Luke 4:22-30, Jesus Foresees the Apostolate Expanding to the Gentiles

[February 3, 2013] This Epiphanytide we have seen the manifestation of Jesus the Son of God refracted in several ways. His coming was manifested to the gentile magi who came to honor Him as a toddler; He was manifested at His baptism by the voice from heaven and the anointing of the Holy Spirit; He manifested His glory to His disciples at the wedding of Cana with the first of His signs; He manifested Himself through His preaching in Nazareth, introducing Himself as the fulfillment of the Scriptures. Today we continue the story of Jesus in Nazareth. Here in the face of rejection, Jesus foresees His turning to the gentiles. If the prophecy of Isaiah 61:1-2 shows one side of how He will manifest Himself, the passage before us, the second half of the same episode, shows the other side of how He will manifest Himself.

In Isaiah 61:1-3, the Servant of the Lord is anointed with the Spirit of YHWH that He might bring the Gospel to the poor, and under that anointing He is sent (apostellō) to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners, to proclaim the favorable year of YHWH (the year of Jubilee) and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and to grant those who mourn in Zion a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a mantle of praise instead of a spirit of fainting. Jesus stopped His reading (apparently) at where it says the Anointed One will proclaim the favorable year of the Lord. This was not because He did not also come to announce the Lord’s judgment for, if we continue hearing the Gospel according to Luke, He does also announce this, but the “day of vengeance” seems to have in view the enemies of Israel, and Jesus does not yet have this in His view, for that will accompany “those who mourn in Zion” and Zion is not yet ready to mourn for its sins. What Jesus has in view in the course of His ministry is the judgment of Jerusalem because of its unwillingness to repent, and Israel’s continuing under the cloud of God’s judgment (as it has since the days of the exile) until His coming again in glory. Then Israel will see Him whom they have pierced and will mourn, and that will be the “day of vengeance” on the nations.

So the character of Jesus’ ministry, His apostolate, until He enters Jerusalem for the last time before His death, will be characterized by His presentation of God’s grace for all who come to Him and are willing to enter into His embrace. They will know the binding up of their broken hearts, liberty from their captivity, freedom from their prisons, the forgiveness of their debts and the restoration of what they have lost. And for them—for they will be the spiritual inhabitants of Zion (not to discount forever all Israel)—they will receive a garland to replace their ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a mantle of praise instead of a spirit of mourning. This characterizes Jesus’ ministry of grace, as He offers spiritual salvation to all who come to Him and turn to Him. This also characterizes the apostolate of the church, as we see in the Acts of the Apostles.

For though the entire scope of Jesus’ work encompasses not only His coming into our midst, and the continuation of His anointing on the church (for His anointing was poured out on the church, see Acts 2:33, that it might continue to proclaim the Gospel to the poor, see Acts 1:8, that Jesus might continue to do and to teach, Acts 1:1), but also His coming again in glory and judgment when He manifests the revelation of Himself to all, Israel as a whole is not yet ready to receive Him, for His first coming (parousia, His presence among us) is necessarily characterized by humility. It is for their sake, for He makes Himself a sin offering to purify them in order that He may come again to redeem them. But they do not see this; they are not yet ready—culturally, collectively—to recognize the necessity of it.

All they see, then, is the humility. At first it seems in our story as if Jesus is being provocative. He spoke and said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” and the people respond well, “wondering at the gracious words which were falling from His lips.” They were proud of their home boy and were saying, “Is this not Joseph’s Son?” He is one of their own. But then Jesus counters this praise by saying, “No doubt you will quote this proverb to Me, ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ [and say to me,] ‘Whatever we heard was done at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.’ [But] Truly I say to you, no prophet is welcome in his hometown.” This is what we might have expected Him to say after they rejected Him, but here He seems to say it in order to provoke their rejection, for until that point, their reception of Him was good. Obviously He does not accept their ownership of Him, for it puts Him into the wrong frame. It pegs Him wrong, putting Him into a category that does not suit Him.

To them He is the Boy who grew up in their midst, the Son of Joseph; and He was. But their framing Him this way after His reading the text from Isaiah and applying it to Himself was inappropriate. It locked Him into so small a definition that it blinded them from seeing who He really was, and therefore it made them deaf to the text He had just read. How can the Boy who ran around on their streets be the Isaian Servant of the Lord, the end-time Anointed One? He was indeed both. It was the same problem that would confront others: how can this Man, who is after all a Man like all others, a Man who has thoughts and feelings and gets tired and who must eat and sleep and clean Himself, who has difficult relationships with others and who can get hurt like anyone else—how can this One also be the Son of God, the “I am” of God in our midst? Seeing the one blinds us to the other. For those who readily accept His divinity, His humanity is a scandal. For those who readily accept His humanity, His divinity is the scandal. For Israel the scandal, however, only gets worse, for He is crucified in their midst. How can the One who is victimized on the cross, who is completely subject to the will and abuse of others, whose body is broken and ruined on the cross, how can this One be the Savior and Redeemer of Israel? If we see one, it seems to blind us to the other.

So Jesus’ words seem provocative, but in actuality they are perceptive. They are critical of the reception that He receives—that the people are missing the point. When this is pointed out to them, it fills them with rage. Why? Perhaps they feel rejected by Him and therefore not appreciated. Perhaps they “get it” and now He seems unbelievably and offensively arrogant. In either case, He becomes intolerable. They move at once to eliminate Him so that they do not have to live with this contradiction. Once He is gone, they can go back to the way things were, though disappointed with what has come of their home Boy. Jesus takes care of this for them. “Passing through their midst, He went His way.” It was not yet His time to die; but He got a chance to see the strength of people’s feelings that can be aroused against Him. The contradiction of Who He is will follow Him to the cross.

“But,” Jesus says, “I say to you in truth, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the sky was shut up for three years and six months, when a great famine came over all the land; and yet Elijah was sent to none of them, but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow,” referring to the story in 1 Kings 17:8-16. Elijah was the prophet of judgment, confronting the unfaithfulness of the northern kingdom of Israel, the prophets of Baal, Israel’s king, Ahab, and his wife Jezebel. But Zarephath was not an Israelite but a gentile in the land of Phoenicia. She was receptive towards the prophet, feeding him first when she and her son had only enough for one more meal.

“And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” Elisha succeeded Elijah as a prophet of grace, grace overcoming judgment. Yet here too the leper who was healed was a gentile from the land of Syria.

Many in Israel believed in Jesus. His chosen Twelve were all Jews. The apostle Paul was a Jew. The first churches were Jewish, and the churches after that were predominantly Jewish. When Paul and others began to preach in gentile lands, the gentiles they first appealed to were the “God-fearers” and the “devout” who attended the local synagogues. Jesus and Luke His biographer and the historian of the Acts of the Apostles are not saying that God (or Jesus as His Apostle) rejected Israel, or that all Israel rejected Him. A great many in Israel became believers, and from a pagan point of view, the gentiles who became believers had—to them—become Jews (they rejected the pagan gods and now believed in the god of Israel and read the sacred texts of the Jews as their own). To not recognize this is to generalize in a harmful way, a way that stereotypes and creates prejudice.

Even when Jews did not accept that Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus did not condemn them, nor did the apostles, though they did say that they were missing the blessing of God that was promised them. It was the opposition to Jesus and to the church that was the problem (though in later centuries the Jews and the church opposed each other and became rivals and enemies, and the animosity of the Jews towards Christians became justified on purely historical grounds). For not knowing is one thing, opposition is another.

The Pharisees of the school of Shammai opposed Jesus on the grounds that He broke down the dividing wall between the Torah-abiding Jew and the “sinner,” between the clean and the unclean, and between the Jew and the gentile. Jesus opposed this kind of “zeal” and the “zealous” opposed Him with persecution and conspiracies to do away with Him. They did not do away with Him, however. It was the chief priests who were Sadducees and who collaborated with the Romans, who betrayed Him to the Romans, and it was the Romans who did away with Him, and not for these reasons (obviously), but just because He crossed their will-for-power (He claimed to be the “King of the Jews”). Later, however, the zealous raised their heads again when the mission to the gentiles began, and hounded the church wherever it went because it violated their sense of proper boundaries. The gospels of Matthew and Luke and the Acts of the Apostles were written during this time. The persecution by the gentiles, which also took place, was nevertheless sporadic until the time of Nero, which is when the Gospel according to Mark was composed. Then, to the church, persecution against it took on a more general aspect, and the “way of the cross” was reconsidered in this light.

In any case—to get back on the topic—whenever Jesus and the apostles later encountered the unbelief of the Jews, it became an opportunity to open the Gospel to the gentiles, and the gentiles seem to respond even more readily than the Jews. Why wouldn’t they? The gentiles were spiritually starved. The scandal of the ordinariness of Jesus was not the same stumbling block to the gentile. What the pagan saw was the generosity of the God of Israel toward them. Jesus was the extraordinary expression of God’s love. That the one God, whom Israel uniquely proclaimed, should take an interest in the ignorant pagan lost in his or her idolatry was something amazing to them. Jesus witnesses this in His own apostolate, and the apostles witnessed it everywhere they went.

Zarephath was a poor widow and Naaman was poor in health. Ultimately it was their very poverty that made them open to the gift that the God of Israel was giving them. The gentiles who are open to the Gospel are those who are awake, or awaken, to their spiritual poverty. Often (though not always) it is physical poverty that awakens us spiritually, freeing us to depend on God when before we only looked to ourselves and others. The anointing is for the proclamation of the Gospel to the poor.

The promises about the Anointed One—that He will bind up the broken-hearted, liberate the captives, free the prisoners, forgive their debts and restore what they have lost, that He will comfort those who mourn and give them garlands in place of ashes, the oil of gladness to replace their mourning, and a mantle of praise instead of their spirit of fainting—also come to the gentiles who believe in Him; and the God of Israel comes to them too through the Messiah. This graciousness to the gentiles, and this turning of the gentiles to the God of Israel, is foretold in Isaiah and the Psalms. The day of vengeance will come, but it is not yet. The promises concerning the outer world, the world of Israel and the nations, creation itself, has yet to see their fulfillment—this will take place beginning with the universal manifestation of the revelation of Jesus Christ—but they are already fulfilled in Jesus, in His Person, and in a personal relationship of fidelity to Him; and when He is resurrected from the dead, they are fulfilled in our own person through the Holy Spirit, by means of our relationship to Jesus (our being in Him).

In this story, Jesus foresees that in the course of His apostolate, the poor and outcast and even the gentiles will turn to Him, especially when the Jews of Galilee do not; and the end of this story foreshadows that the “zealous” will turn against Him because of this. This entire story then, Luke 4:16-30, gives us a preview of His ministry (His apostolate) and in this way introduces it.

But the apostolate of Jesus includes the apostolate of the church. His ministry continues in the life of the church, and what is foreseen concerning Jesus is also foreseen with respect to the church, and what is foreshadowed for Jesus is likewise foreshadowed with respect to the church. The apostles will turn to the gentiles and the gentiles will be receptive in a surprising way when the Jews are more reserve. In the same way, the church’s mission (or apostolate) to the Gentiles will receive the same vehement opposition from the zealous that Jesus received from the Pharisees. This story then is not simply an introduction to the apostolate of Jesus but introduces the apostolate of the church as well. It is one apostolate, one mission, one ministry.

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