Prophets and Lemmings

After overcoming the temptations of Mr. Scratch, I don’t think we should be surprised that Jesus is almost thrown off a cliff. And to think, it all started with such a simple remark: “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?”

Let’s back up a bit.

Jesus leaves the desert having just overcome what I believe to be the three greatest temptations anyone can face if they’re trying to advance the Kingdom of God: self-preservation, civic authority, and religious power. In fact, I believe they’re temptations that face every church and para-church leader today, from small-town youth minister to megachurch pastor to international non-profit CEO. In a nutshell, we call it pragmatism. Pragmatism was what put the fruit in the mouths of Adam and Eve, and pragmatism is what justifies — in the eyes of the world — the blood of every empire from Sumer in Mesopotamia to the Third Reich. And now, having unveiled the realities of Satan’s realpolitik world of principalities and powers, Jesus returns to that world to engage it head on.

It’s starts pleasantly enough:

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. — Luke 4:14-15

But we have to remember, friends, that at this point in time there are few people who can point to Jesus as he walks down the street and say, “There goes a fulfillment of prophecy.” Mary is one (it’s generally assumed that Joseph is dead by this point), and John the Baptist another. But if there are others, we don’t know of them. Even some of Jesus’ siblings may not have believed, since only one of them became an apostle. It’s not until a scroll is placed in Jesus’ hands that his place as fulfiller of prophecy becomes known, though not necessarily accepted. The book of Isaiah is handed to him in the synagogue, and he knows just where to turn:

“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.” — Luke 4:18-19

And then, after returning the scroll, he says it. Out loud. Some of the plainest speaking Jesus will ever utter:

“Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” — Luke 4:21b

Surprisingly, friends, all is well at first. There is no cry of outrage from the teachers of the law, no mob of Pharisees jumping to their feet with stones in hand. Instead, there’s only a question, one so simple and yet so profound that its answer almost gets Jesus thrown from a cliff.

“Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” they asked. — Luke 4:22b

In other words, friends, they’re saying, “Those are great words, Jesus, but who are you to speak them?” I believe they ask this question because they are so trapped within the power structures of Satan’s dominion that they are unable to separate power and authority from status. They suffer from the same plague of pragmatism as the first Adam, choosing the same fruit, demanding Saul for a king, saying yes to Mr. Scratch on that high place with all the kingdoms of the world before them. And so, after grounding him as a poor, Nazirite carpenter from Galilee, they find Jesus remarkable but ineffectual. They see him no differently, in fact, than when Jesus was a twelve-year-old asking questions after Passover.

That’s when it happens. That’s when Jesus reaches the tipping point, the watershed, the torrent that takes him to the brow of the hill and ultimately to the cross. That’s when Jesus let’s them have it:

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.’ ”

“Truly I tell you,” he continued, “no prophet is accepted in his hometown. 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.” — Luke 4:24-27

Remember, friends, I believe Jesus is not here to fight against the evils put upon us by Satan’s principalities and powers (that was John the Baptist’s job), but against the principalities and powers themselves. He rejected the devil’s dominion by status, by caste, by money, by strength, and so too he rejects his earthly father’s lowly estate as a barrier to authority and prophecy and salvation.

And now there is a cry of outrage from the teachers of the law. Now there is a mob of Pharisees jumping to its feet. But why exactly? It may seem a silly question, but I don’t believe they form an angry mob because they are personally offended. Jesus will eventually call them whitewashed tombs, and yet there will be nothing close to the level of violence these people are about to attempt right now. No, friends, they aren’t pushing Jesus out the synagogue doors because their feelings are hurt. They aren’t shoving him towards the edge of town because their reputations have been tarnished. Folks, I believe they carry Jesus to the brow of the hill because, like the prophets of old, Jesus is a nobody.

No, I don’t believe this is a case of caste-versus-caste violence. The Torah says far too much about loving the poor for that to happen. No, folks, this is something else. This is system-versus-system violence. This is ideological violence. Every prophet of old was a man or woman without credentials, moving outside the rhythms of festival and sacrifice, exposing religion as institution, worship as money, authority as bloodshed, kingdom as kneeling before Satan. And so it’s no wonder:

All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. 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. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way. — Luke 4:28-30

That last bit — Jesus walking through the angry mob as effortlessly as he will eventually walk on water — was always a curiosity to me. I’ve usually seen it framed as something out-and-out miraculous, like water to wine, and yet I don’t think that’s necessarily the case here. In fact, I now find it almost unsurprising. Unlike the crucifixion to come, this is not a premeditated, organized, self-justified attack. This is everyone shouting at once, swept away by a torrent of their own making, like rioters in Ephesus. In short, it’s an emotional outburst.

But the thing that’s most interesting to me, friends, is the fact that Jesus actually does have the credentials they wanted. When they asked, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” all he had to do was recite his lineage, as every good Israelite is able to do. He is a direct descendant of King David. All he had to do was say it, and most likely his audience would’ve been much more receptive. But no. Yet again, Jesus has said no to the second temptation of Mr. Scratch.



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