Historical Cultural Context
Jesus the Prophet
In the Mediterranean world of antiquity everyone had a proper place that was established by birth. No one was ever expected to become something better than or to improve on the lot of the parents.
This fact is the basic foundation of honor, the public claim to worth, and the public acknowledgment of that worth by others. Each child inherits, carries on, and is expected to safeguard the family’s honor.
In today’s reading Jesus is perceived by others in his village to be stepping shamefully beyond his family boundaries. The event as Luke reports it reflects the tensions this kind of behavior would raise in any tiny Mediterranean village.
It is customary in the Mediterranean for a son to carry on his father’s trade and his grandfather’s name. When the Arab merchant from whom I used to purchase carefully designed and colorfully dyed eggs in Bethlehem died, I was not at all surprised to find his stall and his business still in existence the following year. His young son carries on his father’s profession to this day.
The people in Nazareth, Jesus’ hometown (Lk 1:26; 2:4, 39, 51; Acts 10:38), know him and his family very well. While reducing the townspeople’s reaction to Jesus in comparison with Matthew and Mark, Luke nevertheless records their amazement. “Is not this Joseph’s son?”
Jesus stirs controversy at the very least because he does not seem to be carrying on Joseph’s trade. He is doing something different. This is a breach of family honor not readily countenanced in the Mediterranean world.
Rubbing salt into the wound opened by his insulting behavior (preaching in his hometown, healing elsewhere), Jesus inserts himself into the prophetic line of Elijah and Elisha.
Like them, he ministers not to fellow Mediterranean Judeans but rather to Gentiles, non-Judeans, people not of his own kind.
To direct his healing activities to such rather than to those of his hometown (very likely blood relatives) is to transgress very seriously against family honor.
It is small wonder that these townspeople became filled with rage and wanted to kill him. Honor in the Mediterranean world is a matter of life and death.
The shocking behavior of the adult Jesus is difficult for Americans to appreciate. In our culture children are expected to do better than their parents. At a rather early age they are expected to go out on their own, get their own apartment, and live as independent human beings.
The freedom that parents wish for their children in our culture is captured in the poignant television advertisement in which the elderly insist, “I do not want to be a burden to my children!” How very different the family and townsfolk of Jesus, the healing prophet.
John J. Pilch
John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world of the Bible
**From Saint Louis University