And passing through their midst, he went on his way.Luke 4:30
Who is this “he”? Jesus of Nazareth. Luke 4 presents this as Jesus’s first and last address to his hometown congregation. Not as his first address anywhere. Luke tells that that following his baptism, empowered by the Spirit, he went all around Galilee. Doing what? Speaking in all their congregations! And what else? Luke doesn’t say directly, but phēmē about him went all through the region: he became famous (verse 14). Luke assumes that readers of his gospel have already heard things about Jesus, and if they have heard anything, they will have heard not only of his teaching but of his healings and exorcisms, the wondrous work whereby he brought release from bondage everywhere he went.
Who is “their” in “passing through their midst”? The hometown congregation. The religious people of Nazareth, who gathered to hear scripture read and expounded. He is already famous in the whole region, and at last he stands up in his home congregation. What scripture does he read to them?
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.Luke 4:18–19
What he is doing and saying, he says, is a mission on which he has been sent by God. And to whom has he been sent? The poor. The captives. The blind. The oppressed. He has been finding them throughout Galilee. But in Nazareth he expects be rejected. Why?
His words about Elijah and Elisha tell us why. There were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, but Elijah was sent to none of them but only to a widow in Sidon—a foreigner. There were many lepers in Israel in the days of Elisha, but Elijah healed none of them, but only Naaman the Syrian—a foreigner.
Jesus knew that the hometown congregation was composed of Nazareth-firsters. Even in Galilee, a territory ridiculed in Judea for being so ethnically mixed, this crowd was composed of people who were proud to be not foreigners but Israelites. Seeing themselves—rightly!—as people chosen by God, they consequently expected—wrongly!—God, and anyone legitimately sent by God, to be all about serving them, caring for them, restoring their religious freedom, and expounding Scripture to them in a way that reassured them of their own importance in God’s program in the world.
And I think really Jesus was willing to do all those things for them! All they had to do was recognize themselves as the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed, no better or worse than the all the other poor, blind, oppressed captives in every other city throughout the ethnically mixed region of Galilee. But no. Nazareth first! Themselves first. And themselves not blind, but seeing. And Jesus will not pander to them. So they identify Jesus, with his offensively broad gospel of acceptance, as their oppressor. They will have none of his “good news.”
Their response? They were filled with anger, ran him out of town, and were ready to lynch him. He doesn’t tarry to argue further. He doesn’t smite them. They are as unable to hinder or extinguish him as they are unwilling to warm to his light.
But passing through their midst he went on his way.Luke 4:30
How do congregations—instances of church in various localities, social groups, regions, nations—rise and fall, flourish and fail, remain faithful or turn away? This passage in Luke does not answer all our questions. But it does tell us this. One way that congregations fail is by seeing themselves as central and primary in God’s plan, and taking offense at the wonderful words and deeds that Jesus works for others, and turning on him. Of course they never say that they are angry at Jesus, and driving him out, and offering him yet another lynching. But is this not a story that has been repeated many times? And what, other than precisely this, is going on with every us-first version of Christianity in our own day, whether “us” is our nation or our denomination or sect—whether the “Us first!” words are spoken aloud (as in the most egregious instances of apostasy) or not (the more usual case).
Of how many congregations and movements of professed Jesus followers is this eventually said, that “passing through their midst he went on his way”?
Jesus stands before us and says, “The Spirit of the Lord has anointed me to proclaim good news.” How will we hear it?
For the sequel, see When Jesus went on his way, where did he go? (Luke 4:31–37).