Audio homily here:
Luke begins his account of Jesus’ public life by recalling his return to Nazareth after his baptism by John in the Jordan. This Sunday and next Sunday we read from Luke’s long account of that event.
Mark and Matthew tell this story later in their gospels, but Luke, who concentrates more on Jesus’ early life than the other evangelists, puts the beginning of Jesus’ public life in Nazareth, in the synagogue where he worshipped, among those who knew him best. (Luke 4, 14-21)
Luke paints the coming of Jesus into this world in broad, sweeping terms in his gospel. Caesar Augustus was the world’s ruler, Herod ruled in Palestine, others ruled under them. At the same time, he focuses on Jesus’ own personal history. Born in Bethlehem, Jesus’ first home is an obscure village in northern Galilee– Nazareth, where he grows “in wisdom and age and grace, before God and man.” There he was brought up.
The synagogue at Nazareth was probably like other synagogues in the towns of Galilee. Some, like that at Magdala on the Sea of Galilee, have been excavated in recent times. It was a small one story rectangular building, with two tiers of seating all around its walls, made for a town of no more than 500 people. In the middle of the synagogue was a stand holding copies of the various books of the scriptures. The synagogue was the center of life in those towns.
Jesus has returned to Nazareth after beginning his ministry “all through Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and praised by all. (Luke 4, 14-15) Now, back home, he goes into the synagogue on the Sabbath, “as he was accustomed to do.”
He gets up from his place to read the scriptures. (From the same place where he sat for years? Was Mary his mother there with him?) He’s “ handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah.
He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.
Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down,
and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him.
He said to them,
“Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”
A short sermon, and a powerful statement. “This scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, Jesus says. I’m anointed to bring glad tiding to the poor. Jesus claims a messianic calling.
His neighbors, who have known him for years, are first impressed, then question him, then deny his claims, then threaten to put him to death.
In their gospels, Mark and Matthew describe opposition to Jesus coming first from the scribes and Pharisees, the leaders from Jerusalem, but Luke sees opposition to Jesus coming first from his own hometown, from family, neighbors and friends. He knows how important this rejection is.
It’s true, isn’t it? When we enter this world, we enter the small unit of human life, a family, and beyond the family, the people and places that shape us early in life. We’re subject to this important smallness, our “Nazareths” where we grow “in wisdom and grace.” We’re first nourished there; we look for lasting love and support there. It means so much to us.
Throughout his ministry, Jesus will know opposition. Leaders of the people, public officials will oppose him. In his final days, his own disciples will abandon him. Only a few will stand by his cross. The physical sufferings he endured were great. He was scourged, his head was crowned with thorns, his hands were nailed to a cross, he died hanging there long hours alone.
But rejection from his own at Nazareth will weigh heavily on him. It was a big part of the mystery of his cross. “He was amazed at their unbelief.” Yet, Jesus who embraced humanity with love, embraced Nazareth too. He loved it with God’s great love.
We have to pay a lot of attention to where we’re born, where we’re brought up, our families, the people we live and work with. Nazareth is important to us.