St. Luke tells us how at the beginning of his public life Jesus came to Nazareth and preached in the synagogue. The crowd seem to be delighted at first and then inexplicable turn against him, drag him out and try to kill him. Many people are puzzled by this, how can his own people turn so quickly. It merits a closer look.
Jesus reads a well known passage from Isaiah: The spirit of the Lord had been given to me..he has sent me to proclaim the good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to captivesÖ to set the downtrodden free, to proclaim the Lordís year of favour. Jesus does a strange thing, he stops right there in the middle of a verse and misses out the next half of a line of poetry which says: And a day of vengeance for our God. That omission seems to be crucial. Many ordinary people tired of poverty and the brutality of Roman rule look to the day when God will sort things out, reward the good and punish the wicked. Thatís what they hoped the Messiah would do. This passage from Isaiah asks people to think in bigger terms than that. Jesus claims that the text Ė i.e. the promise of the prophet - is being fulfilled before their eyes. What a disappointment! What anti-climax for people who are waiting for some big apocalyptic battle between the forces of light and darkness!
Now the translation we use at Mass says then: And he won the approval of all and they were astonished by the gracious words that came from his lips. Well thatís one possible translation. What the original Greek text says is: and all bore witness about him and were astonished at the words of grace etc. The witness could be negative or positive. Elsewhere in Luke (11:38) a Pharisee is astonished at Jesus, but that clearly means he was shocked rather than pleased. In this passage, perhaps the people want to hear word of vengeance and judgement, but instead they hear words of grace. There are Christians like that today, people who delight in hearing how God will punish the wicked and unbelievers (usually that just means people who are different to them) and get indignant when you try to remind them of Godís all-embracing love.
The people here wonder how anyone from a place as small as Nazareth can come up with an idea as big as this. Jesus senses their resistance. He has two choices. He can very gently, slowly try to explain to them how what he says is in line with the scriptures, and that their hopes and expectations are somewhat skewed. Or he can plainly state the truth that they really do no want to hear, he can shock them into some sort of action, and thatís what he does. Instead of telling them that their narrow-minded nationalism is basically OK but needs a bit of adjustment, he reminds them of two incidents in the Old Testament when a prophet extends Godís mercy to foreigners, those who are not members of the chosen people. They donít want to hear any of that, they are under foreign rule. As far as they are concerned God must hate these people and someday he will punish them. Now itís one thing to put an unpalatable idea before people. But to put such an idea before religious people and then remind them that it is in their scriptures and that they must accept it as coming from God. . .well! The people are forced to reconsider their ideas in the light of the scriptures. But thatís too much effort and when you put people in that position, they either change or resort to violence or abuse and thatís what happens here. (This process is repeated identically in John 9:34. Jesus has cured the man born blind on the Sabbath. The Pharisees first try to disprove he was born blind, then to prove that Jesus is a sinner because he broke the Sabbath. When confronted with hard evidence that Jesus has done this wonderful thing they can either change their opinion about Jesus, or get rid of the evidence which does not fit into their neat little religious world, but disturbs them. They do the latter, they drive the man away and their world returns to normal.)
I hope that in my dealings with people as a priest I am usually gentle and sensitive with them. There have been occasions when it has been necessary to confront people with stark unpalatable choices, or to make them face ideas and facts they want to avoid. When people are living lives or holding opinions which are clearly against the gospel, sometimes Ďshock tacticsí are the only way to get through to them. Here at Nazareth the people are looking to Jesus to confirm them in their prejudices, and he tries to shock them out of that. Our own Catholic faith is tremendously stretching and challenging. It continually reminds us that God is bigger than the little world we inhabit. Are we able to rise to the challenge?