by Jeremiah Bartram on 25/01/10 at 7:23 am
Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way. Luke 4, 21-30; reading for Sunday, January 31.
NRSV: Jesus gives examples showing that “foreigners sometimes experienced God’s aid when Israel did not.” V. 28: “The hostile reaction comes in response to Jesus’ references to Gentiles, not to his apparent messianic claims (v.21).
Hardy makes the interesting observation that “there is no obvious reason why these people would have thought of casting this well-known proverb in Jesus’ teeth” – but that the taunt was thrown at him later, during his crucifixion (Mt. 27,42). He thinks that Luke is using this scene as a “trailer” for the treatment Jesus was to receive elsewhere. Likewise, he notes that the two Old Testament examples cited by Jesus – which so enrage the crowd – are more relevant to his later activity than to the present situation.
Those two examples: Elijah, the widow of Zarephath and her son survive a famine because God miraculously extends her meager supply of flour and oil to feed them all (1Kings 17); and Naaman, a Gentile military commander, is healed of his leprosy when he follows Elisha’s instructions and bathes seven times in the Jordan (2Kings 5).
Hugues Cousin (in Les evangiles, texts et commentaries) explains that the gospel of Luke is an integrated, carefully structured work of art, written by a well-educated pagan convert; and that Luke belonged to the generation after Jesus and his first companions, never having known them directly. He also wrote the Acts, and intended it as an integral part of his gospel; he may have been a companion of Paul, although that is not certain.
Gospel for gays
Luke’s account of this episode is completely different from the other synoptic gospels, which have Jesus returning to his hometown, not at the outset of his public ministry as is the case here, but after he has gathered disciples and attracted considerable renown as a teacher and wonder-worker.
In Matthew and Mark, the people among whom he grew up cannot believe in him; he marvels at their unbelief, and can do no great work among them, precisely because of their lack of faith. Neither writer includes the self-revelatory episode in the synagogue, the passage from Isaiah which was the focus of last week’s reading, or the fury of the crowd recorded by Luke.
As Hardy notes, the comment Luke ascribes to Jesus, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’” comes out of nowhere. In fact, up to that moment, people are impressed with him. Why is Jesus so defensive?
And then, Jesus deliberately provokes them. Again, there seems no reason for this, arising from the actual scene in the synagogue of Nazareth.
Why refer to two miracles performed by the great prophets Elijah and Elisha, signs that favored foreigners, people who were not members of the chosen people?
And why give such emphasis to that fact, pointing out that there were many widows in Israel, there were many lepers in Israel – but it was to a widow and a leper outside Israel that God sent his prophet?
You could read the scene as showing Jesus with a big chip on his shoulder – touchy, defensive-aggressive.
Or you could understand that this very literary evangelist is creating a scene that foreshadows a consistent theme in both his own gospel and the Acts: the rejection of the Messiah by Israel, and the way God opens out salvation to the Gentiles. Lucid and attractive as Luke’s writing is, he is creating a vision of Jesus that fits a particular story.
Indeed, Luke himself is a pagan convert to Christ, possibly a companion of Paul. So naturally, his central theme is the rejection of Jesus the Messiah by his own people and the spread of the gospel beyond the Jews, to the whole world. So what he has created in this scene is a decisive encounter between Jesus and the people who should know him best, the people with whom he grew up – in which he announces himself as the Messiah and is violently rejected. Then he slips through their midst and begins his work elsewhere; he never returns.
It’s only if we comprehend Luke’s purpose, and imagine a majestic Jesus who is fully aware of his own final destiny, that this passage makes sense.
This year, the liturgy will focus on readings from Luke’s gospel. Luke is well known for portraying the tenderness of Jesus; and also for showing the prayer life of Jesus. His is the only gospel that contains the account of the woman who anoints Jesus’ feet and wipes them with her hair; the only one that tells the story of the two brothers, one prodigal, the other righteous, and their wise father; or the story of Zacchaeus, climbing the tree to get a glimpse of Jesus; or the Emmaus Resurrection story.
These are all accounts of the mercy of God, who is especially close to those who are marginalized, rejected, forgotten; women in particular.
So Luke is an attractive and sympathetic writer, and I suspect that as a gay reader, I will find many analogues between my own experience and that of the beautiful people who populate this gospel.
But by smoothing out and ordering the events of Jesus’ life, Luke may portray a less experiential Jesus than does Mark, with his confused narrative line and dark ending. I’ll find out as the year unfolds.
The very artistry of Luke raises an interesting question. He drew on a range of sources to create a coherent portrait of Jesus and his life. We are familiar with Mark’s gospel, which was one of those sources; but the others have been lost. Thus, we take his account, and his portrait, on faith; we balance his portrait with the others, attempting to reach a “real” Jesus of our own.
But the very fact that he is able to create so magisterial and definitive a portrait of Jesus shows how important the writer is, as a filter and interpreter.
And certain things are missing.
For example, the laughter of Jesus.
I’ve been musing on that subject since writing about the wedding at Cana. You don’t get invited to a wedding unless you’re good company, and you don’t contribute a gift of 180 gallons of wine unless you want people to have fun.
But nowhere in any gospel do we see Jesus smile, or hear him laugh. Indeed, there is a long and authoritative tradition that would present Jesus (and his mother) as never smiling, and never laughing.
That can’t be right.
For various reasons, the gospel writers omitted his laughter.
One reason may lie in Aristotle’s view of laughter – he thought we laughed at contemptible or ignoble things, out of superiority. Another may be the need to ensure that their portrait of Jesus was not tinged with Gnosticism: I understand that Jesus laughs in the Gnostic gospel of Judas, and his laughter indicates his distance from humanity. He laughs as one apart.
But how do we find that other Jesus, a fuller Jesus, the one that Luke (and the other gospel writers) may sometimes hint at, but refrain from showing us?
The gay Jesus?
That’s what I’ll also be exploring over the next few months.