Historical Cultural Context
The Synagogue Scenario
A close examination of this event in the Nazareth synagogue reveals that Luke has combined traditions from a variety of sources to compose a scenario for Jesus’ visit to his hometown. The composition is clearly uneven, but it well illustrates the positive and negative reactions that Jesus stirred.
The immediate reaction to Jesus’ reading from Isaiah is positive. The hometown crowd in the synagogue is impressed and grants Jesus accolades of honor. “All spoke well of him and were amazed at his speech” (Lk 4:22).
Then a doubt begins to arise among them: “Is this not Joseph’s son?” Jesus, the carpenter’s son, is stepping beyond the bounds of his ascribed honor, that is, the honor he has by birth. In the Mediterranean world, a son takes up the profession of his father and receives the name of his grandfather. If Jesus’ father is an artisan, why is he preaching and teaching rather than working with his hands as he ought?
Anticipating a challenge from the townspeople, Jesus delivers an insulting put-down to their as yet unvoiced objection. “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s own hometown” (Lk 4:24). The insult is sharpened when Jesus highlights Gentile strangers in verses Luke 4:25 to 27 as better able to judge the honor of a prophet than those who live in close proximity on a daily basis.
Jesus’ insulting put-down is a challenge to the honor of his hometown folk. They must respond forcefully and decisively or they will have been shamed by Jesus. They respond with rage (Lk 4:28) and drive him out of town in order to hurl him off a cliff (Lk 4:29). Jesus, ever the master of the situation, escapes from them unharmed.
He has maintained the honor that is his by birth and achieved yet additional honor by besting his opponents in a spirited exchange.
As presented by the lectionary for today’s liturgy, this reading from Luke and its partner from Nehemiah 8 have been stripped of their cultural details in order to highlight the power of the preached word. Restoring details of the cultural context highlights the risky and frightening human dimension of preaching situations. Both preacher and listener face serious risks. Are we up to them?
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