One of the themes that Luke follows throughout his writings is the idea of the “great reversal.” The arrival of Jesus, Luke thought, would topple kings, confuse the proud and lift up the lowly. As Simeon prophesied to Joseph and Mary, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel” (Lk 3:34). In short, many of those in the best position to recognize the messiah’s arrival ended up resisting him, whereas those who lacked the knowledge or status to appreciate Jesus’ significance believed in and followed him whenever they encountered him.
They also asked, ‘Isn’t this the son of Joseph?’ (Lk 4:22)
Have you ever found Jesus’ message impossible to believe?
How did you come to accept it?
Have you ever spoken words on Christ’s behalf that caused others to reject you?
The reasons for the “great reversal” were mysterious, but Luke found it in many places. People learned in the prophecies of Israel rejected Christ, whereas the unlettered poor and literate but irreligious types, like tax collectors, appreciated his preaching (Lk 7:29-30). Jesus offended guardians of Jewish national identity but attracted Gentiles (compare Lk 20:19-26 with Lk 7:2-10). In this Sunday’s Gospel, those who had known Jesus since early childhood threatened to kill him, even after residents of Capernaum, Jesus’ adult home, flocked to him for healing.
It is not explicit in Luke’s account why the residents of Nazareth turned on Jesus, but it certainly had something to do with his bold speech. Mark’s version of these events makes that plain, “Where did this man get all this? Is he not the carpenter, the son of Mary?... And they took offense at him” (Mk 6:2-3). Luke compresses this controversy into a subtle phrase that the Lectionary renders “They also asked, ‘Isn’t this the son of Joseph?’” The surprise they experienced at his gracious words quickly turned sour when they considered the man they thought they knew. Jesus was not allowed to speak about himself or about God with such boldness.
This is the nature of Jesus’ prophetic message in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus’ words had power. Those who encountered Jesus for the first time, like the residents of Capernaum, found his message fresh, even exhilarating. Those who thought they knew him, like his childhood neighbors at Nazareth, found his message impossible to take seriously. No one with Jesus’ background, they thought, could preach authentically the words they heard from his mouth. Similarly, those who did not know Jesus but studied prophecies of the coming messiah also found him preposterous. Leaders of the community, like the scribes and Pharisees, heard the power of his words and saw his mighty deeds but could not accept that he was the one Israel had awaited for centuries.
Luke wrote this passage in part as a warning to disciples of every age. We can come to think that we know all we need to know about Christ’s message, the extent of his power and the effects of his love. When divine grace draws us into a deeper understanding of the Gospel, that invitation can be disruptive. We can reject what we only think we understand, as did the citizens of Nazareth, or we can accept the mystery, as did the citizens of Capernaum, several of whom became apostles and followed Jesus for the rest of his days.