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.

The wedding theme in the gospel of John

The ideal marriage gives a new, richer life brimming over with joy.   John uses this as a metaphor for eternal life, the new kind of life that comes through relationship with Jesus.  I think this metaphor is much more tightly woven into the tapestry of the gospel of John than most people have realized.  This attempts to lay out some of the connections.  Probably not everyone will agree with everything in here.

The first place where the wedding theme crops up is in John 2, when Jesus is invited to a wedding. The wine has run out. It was the responsibility of the groom to provide the wine (we know this from external evidence, and also from 2:10). Providing the wine was a large responsibility, because a wedding feast could go on for days and involve the whole town. His mother, who is probably there in some semi-official capacity, perhaps because she is a relation, asks him to help solve the problem. It is not clear from the text exactly what she was expecting, but I think it is unlikely that she was asking him to perform a miracle (though many interpreters have thought she was). More likely, she was assuming he would go somewhere to fetch more wine and would need the servants' help to bring it back.

What is particularly interesting is Jesus reply to her: "My hour is not yet come." If it were not for the use of that phrase in the rest of the gospel of John (see below on this), we would probably assume that he was saying, "This isn't my wedding--it's not my time to provide the wine."  It is the bridegroom whose hour has come.  Despite this, however, he does provide the wine, of surpassingly good quality. What are we to make of this?

The point of the story is not just that he performed a miracle. Note that the miraculous nature of it is de-emphasized--the miracle is buried in a dependent clause in 2:9, and apparently it is not at all dramatic; it reveals Jesus' glory only through later reflection.  John calls it a "sign", and signs in the gospel of John are never merely demonstrations of power.  In every case, they point to something beyond the act itself, and the kind of power exerted reveals something about who Jesus is. (For example, he makes physical bread and then says, "I am the bread of life"--the miraculous physical bread is intended to be a picture of the spiritual bread that he is always giving.)  Here, I think that the sign is that by providing the wine, he is acting in the role of the bridegroom.  Jesus is the true bridegroom, the one who will provide the best possible wine and the most satisfying relationship. This is how he reveals his glory.

In case the allusions in the story of the wedding at Cana are too subtle and a reader misses it, in 3:29 John tells us flat out that Jesus is the bridegroom of the people of Israel.  (Note that this happens in the context of a discussion about water for baptism and purification, probably intended as a link to the water for purification that Jesus turned into wine.)  In the Old Testament, Yahweh himself is the husband of his people (Is. 49-50, 54, various other passages; Jer. 2; Ezek. 16; Hos. 1-3). The relationship went tragically wrong through Israel's infidelity, and Yahweh distanced himself. But those same prophets promised a time when he would no longer be distant. For over six hundred years the faithful among his people waited. Then Jesus walked on the earth, and the people flocked to him.  3:29 explains this as the bride following the bridegroom. Finally the time has come.

The image of the bridegroom takes an unexpected twist, however, in the next chapter.  An important Old Testament image, deeply ingrained into Jewish thinking, is the picture of a man meeting his future wife at a well in the heat of the day and drawing water. Abraham's servant meets Rebecca; Jacob meets Rachel; Moses meets Zipporah.  This boy-meets-girl-at-well picture probably had a strong grasp on the imagination because water from a well in an arid land is like the refreshment that the marriage relationship brings. (See Prov. 5:15-20 as an example of this imagery.)   Like these Old Testament characters, Jesus also meets a woman at a well at noon, and as in those stories, there is an exchange of water.  Primed by this Old Testament motif, and by John's statements about the bridegroom in the previous chapter, we are thinking of a marriage.  But the woman here is a shockingly unsuitable bride for a Jewish rabbi: she is a Samaritan, married five times, living currently in adultery.  And that is the point: the bride of Christ, the bride of Yahweh, will consist not only of the people who were thought to be suitable, but all the people who come.  Jesus offers her living water (probably the same symbolic idea as the better wine at the wedding of Cana), which is what she has really been seeking all along through her failed attempts at marriage relationships.  Just like the people of Israel who John says are flocking to the bridegroom (3:26), all the Samaritans came out to him (4:30). He is happy to stay with the Samaritans (4:40) as he did with his disciples after the earlier wedding (2:12).  The story concludes with the Samaritans saying that Jesus truly is the savior of the world (not just Israel).

The picture of the wedding is probably also behind Jesus' words in John 14, "I go to prepare a place for you. In my Father's house are many rooms.... and I will come again to take you back to myself." A young man would often add an additional room on to his father's house when he was about to be married, and only when the place was prepared would he come and get his bride.  The upper room discourse goes on to talk about how the disciples will bear fruit only so long as they remain in relationship with him--probably an allusion to fruitfulness in marriage, an idea that Paul uses more explicitly in Romans 7.

The wedding and the hour

Later that night, Jesus prays, "Father, the hour has come! Glorify your son, that your son may glorify you." (John 17:1) These words echo key phrases from the story of the wedding at Cana (2:4 and 2:11).  Given how carefully the gospel of John is constructed, this is unlikely to be a coincidence.  Everywhere else in the gospel of John, "the hour" refers unambiguously to his death; why does he use that phrase in talking to his mother at the wedding?

Jesus left his Father to become one with his bride, as it says in Genesis, "A man shall leave his father and mother, and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh."  A man starts out as one flesh with his parents, and becomes one flesh with his wife.  This is what he is praying for in chapter 17: that he and his disciples may be one, as he and the father are one.  His "hour" is the time when the union with his people is accomplished.  It is both his wedding (which ch. 2 suggests) and his death, because his death accomplishes the union.

It seems rather grisly to connect the crucifixion to a marriage, but I think that is precisely what John is doing with a number of ironic symbols.  He says, "I am thirsty," just as he said to the Samaritan woman. He drinks sour wine, not the good wine that he provided at the wedding.  He is wearing a crown, which the bridegroom would do at a Jewish wedding--but it is not a garland, it is a crown of thorns.

At his death, blood and water flow out of his side.  Commentators stumble over what to do with this emphatic assertion; sometimes it is taken to mean that he clearly died, a form of medical evidence.  (Though it is by no means clear--just what precisely does it mean that the blood had separated into two parts?  And would most readers in the first century have understood that?)  But it would be out of character for John, in his highly symbolic and theological gospel, at the very high point of the narrative, to suddenly forsake his theological mind and emphasize purely medical facts.  The medical facts are there, perhaps, but are unlikely to exhaust the significance.

I think the blood and water flowing out of his side is a symbolic, pictorial fulfillment of the better wine and the living water that Jesus promised.  The argument here is a bit technical, so bear with me or just skip ahead.  I think we are supposed to link together most of the references to water, wine, and blood in the gospel of John; the author is careful about his symbolic references, and is not throwing out symbols willy-nilly.  These all refer to the new quality of life that comes through relationship with him--more specifically, through the Spirit that he gives, as 7:37 makes clear.  There is an interesting translation issue in 7:37, having to do with where punctuation is placed in the sentence (there was no punctuation at all in the original manuscripts, so where punctuation is placed is a translator's decision).  Most English translations of 7:37 follow the eastern fathers: "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.  Whoever believes in me, as the scripture has said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water."  Here the water flows from the believers.  But by changing the location of the period, we have the western Fathers' understanding of the verse: "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me.  And whoever believes in me, let him drink.  As the scripture has said, 'Out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.'"  In this case, water flows from Jesus, which I think is a much more natural way of understanding the passage.  7:38 clarifies that this water is referring to the Spirit that was going to come when Jesus was glorified--which in John's gospel happens on the cross, the ultimate glorification of Jesus.  Only with this interpretation of 7:37 is John's emphatic insistence on the water that flowed from Jesus' side understandable (19:35--he repeats it three times).  It is a physical sign of the spiritual reality that because of his death, the Spirit is now available to believers.  This is the time, at least in a picture, when he provides the better wine that he promised back at the wedding of Cana, and the living water that he promised to the Samaritan woman.

In our lives, marriage is the only thing that can change a person's family after he is born.  John makes it clear in several places that after the cross, the disciples are part of Jesus' family in a way that they were not before.  Interestingly, Jesus mother appears in only two places in the gospel: at the wedding, and at the cross.  In both places, he addresses her with the same title ("Woman", a not-entirely-common way of talking to a mother, something which commentators stumble over).  At the cross, he makes a point of bringing the disciple Jesus loved (despite all the arguments over this, I still think this is John himself) and his mother together into the same family.  Perhaps the most common view of Jesus' words here is that they show the extent of Jesus' love: even in his extremity, he could still think about his mother's well-being.  This may be true, but I am fairly certain it does not exhaust the meaning.  John is primarily thinking theologically rather than psychologically.  I think what we are supposed to gather from this is that the disciple whom Jesus loves is now part of his family--just as the woman a man loves becomes a part of his family.  John uses this concrete picture of changed family relations to show what is happening spiritually.

There is probably another allusion to marriage in the scene with Mary Magdalene in the garden.  Once again, a garden scene with a man and a woman is a rich picture for a Jewish audience, with overtones of the original garden.  Mary goes so far as to grab him and hug him (20:17), definitely overstepping the bounds of propriety.  This does not mean that they had some kind of physical relationship, contra the silly speculations that have recently become popular; but the text really does have hints of something romantic.  I think that John is using the suggestive image to point out that Jesus and Mary now have a kind of relationship which in some ways is a marriage (though not a physical marriage), a relationship which they did not have before the cross.  In the next verse, he calls his disciples "my brothers" and he calls God "your father"; never before had he done either of these in the gospel of John.  It is only after the cross that they are his brothers, and they have a common father in this sense--they have been brought into Jesus' family.

Finally, the gospel concludes with Jesus asking Peter if he loves him.  This is the only suitable attitude if we are the bride of Christ.