Trying to throw Jesus off a cliff

Luke 4:21-30 provides us with a glimpse of the ramifications of Jesus’ homecoming to Nazareth.  It all begins rather well earlier in the chapter, when Jesus–being filled with the Holy Spirit after his temptations in the wilderness–returns to Galilee and to his hometown of Nazareth.  Once there he goes to the Synagogue on the Sabbath day (which, as Luke reminds us, was his custom).  While there he exercises the right of every Jewish man to take part in the reading and interpretation of scripture (as an aside, the account given here of Synagogue worship is among the earliest accounts we have).  He reads the following passage from Isaiah, saying:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

In his essay Salvation even in Sin: Learning to speak Truthfully about Ourselves,” Stanley Hauerwas makes in interesting observation under the heading “The Trouble with Sin:”

Just as Milton struggled not to let the devil become the hero of Paradise Lost, so any theologian who takes up the subject of sin must wrestle with the temptation of making sin more interesting than God. This is particularly a problem in our time, given the widespread habit of using the word ‘God’ as a generalized concept to name all that which remains inexplicable.  Not surprisingly, in such a time many people are often more ready to believe themselves sinners than creatures of a gracious God.  At least they are more ready to believe they are sinners than they are to believe in a God who not only is the beginning and the end of all that is but who has refused to abandon us to our sins. (61)

In the return of Christ to Nazareth where he had grown up, we see an example of what it can mean for God to get specific.  In terms of his identity, Jesus is the incarnation of the Word, the second person of the Trinity and thereby conveys the character of God (2 Corinthians 4:6).  One of the things that Jesus does continually throughout his ministry is to challenge those who believe themselves to be faithful, calling them to examine the content of their faith and make an honest assessment of whether they have truly been following the spirit of the law as well as the letter.  The challenge presented by the character of God revealed in Christ is a bit more than a critique of the pious loosing their way, it is a challenge to one of the fundamental ideas that many of Jesus’ listeners had held onto their whole lives, i.e. the idea that God’s grace and mercy is extended first and primarily–if not solely–to the people of Israel, and specifically, for some folks, only the religiously fastidious among the people of Israel.  In this situation in Nazareth, the people are appreciative of Jesus’ interpretation of the text from Isaiah, until he gets to the point of revealing two separate but related points.  First, He is going to do no miracles in Nazareth, his home town, because he does not expect that they would be received by the people there, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown” (Luke 4:23).  Secondly, expanding from the particular to the more general, he emphasizes the times in Israel’s history when the grace of God has been extended beyond the bounds of the people of Israel, even as some among the chosen people suffered.  It is at this point that the people become angry, run him out of town and decide to throw him off the cliff.  The people aren’t so much angered by any implication that they are sinners (though there are plenty of occasions in the Gospels when that becomes a sticking point), as they are angered by the idea that the grace of God might be active outside the boundaries they recognize or impose.

So how does this relate to the tendency Hauerwas points out?  The people of Nazareth may have been prepared to hear of their failures and sins–the ways in which they could have been more faithful in keeping the Law–but what they were fundamentally not prepared for was to be challenged in their perception of God’s grace and care.  They were angered not only because Jesus illustrated his point by talking about people from the history of Israel who had not been healed or saved from their circumstances, but because of the fact that foreigners sometimes experienced God’s aid when Israel did not–it was a challenge not simply because of the seeming randomness of divine intervention, but because God’s grace was not as limited as they believed it to be.  In the end it was not a pronouncement of judgment, but a pronouncement of grace that caused the people to want to throw Jesus off a cliff.  This is often still the case.