Another way of approaching the story is to say that Jesus himself seems to provoke this episode by assuming that his people expect his favor but will not accept him as a prophet. Up until v. 23, the narrator’s comments about the crowd seem to be quite positive. 

22 Καὶ πάντες ἐμαρτύρουν αὐτῷ καὶ ἐθαύμαζον  τοῖς λόγοις τῆς χάριτος
τοῖς ἐκπορευομένοις ἐκ τοῦ στόματος αὐτοῦ, καὶ ἔλεγον, Οὐχὶ υἱός ἐστιν 
Ἰωσὴφ οὗτος; 
And all were bearing witness to him and were marveling over the words of grace which were coming out of his mouth, and said, “Is this not a son of Joseph?” 
ἐμαρτύρουν: IAI, 3p, μαρτυρέω, 1) to be a witness, to bear witness, 
ἐθαύμαζον: IAI 3p, θαυμάζω, 1) to wonder, wonder at, marvel  2) to be wondered at, to be had in admiration
ἐκπορευομένοις: PMPart dpm, ἐκπορεύομαι, 1) to go forth, go out, depart 
ἔλεγον: IAI 3p, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  1a) affirm over, maintain 
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. This is an interesting use of the word μαρτυρέω, ‘to witness.’ One expects a direct object, in the accusative case, to say that they ‘witnessed him.’ But, it the verb has a direct object in the dative case, which typically would be, ‘they witnessed to him.’ But, it does not seem to be the case that the crowds are bearing witness ‘to’ Jesus, but are looking at one another and speaking ‘about’ him, which typically would have the preposition πἐρὶ or ‘of’ him in the genitive case. Of note, this phrase, ἐμαρτύρουν αὐτῷ, becomes “spoke well of him” in the NRSV, NIV, and ESV. 
2. The question regarding Jesus’ family could be fairly benign and, coming on the heels of people speaking well (if that is how one chooses to interpret ‘μαρτυρέω’) and ‘marveling,’ one could expect that it is well-intended. However, the word ‘marvel’ (θαυμάζω) in Luke has a long use and not every time is positive. It could be a challenge. In Luke 9:43-44, just after Jesus liberates a young man from demonic oppression, Luke says that when the people are marveling at Jesus, he turns to his disciples and tells them (for the second time) that he will be crucified. 
3. Whatever the intention of this verse, it seems to be a turning point, or to evoke a turning point, because Jesus immediately responds with challenging words that position him against the crowd. It seems to me that the interpretive issue over this verse - and indeed an interpretive question for the dramatic events that follow - is whether the 'marveling' and this question is meant as a challenge, in the nature of "who does he think he is, speaking about grace in this way?" Or, whether it is a welcoming response to which, for whatever reason, Jesus provokes the events that follow with his challenge in v.23. 
4. One argument that I have heard is that by asking, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” the local folks are challenging and denying the whole meaning of the birth narrative, which establishes Jesus as much more than Joseph’s son. That does not seem valid to me for 2 reasons. First, it would seem that a challenging question like that would need to be separated from the people ‘witnessing’ and ‘marveling’ by something like a “but” rather than an “and.” Second, the birth narrative seems to me to have existed independent of the rest of Luke’s gospel at some point, rather than a reference to which the gospel keeps pointing. I suspect it was added later, but of course I wasn’t there to see how the gospel unfolded orally then written. 
I should add that, on later reflection, I'm a little more open to this argument. It is not so much the argument per se that I find more plausible, but I find my objections to it less plausible. I feel like I have begun to see some deliberate connections between the birth narrative - specifically the focus on Nazareth as the home to which Mary, Joseph, and Jesus keep returning (contra Matthew), and the focus on the Spirit throughout - and this story.
5. It feels that this question is provocative, but not because it denies Jesus’ divine conception. Rather, I think it is an attempt to claim Jesus as their own, to domesticate him into a local house priest, filled with the expectation that whatever he has been doing abroad he will surely do and more here in his home town. Admittedly, I wouldn’t think that except for what happens in the following verses. 
6. Here are the uses of θαυμάζωin Luke. 
Luk 1:21
...the people marveled that Zacharias was in the tent so long.
Luk 1:63
...the people marveled when Zacharias named his son “John”
Luk 2:18
...people marveled at the story of the shepherds
Luk 2:33
...Joseph and Mary marveled over Simeon’s words about Jesus
Luk 4:22
...our text today...
Luk 7:9
...Jesus marveled at the faith of a centurion
Luk 8:25
...the disciples marveled that the winds and waves obey Jesus
Luk 9:43
...(see n.2 above) the crowd marvels at Jesus casting out a demon
Luk 11:14
...again a response to Jesus casting out a demon and a mute speaking
Luk 11:38
...a Pharisee marvels that Jesus didn’t wash properly before eating
Luk 20:26
...scribes and chief priests marvel at Jesus’ responses to their traps
Luk 24:12
...Peter marvels at the linens in the empty tomb
Luk 24:41
...the disciples joyously marvel when the risen Christ visits them
7. Okay, here is where my head is at the moment on this verse: Perhaps it should be translated, “And all were witnessing about him (neutral: could be good or bad) and were astounded (maybe not so good) over the words of favor (to the poor, the oppressed, etc., but not “my people”) which were coming out of his mouth, and said, “Is this not a son of Joseph?”
We’ve been taught to assume – per Borg, Crossan, Horsley, Carter, etc. – that everyone in greater Israel – with the exception of a few wealthy elites – were the poor, the oppressed, etc. But what if the people of Nazareth heard these words as “favor” to “not us”? Is the declaration of Isaiah’s words being fulfilled the offense itself that drives this story sourly? 
Verse 22 could be translated in a way to show the crowd’s unfavorable reaction, rather than their admiration. I guess. Or else, this is a verse full of admiration and it is Jesus himself to decides to put a stick in the wheel with the next verse. 

23 καὶ εἶπεν πρὸς αὐτούς, Πάντως ἐρεῖτέ μοι τὴν παραβολὴν ταύτην: Ἰατρέ, 
θεράπευσονσεαυτόν: ὅσα ἠκούσαμεν γενόμενα εἰς τὴν Καφαρναοὺμ 
ποίησον καὶ ὧδε ἐν τῇ πατρίδι σου.
And he said to them, “Doubtless you will say to me this parable: Physician, heal yourself! That which what we heard you have done in Capernaum also do in your fatherland.” 
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  1a) affirm over, maintain 
ἐρεῖτέ: FAI 2pl, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  1a) affirm over, maintain  
θεράπευσον: AAImpv 2s, θεραπεύω, 1) to serve, do service  2) to heal, cure, restore to health
ἠκούσαμεν: AAI 1p, ἀκούω, 1) to be endowed with the faculty of hearing, not deaf  2) to hear
γενόμενα: AMPart apm, γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being 
ποίησον: AAImpv 2s, ποιέω, 1) to make  1a) with the names of things made, to produce, construct,  form, fashion, etc
1. “Doubtless” seems an odd translation for the word Πάντως, , since the typical use of Πάντως as a word or prefix would mean something like “all.” The term Παντοκράτωρ is the LXX translation for YHWH Sabaoth and El Shaddai, as well as a term used in the book of Revelation often. It is often translated “the almighty.” So, how does a word that can become “all” as a prefix translate into “doubtless” here? “Doubtless” is one way of expressing the phrase “by all means.” I could be tempted to make it "unanimously," but that may miss the point. In some ways, I think it may be connected to the term, "Amen" (truly). "Amen" is the word one can claim for one's own thought; "doubtless/surely/by all means" may be the best one can say with certainty about other people's thoughts. To see where I am going with this, see v. 24, n.1 below. 
2. Some translations (ESV, NIV, NRSV) use the word “quote” for the future form of λέγω. I suppose it is a judgment call, based on the idea that Jesus is citing a familiar phrase. But, see note #3 for this verse.
3. Jesus calls this phrase a parable (παραβολὴν), thus confirming my ongoing suspicion that we have very little idea what the word ‘parable’ actually meant to 1stcentury folk. This phrase would not fit any modern definition of a ‘parable.’ I think here it simply points to a ‘familiar saying.’ 
4.  But, if Jesus is ‘quoting’ a ‘parable,’ where does the quote end? One would think that the familiar phrase would be the brief, “Physician, heal thyself!” (I actually had a college roommate say that to a dying aloe plant once. Think about it.) However, in the next sentence, Jesus continues to put words in the crowd’s mouth. So, perhaps the familiar ‘parable’ contains both parts of this verse, not just the first phrase. 
5. This is quite an assumption on Jesus’ part. Is this what they are truly thinking? We can’t know because all we have is the story. In the story, this is the motive that Jesus ascribes to them. And, in the story, however, their approval very quickly turns very ugly. That’s why I think the reference to Jesus as Joseph’s son was a provocative attempt to domesticate Jesus and make him Nazareth’s own prophet and to set Nazareth apart as special recipient of his work.  
6. I translate πατρίδι as ‘fatherland’ because of the obvious reference to father in it. My only hesitation is that Nazareth is a smallish town, so the word ‘fatherland’ as one normally  uses it may be too big to fit. Many translations go with ‘city.’ I think that's too big also and that it misses the familial connection. Of course, we cannot translated it "birthplace," because of the census trip to Bethlehem, but I think the term evokes a feeling of "the place where you belong." I think it is more evidence that the crowd expected Nazareth to benefit by a special relationship to Jesus. 
7. If this is truly what the Nazareans are thinking, imagine how it contrasts with the words of Isaiah. Jesus is sent to those who have been marginalized, not to those who live within assumed privileged boundaries. In saying that, I realize that I am doing to Luke what I often try not to do, which is to "spiritualize" Luke's politico-economic language. So, I'm taking my own commentary with a grain of salt. 

24 εἶπεν δέ, Ἀμὴν λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι οὐδεὶς προφήτης δεκτός ἐστιν ἐν τῇ πατρίδι 
But/and he said, “Amen I say to you that a no prophet is acceptable in his fatherland.”
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  1a) affirm over, maintain 
λέγω: PAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  1a) affirm over, maintain 
ἐστιν: PAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
1. Perhaps this is the “battle of the sayings.” In this corner we have, “Physician, heal yourself! Do in your fatherland what we hear you are doing elsewhere.” In that corner, is “No prophet is accepted in his fatherland.” One seems to imply that the physician is at fault for a lack of honoring the homeland. The other seems to imply that the homeland is at fault for failing to honor the prophet’s necessary message.  We will see which of these sayings proves true. 
2. These dueling truisms are set off with introductory words: The first is set off with “Doubtless, you will say to me” and the second with “Amen I say to you.” 
3. Perhaps there is another play on words here – the word ‘acceptable’ in this verse is the same word to describe the ‘acceptable year of the Lord’ in the Isaiah text that Jesus has read. 
4. The word “Amen” is a transliteration of Ἀμὴν. It is sometimes translated ‘truly’, but on this occasion I am keeping it transliteral because of the way Jesus uses the phrase “in truth” in the next verse. 

25 ἐπ' ἀληθείας δὲ λέγω ὑμῖν, πολλαὶ χῆραι ἦσαν ἐν ταῖς ἡμέραις Ἠλίου ἐν 
τῷ Ἰσραήλ, ὅτε ἐκλείσθη  οὐρανὸς ἐπὶ ἔτη τρία καὶ μῆνας ἕξ, ὡς ἐγένετο 
λιμὸς μέγας ἐπὶ πᾶσαν τὴν γῆν, 
But in truth I say to you, “Many widows were in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, as great famine took place over all the land, 
λέγω: PAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak  1a) affirm over, maintain 
ἦσαν: IAI 3p, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
ἐκλείσθη: API 3s, κλείω, 1) to shut, shut up  2) metaph.  2a) to cause the heavens to withhold rain
ἐγένετο: AMI 3s, γίνομαι, 1) to become, i.e. to come into existence, begin to be, receive being 
1. The pairing of “Amen I say to you” (v.24) and “In truth I say” (v.25) could be in response to “Doubtless you will say to me” (v.23). 

26 καὶ πρὸς οὐδεμίαν αὐτῶν ἐπέμφθη Ἠλίας εἰ μὴ εἰς Σάρεπτα τῆς Σιδωνίας 
πρὸς γυναῖκα χήραν. 
And to none of them was Elijah sent except to Zarephath of Sidon to a widow woman.  
ἐπέμφθη: API, 3s, πέμπω, 1) to send  1a) to bid a thing to be carried to one  
1. The story of Elijah and the widow of Zarephath is in I Kings 17. Zarephath of Sidon was a Phoenician city. Some legends say that the Phoenicians were descended from the Canaanites. This example of Elijah's preferential treatment of a widow of Zarephath may show the liberative text from Isaiah at work. Could it be that "the year of the Lord's favor" means that other people get to experience God's grace, even more than us? Maybe this is the sharp edge of Isaiah's text that causes the hometown folk to rise up. 

27 καὶ πολλοὶ λεπροὶ ἦσαν ἐν τῷ Ἰσραὴλ ἐπὶ Ἐλισαίου τοῦ προφήτου, καὶ 
οὐδεὶς αὐτῶν ἐκαθαρίσθη εἰ μὴ Ναιμὰν  Σύρος.
And many lepers were in Israel with Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.
ἦσαν: IAI 3p, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
ἐκαθαρίσθη: API 3s, καθαρίζω, 1) to make clean, cleanse  
1. The story of Elisha and Naaman is in II Kings 5. It begins this way: “Naaman, commander of the army of the king of Aram, was a great man and in high favor with his master, because by him the Lord had given victory to Aram. The man, though a mighty warrior, suffered from leprosy. Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife.” NOTICE that the Lord had given Aram victory over … Israel. That is to say, within this story, Israel’s story, there is already a recognition that being God’s chosen does not mean that God lets you benefit every time. 
2. Certainly the folks of Nazareth were quite familiar with both of these stories that Jesus cites. The hermeneutical question is, do these stories indicate a rule, or are they exceptions to the rule? (We can easily see the rule that God's liberative work benefits those who may be our enemies, as it applies to those folks back then, because they just didn't get it. But, if we only see that rule as applying to those in the past and not to our own life and enemies, then we don't get it either. That may be the challenge facing 1st century Nazareth; it may be the challenge facing 21st century me.)
3. I suspect that one of the ongoing arguments/conversations within the Jewish community was over what it means to be God’s elect. Does being elected, chosen by God, mean that the people of Israel will be blessed among all other nations? Or, does it means that the people of Israel will be the means – however this works out for Israel – by which all nations will be blessed? Both options are possible when one reads the initial covenant that God makes with Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3. 

28 καὶ ἐπλήσθησαν πάντες θυμοῦ ἐν τῇ συναγωγῇ ἀκούοντες ταῦτα,
And all in the synagogue were filled with wrath, hearing these things
ἐπλήσθησαν: API 3pπίμπλημι, to fill up 
ἀκούοντες: PAPart npm, ἀκούω, 1) to be endowed with the faculty of hearing, not deaf
1. has this to say about the difference between the words ὀργή and θυμός, both of which can be translated ‘wrath’:  ὀργή is the abiding, settled habit of mind, the settled purpose of wrath. θυμός is the turbulent commotion of the mind, rage.  ὀργή is, as it were, the heat of the fire; θυμός the bursting forth of the flame. ὀργή is less sudden in its rise, but more lasting.  [Since Luke uses θυμός here, I guess that makes this group a ‘flash mob’.]

29 καὶ ἀναστάντες ἐξέβαλον αὐτὸν ἔξω τῆς πόλεως, καὶ ἤγαγον αὐτὸν ἕως 
ὀφρύος τοῦ ὄρους ἐφ' οὗ  πόλις ᾠκοδόμητο αὐτῶν, ὥστε κατακρημνίσαι 
And having risen, they threw him out out of the city, and brought him to a cliff of the mountain on which their city had been built, in order to cast him down; 
ἀναστάντες: AAPart npm, ἀνίστημι, 1) to cause to rise up, raise up
ἐξέβαλον: AAI 3p, ἐκβάλλω, 1) to cast out, drive out, to send out
ἤγαγον: AAI, 3plἄγω, 1) to lead, take with one  1a) to lead by laying hold of, and this way to bring to the  point of destination: of an animal 
ᾠκοδόμητο: PluperfectPI 3s, οἰκοδομέω, 1) to build a house, erect a building
κατακρημνίσαι: AAInf, κατακρημνίζω, to cast down headlong, to cast down from a precipice.
1. They cast him out of the city – his city, Nazareth, where he had been nurtured. 
2. The intensity of this scene is remarkable. There is an extreme change from v.22, especially if we interpret that verse to say that all spoke well of him and marveled and asked if he were not Joseph’s son. And, this verse covers very tersely what must have been a drawn out event of angry voices dragging and screaming, of perhaps a friend, a mother, a disciple or two, trying to resist, of real and formidable mob violence. 

30 αὐτὸς δὲ διελθὼν διὰ μέσου αὐτῶν ἐπορεύετο. 
But he, having passed through the midst of them, went on.
διελθὼν: AAPart nsm, διέρχομαι, 1) to go through, pass through
ἐπορεύετο: IMI 3s, πορεύομαι, 1) to lead over, carry over, transfer 1a) to pursue the journey on which one has entered, to continue on one's journey
1. This may be the most anticlimactic of anticlimaxes ever. I've heard it interpreted magically, as if Jesus just parted that angry mob like the Red Sea and walked away. I tend to hear it as Jesus escaping because mob violence is chaotic and disorganized. 

The proverb, “Phyisican, heal yourself,” might be related to some other phrases that we hear in the life of Jesus, like “take the mote out of your eye before attending to the splinter in others’ eyes,” or “you saved others; why can’t you save yourself?” However, it takes on a different shade of meaning when augmented with, “That which what we heard you have done in Capernaum also do in your fatherland.” Then, it is more of a “charity begins at home” sort of spatial reference, rather than a personal one. That is why I think the comment in v.22, to Jesus’ place in the family, is what provokes this response by Jesus. They are trying to put Jesus in his place, both with regard to his family and his hometown. 

It is an interesting dilemma: Nazareth is where Jesus was raised and where he learned the custom of attending synagogue on the Sabbath, reading the Scriptures and hearing them proclaimed as meaningful today. Yet, when he does that, by selecting the Isaiah text of God sending one out to the margins of society, by appealing to the traditions of Elijah and Elisha who reached outside of their people to aid/heal ‘the other,’ the home town community feels left out – even murderously angry.  


  1. I just edited the notes on v.22 to say that the verb 'witnessed' has an INdirect object and that it is the 'crowds' not the 'crows' that are witnessing to/at/regarding Jesus. I wish the crows had chimed in, but, alas, Luke says nothing about them in this text.

    1. What a shame :-) Many thanks for your most thoughtful comments on this amazing story. I think this is a real case of 'God in the gaps'. What happened? Nothing happened. Jesus didn't respond to violence with violence and thus defused a very dangerous situation. Still incredible though.

    2. What a shame :-) Many thanks for your most thoughtful comments on this amazing story. I think this is a real case of 'God in the gaps'. What happened? Nothing happened. Jesus didn't respond to violence with violence and thus defused a very dangerous situation. Still incredible though.

  2. I just can't quite fix in my mind why v.22 reads 'witnessing to' him. And I am a little concerned about that word 'marveled,' What if it were 'stunned'? What if they were they were stunned at the "gracious words" that he was speaking. Jesus is, after all, arguing that God's care and healing reach beyond Israel to Phoenicians and Syrians. After all, Elijah provided for none of the widows of Israel and Elisha healed none of the lepers in Israel. None. Those "gracious words" might be "grace" in the sense of "outside of proper boundaries." Their "marvel" might be more offense than wow.
    I don't know. Here it is Saturday night and I still don't feel that I have a handle on the crux of the story.

  3. What I'm wondering is why Luke told this story in the first place.... what did it mean to his audience.... ??

    1. I think it's interesting that Mark's translation includes 'led out of the city' and the verb ἤγαγον : AAI, 3pl, ἄγω, 1) to lead, take with one 1a) to lead by laying hold of, and this way to bring to the point of destination: of an animal [for sacrifice?] ... to me, both these things hint at the crucifixion.

    2. I think it's interesting that Mark's translation includes 'led out of the city' and the verb ἤγαγον : AAI, 3pl, ἄγω, 1) to lead, take with one 1a) to lead by laying hold of, and this way to bring to the point of destination: of an animal [for sacrifice?] ... to me, both these things hint at the crucifixion.

    3. I've thought about this story as a foreshadowing of crucifixion as well, but even more as a reenactment of the scapegoating process. I wonder if the act was a communal ritual, rather than an attempt to really throw him off the cliff.

  4. If Luke is writing Theophilus, it might be implied that Luke is writing to a non-Jewish convert to tell the story of Jesus and salvation not just for the Jews. This event in Jesus life would give an indication of God's salvation was not just for His people but from out of the midst of His people.

    1. That's where my mind went as well, when Tom posed his question.

  5. With great appreciation to the reader who took the time and trouble to phone me about it, I have changed one of the words of this original post which had connotations I was unaware of. I cannot say how meaningful it is for us to hold one another accountable in this way.
    Thank you.

  6. Thanks again for your thoughtful exegetical work!

  7. Thank you for your excellent exegesis. As I read your thoughts, I was reminded of a time in my first charge when a congregant became enraged that I was performing wedding ceremonies for people outside the church - esp a same sex couple which he found to be offensive. He was outraged that I used my position as 'his' minister to perform such weddings for outsiders who did not conform to his idea of worthy.

    1. We stand in danger of trying to domesticate the gospel, just as congregations stand in danger of trying to domesticate their pastors. I'm glad you persisted. Blessings. MD

  8. Kenneth E. Bailey had an interesting point in his book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes that I think speaks to this story. He describes the culture as an honor and shame based culture. One's honor was determined by one's family's place in the community. Honor was a limited commodity, so if one stepped out of one's place, seeking or receiving more honor, then someone else in the community would necessarily lose honor. The question "Isn't this Joseph's son?" might be a way of saying, "Wait a minute --we know this guy and he's nobody special" and then the community steps forward to put Jesus back in his place. I found this helpful.


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