Sunday, March 20, 2011

How Jesus made everyone mad: inaugural address in Nazareth

How, within the space of a few minutes, did the opinion of the people of Nazareth about Jesus turn from apparent approval to murderous rage?  Kenneth Bailey (in Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes, in a chapter called "The Inauguration of Jesus' ministry") discusses this question in a fresh way.

There are few extra-biblical references to Nazareth, but we do know that after the failed Bar Kochba revolt in AD 135, Nazareth had become one of the towns inhabited by the 24 courses of priests.  This suggests that it was an overwhelmingly Jewish town, devoted to Jewish ideals--a priestly course would not have chosen it if it were a mixed Jewish-Gentile town.  It appears that Nazareth was a town which had originally been settled as part of a plan to take over Galilee and turn it into Jewish territory, much like modern day Jewish settlers in debated areas in Israel.  By settling in Galilee, they hoped to change it from Gentile territory to Jewish territory.  (One theory for the origin of the name "Nazareth" is that it comes from a Hebrew word meaning "watch, guard, keep": such a name might be appropriate for an advance outpost in the war between Jewish and Gentile culture.)

For this reason, everyone in the town would have grown up with the Jewish hope of conquering the godless Gentiles and ultimately bringing in the glorious kingdom.  This hope is expressed in many places, including Isaiah 61 (note particularly verses 7-11):
1The Spirit of Yahweh God is upon me,
because Yahweh has anointed me
2to bring good tidings to the poor;
he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
3to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and the opening of the prison to those who are bound;
4to proclaim the year of Yahweh's favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
5to comfort all who mourn;
to grant to those who mourn in Zion--
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit;
6that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of Yahweh,
that he may be glorified.
7They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
8Aliens shall stand and feed your flocks,
foreigners shall be your plowmen and vinedressers;
9but you shall be called the priests of Yahweh,
men shall speak of you as the ministers of our God;
10you shall eat the wealth of the Gentiles,
and in their riches you shall glory.
11Instead of shame you shall have a double portion,
instead of dishonor you shall rejoice in your lot;
therefore in your land you shall possess a double portion;
yours shall be everlasting joy.

This sort of passage is the whole reason for existence of towns like Nazareth, and undoubtedly they knew it well.  So when Jesus, a son of the town, comes to talk in their synagogue and begins reading this passage, they know what to expect: in their understanding, God will ultimately turn the tables and allow them to treat the Gentiles as slaves, or worse (they will do to the Gentiles what the Gentiles have done to them).

But much to their surprise, he stops reading in the middle of verse 4.  Everyone knew that the next phrase was "the day of vengeance of our God," the day they are all hoping for, when God takes vengeance on their enemies.  In the original passage, "the day of vengeance of our God" is parallel to "the year of Yahweh's favor", so where Jesus stopped is very unnatural: he deliberately broke the poetic parallelism of the passage.  To those who know the passage well, it is as jarring as if someone were singing the Star Spangled Banner to a United States audience and stopped after "and the rockets' red glare" and didn't include "and the bombs bursting in air."  Why did he stop here, just before he got to the good part about God killing lots of Gentiles and making the rest our menial servants?

He also makes several other minor changes, the most important of which is that he inserted a phrase from Isaiah 58: "to let the oppressed go free."  (Synagogue readers were allowed to insert other passages or perform minor edits that were consistent with the sense of the passage.  The reader would read in Hebrew, and someone translated into Aramaic.  So after the reader read a phrase, he had a few seconds while the translation was occurring.  The custom was that a reader was allowed to insert a passage from a nearby source, as long as the passage was near enough that he could turn the scroll to it without creating a delay.)  Isaiah 58 is a passage calling people to show compassion to the oppressed; fasting and the sabbath are not so much markers of holiness and devotion to God, as a chance to show kindness to the homeless on the street, and the migrant farm workers (what Is. 61 says the Gentiles will become).  You are wondering why God does not bless you, but you have not been a blessing to others, you have oppressed them.

The addition of this phrase, and stopping before "the day of vengeance of our God," makes this passage go against the hopes of a town like Nazareth.  They naturally emphasized the promise of how they would be able to enslave or abuse their enemies; Jesus deliberately ignores the promise of the day of vengeance, and instead reminds them that God's blessing is for those "who let the oppressed go free," not those who wish to oppress.

Well, this certainly got everyone's attention.  "He rolled up the scroll and handed it back to the attendant. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were on him."  Suddenly no one was sleepy.  He then says, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing," and goes on to preach some unrecorded words, apparently about God's mercy and grace to those whom they thought God had rejected, using as evidence the healings that he had done earlier in Capernaum.  (Apparently these healings were unrecorded, or else Luke has reported things out of chronological sequence; either is possible.)

Since people of that day often considered sickness and infirmity as a punishment of sin, Jesus' healings were understood as offering forgiveness, and indeed at times Jesus explicitly makes this connection himself.  But forgiveness to those who had violated the covenant is not the sort of thing that the Nazerenes wanted to hear: their whole religion was bound up in hopes of the messianic age being a golden age for them and a time of vengeance for everyone else, whether Gentile or traitor to the covenant.  It would be somewhat like announcing in the middle of a anti-gay Christian political rally that God will heal the homosexual AIDS victims.  In the minds of the most rabid partisans (who are unfortunately the most vocal), these people should not be healed.  But God freely gives healing to the unworthy, whether we like it or not.

"And they all witnessed about him, and were amazed at the words of grace that came out of his mouth, and they said, 'Is this not Joseph's son?'"  Here there is a translation question: "witnessed about him" in Greek is fundamentally ambiguous, and usually in English versions it is translated "spoke well of him", implying some sort of positive feeling toward him which later turned into murderous rage.  But it could equally well be translated "murmured against him", which would not be surprising given how he just deliberately cut what they hoped for most out of one of their favorite passages.  How dare he turn a message about our dominance into a message of God's grace to those we hate!  This translation makes more sense of the passage: they were amazed and angry that he preached a message of grace.

He then makes them even more angry by citing two examples of those hated Gentiles.  The widow of Zaraphath is a Gentile woman, a Sidonian, from the same country as Jezebel, the evil queen of Elijah's time who did more than anyone else to destroy the worship of Yahweh in Israel.  Nevertheless (and starkly contrasting to Jezebel) the Sidonian widow showed more faith than any widow in Israel by giving her very last meal to an Israelite prophet.  Naaman the Syrian was a general from an oppressive foreign power (a power acting very much like their current enemy Rome), and God healed him.  The implication is very clear: even in the Old Testament, God showed grace and mercy to those whom the first century Nazarenes hated and wanted to oppress if they could.  God never has endorsed their hope.

They respond by rising up and trying to throw him over the cliff.  This is not a random act of impulsive violence.  Throwing someone off a cliff was the first part of the official punishment for blasphemy recorded in the Mishnah: if the person survives the fall, they were to rain heavy stones upon him until he died.  They regard Jesus as a blasphemer because he has just trampled on their hope, and they regard that as blasphemy against God.  This episode in Luke is a foreshadowing of what will happen to Jesus, and why.  This time they didn't get him, but in three years they will.

Why does Jesus deliberately antagonize them in this way?  Why doesn't he try to win them over first, and then slowly try to change the things that are wrong about their belief in God?  If nothing else, this seems like a terrible strategic mistake in his ministry.  He apparently never was able to go back to Nazareth, making his home in Capernaum.

Jesus' goal is to prepare his own people for the kingdom.  Jesus consistently saw the real enemy as sinfulness within the people of God, not sinfulness of others outside.  Instead of emphasizing the evil of the Romans and God's certain vengeance on them, Jesus instead called the Jews themselves to repent.  (Jesus certainly did not think that what the Romans were doing was ok, by any means; after all, he calls them "evil", even here in the sermon on the mount.  But he in his ministry did not attempt to call the Romans to repentance.)  Anyone who calls an oppressed people to repent for their sins, instead of calling the oppressor to repent, is going to be unpopular.  Imagine what would have happened if Martin Luther King Jr. stopped speaking against white oppression of blacks in the United States and instead called black people to repent for the things they had done wrong, or if Bishop Desmond Tutu had done the same thing in South Africa.  (See Kenneth Bailey's book, cited above, for further discussion on this.) 

It is not just that Jesus called the oppressed Jews to repent.  He called them to repent of wanting vengeance on their enemies.  He does this here, and perhaps more explicitly in the sermon on the mount (see my earlier blog post on this).

The sinful attitudes of racism and Jewish superiority had become central to the first century Jewish identity and world view.  Jesus knew his people could never be the true kingdom of God unless they repented of those attitudes, and so he consistently spoke against them every chance he had.  When an attitude forms the core of our identity, any attack will necessarily produce anger.  It is not possible to convince someone to change everything they think about the world and themselves without stirring up deep emotions, so any attempt to get on their good side first before talking about these issues would be doomed to fail anyway.  Furthermore, my experience has been that it is simply impossible for me even to understand that someone wants me to change such a deep-held belief unless they confront it openly and forcefully.  Otherwise, since it is part of the lens through which I view the world, I will not even understand that they are saying it is wrong.  For these reasons, I think, Jesus did not bother to be subtle about it.  It was more important, and probably more effective in the long run, for him to anger them--at least then they understood what he stood for, and what he was talking about.

No comments:

Post a Comment