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A Cliffhanger of a Story

May 10, 2017

 

In Luke’s Gospel (4:14-30) we come across the graphic account of how Jesus so infuriated the people of his hometown, Nazareth, that they actually tried to throw him off a cliff. Let’s try to understand what happened.

 

The Hometown Boy Returns

Laurie Daley is the Coach of the NSW Rugby League Origin team and a former star player for the Canberra Raiders. He is a Junee boy. My wife and I were recently staying near Junee, which is on the Riverina, about 4½ hours drive from Sydney. As we watched some TV one evening, an advertisement appeared in which Laurie Daley sang the praises of Junee as a great place to visit. Junee is proud of their hometown boy and Laurie Daley is helping to put Junee on the map. 

 

In John 1 Jesus calls Philip to follow him. Philip tells his friend Nathanael, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote – Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (v45). Do you remember how Nathanael responded? “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”

 

Jesus returns to his hometown as a major celebrity, someone who puts Nazareth on the map. Look at Luke 4:14-15: “Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news about him spread through the whole countryside. He was teaching in their synagogues, and everyone praised him.” Jesus is big news and, what’s more, he’s a Nazareth boy, going back home. There he is in their meeting place. He unrolls a scroll. He quotes from Isaiah 61. Then he tells them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” As Luke says, “He began by saying (this) to them” (v21), which means Jesus said more after this. He preached a sermon to them based on this passage from Isaiah 61, explaining his mission.

 

The Hometown Boy Preaches

A 6-part documentary on Modern Art was once shown on ABC TV. One episode profiled modern artists who are not out to shock and disgust but to portray beauty. Gary Hume was interviewed. He stood in front of his own paintings. He said he was annoyed by people who merely mouthed platitudes such as “Isn’t that nice?” Hume believes his art is great art; that people viewing it should be profoundly moved by its beauty. You can have a beautifully designed swimming pool with deliciously cool water on a sweltering day. Yet some people are content to sit on the side of the pool and dangle their feet in the water. They say, “What a nice pool.” But they miss out on the experience that comes from jumping into the pool and feeling that cool, refreshing water lap around them. I’ve heard many say after a church service, “That was a nice sermon.” Yet if you asked those same people to articulate the main point of the sermon many of those same people would not have a clue.

 

That’s precisely what happened in Nazareth. There we have none other than the Son of God himself preaching a sermon. And you know what? It goes right over their heads. They miss the entire point of what he is saying. Now there’s an encouragement for all faithful preachers of God’s Word when the only feedback they get is from those who say, “That was a nice sermon.” That’s exactly the response Jesus got: “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips” (v22).

 

But they gave themselves away. The people of Nazareth asked a question which showed they had missed the whole point of what Jesus had been saying to them. What was that question? Look at verse 22. They simply asked, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” This is a question that speaks volumes about how they saw Jesus.

 

The Hometown Boy Speaks Home Truths

Remember that Jesus is the talk of the land. He is famous. Why? The bottom line is that Jesus is famous, first and foremost, because of all the miracles he was performing. Just look at how Jesus cuts right to the heart of the matter. He knows what they are implying by that question. They ask, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” and suddenly the apparent graciousness of Jesus is replaced by what many would consider to be downright rudeness. Nazareth may be the equivalent of an obscure Aussie town in the bush but Jesus does not beat about the bush. He tells the people of his hometown exactly what he thinks of them: “Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, ‘Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum’” (v23).

 

At the time he said this Jesus was the most popular person in Israel. But when Jesus said these words and what he said after them, he made himself the most unpopular person imaginable in his hometown. Look how this passage ends:

“All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. 30 But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way” (vv28-30).

 

It would be an understatement to say these people were offended when Jesus called a spade a spade. They were so angry they actually tried to kill him.

 

We all need to take a deep breath right now before we look at what Jesus said that got right up their noses. For there is a very real sense in which we, the Christian community, the church, have now become Jesus’ hometown. When a sermon is preached about Jesus, it’s almost as though the hometown boy is coming to town. Is it possible that we Christians will also feel deeply offended if we really understand what Jesus was saying to the people of his hometown? Is Jesus saying something to us that has the potential to deeply offend us?

 

What did Jesus say that was so offensive? Obviously the tone has changed. Jesus has ceased to be the gracious speaker and has suddenly become aggressive, in their face. He tells them that all they want from him is for him to perform the same miracles they have heard he performed in Capernaum? But it’s worse than that. They don’t merely want him to perform miracles in Nazareth. They expect him to perform miracles among them. Indeed, in their minds they believe he is obliged to perform miracles in Nazareth. That’s the true significance of that all-telling question, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” That’s why Jesus responds by saying, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’”

 

It's not hard to see how people were using this proverb. The idea is that any doctor has an obligation to make sure he uses his expertise to bring healing not merely to himself, but to his own family and relatives and circle. They look at Jesus and they are thinking that he has a duty to heal their sick because, being a Nazareth boy, they are actually his own sick people in a special way.

 

That proverb “Physician, heal yourself!” is the equivalent of our own proverb, “Charity begins at home.” It’s exactly the same idea. We get this woefully mistaken idea in our heads that mission and ministry begins by addressing our own immediate needs. “Charity begins at home,” we say to ourselves, or at least we think it in the depths of our hearts.

 

“Charity begins at home.” Sir Thomas Browne was the first man to put this saying into print. He asked, “But how shall we expect charity towards others, when we are uncharitable to ourselves? ‘Charity begins at home,’ is the voice of the world; yet is every man his greatest enemy, and, as it were, his own executioner.”

 

His point was this. As Thomas Browne studied human nature he didn’t see people exercising charity towards themselves. Rather they acted as though they hated themselves and wanted to destroy themselves. The world says people learn how to practice charity from their experience in home life. The reality is very different.

 

So that well-known Australian social researcher Hugh Mackay is quite right when he points out: “charity begins at home” originally meant “charity begins in the home”, that is, we learn to be compassionate and charitable people at home. It begins there and grows as we exercise it outside the home.

 

The expression “charity begins at home” was never meant to be used to exclude showing charity to people outside the home. Yet now this phrase has been turned on its head. When people say ‘charity begins at home” they mean that one should first care for one’s own – whatever “one’s own” means. It can mean complaining about the money Australia spends on foreign aid – which is pretty measly anyway – because “charity begins at home.” “Charity begins at home” becomes a rationalization for turning our backs on the immense needs of desperate people in other nations, including traumatized people who legitimately seek refuge in Australia. In churches “charity begins at home” or caring for “one’s own” serves to justify an absurdity – shepherds of the sheep instead of leading the sheep, being led by the sheep, pandering to their needs rather than leading their churches into serious ministry and mission. “Charity begins at home” easily becomes a recipe for introspection and inwardness. The life of a church community becomes an end in itself and pastors feel obliged to keep the ship afloat and, as much as possible, avoid rocking the boat.

 

The story is told of a rich man who prided himself on being a good and pious Christian. Each day he would lead his family in prayer for all the sick and needy in the world. In particular, he prayed that God might help an aged couple who lived near his mansion and who were very ill as well as poor.

One morning his son asked him whether he ever stopped to visit the unfortunate couple. The father answered that he had not.

The boy said, “Dad, I wish I had your money.”

“Why?” the father asked.

“Because,” the boy said, “then I would answer your prayers.”

 

Christians have to get beyond being “good and pious” people who merely pray each Sunday for those around us and those overseas who do not know our wonderful Lord. Our prayers are as hypocritical as those of the “good and pious Christian” if we are not also willing to be used by God to answer our own prayers. Jesus told his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. 38 Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.” First, Jesus asks them to pray for gospel-workers to be sent out in mission and in the very next chapter they themselves are sent out by Jesus in mission. When we pray about the desperate need of people for Christ both here and abroad are we ourselves willing to be sent out by our Lord to meet those needs?

 

The Hometown Boy Says Unacceptable Things

Look back to that passage from Isaiah 61 which Jesus quoted when he began his sermon to the people of his home town.

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Lk 4:18-19).

 

Luke places enormous stress on Jesus as the Prophet of God. Jesus is God’s mouthpiece, God’s specially appointed spokesman. As we know Jesus performed many mighty miracles in towns like Capernaum. However, when Luke introduces this whole episode he comments: Jesus “taught in their synagogues.” When Jesus introduced himself to the people of his home town, Nazareth, he identified himself as the one who has been anointed by God’s Spirit to speak for God. He is anointed to preach the good news (v18). He is the one sent to proclaim freedom and to proclaim recovery of sight and to release the oppressed through his ministry of proclamation (v18). He has been sent to proclaim the Age of Grace (v19).

 

But what does Jesus tell the people of his hometown about prophets? Look at verse 24: “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in his hometown.” Why does Jesus say this? If we are operating with a misguided “charity begins at home” mentality then we have failed to understand God’s grace. Consider the context of that passage from Isaiah 61 and realise that Jesus is identifying himself as the Prophet who speaks God’s Word and who by speaking that Word creates a new Israel, that is, a new People of God. By speaking God’s Word, the gospel of the kingdom, Jesus brings into being a people who have experienced freedom, recovery of sight and release from oppression. And every true follower of Jesus is included in that. So as Christians we need to make sure we put plenty of distance between ourselves and Nazareth.

 

But we still haven’t got to what it was Jesus said that was the final straw for the people of Nazareth – the straw that broke the camel’s back and whipped them into a frenzy and made them a murderous mob, prefiguring his crucifixion, the ultimate rejection of Jesus. Look at what Jesus said to them:

I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian (vv25-27).

 

Elijah and Elisha were also great prophets sent by God to proclaim God’s Word. But at times when God’s people had great needs – a famine in the land and many lepers – God had no time for the “charity begins at home” mentality. Instead, he sent his prophets to Gentiles, foreigners. God’s grace is incompatible with any idea that he is somehow obliged to do what we want him to do. God’s grace is sovereign grace. There are people whom God wants to use our churches to reach. The people of Nazareth hated Gentiles and they found it deeply offensive that Jesus should insinuate, as he did, that ministry to Gentiles, people they despised, was more important than ministering to them, people who presumed upon God’s grace. Is God’s grace in our churches a sovereign grace? The challenge is for us, as a people living under grace, to be a Spirit-anointed people who will go to those to whom the Lord sends us, even people whom we find difficult to love.

 

If we adopt the attitude that we will not reach out to people in desperate need until after the needs within our own church community have been met then our church will never become a grace-driven missional church. This is so because, as we know full well, there are always pressing needs in our own church communities and in the lives of the people and families that make up the church and in the lives of outsiders with whom the church is normally in contact. ‘Charity begins at home’ is a mentality that kills grace-driven mission, whether that be outreach to people from different ethnic, cultural or socio-economic backgrounds who live around us or whether it be to masses of people in other lands who are in desperate need, ‘without God and without hope.’

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