Is this not Joseph’s son? Up until the moment that somebody asked that question, Jesus had been doing pretty well. The crowd in the synagogue had been moved and awed by what Jesus had to say, and quite frankly, Jesus had said some pretty awesome things. Verses 18 and 19 are a quote from Isaiah chapter 61. Chapters 60 and 61 from Isaiah sometimes show up at Christmastime as we celebrate the birth of the Messiah, but those chapters from Isaiah aren’t just Christian property. In first century Palestine, and more specifically in the synagogue at Nazareth, those chapters spoke to the people of the coming of Messiah loudly and clearly. And when Jesus rolled up the scroll, and looked at his audience and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” every eye and every heart and every mind in the place must have been on high alert. They must have been thinking, this man is claiming to be Messiah. This man just said he was the Messiah. Is not this Joseph’s son?
Now Jesus must have said a few more things about this scripture that are not written here in Luke’s Gospel. I’m hoping that Jesus preached a whole sermon, and some of you are thinking, no, no, he said plenty. There is never any need for a long sermon. But Jesus must have said at least a little more than just one sentence because Luke tells us that “All spoke well of him, and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”
But then, there’s that nagging question. “Is not this Joseph’s son?” Yeah, he’s got gracious words, yeah, he just announced that he is the Messiah, yeah, we’re all awed and moved, but isn’t this young fellow Joseph’s son? The problem here in the minds of the people in the synagogue in Nazareth is that Joseph’s son cannot be the Messiah. Joseph’s son is too ordinary. Joseph’s son is someone they all watched grow up. When Messiah comes he will be someone who is greater and far more important than Joseph’s son.
I suppose Jesus could have defended himself. He could have said, no, really, I am the Messiah! How about a few miracles? Is anybody not feeling well? I’ll heal you! How about some mighty fine wine? Bring me some water! But Jesus didn’t do that. He did just the opposite. He refused to do any miracles to prove that he was the Messiah. And he didn’t do any miracles because he didn’t see any faith. The folks in Nazareth liked a good sermon, they enjoyed talking about a good sermon, but they weren’t ready to step into faith.
So, Jesus decided to preach some more. And he told a couple of stories about God’s mercy. And both of the stories are amazing stories of eventual faith, but they are also exceedingly offensive to the folks in Nazareth, because both stories are about how God’s mercy and compassion was extended to gentiles. And gentiles are barely human in the hearts and minds of the people of Nazareth. And Jesus knows this; and so he rubs it in like salt into a wound.
He starts the first one by saying, “…there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah…” Yup, many deserving widows among God’s people, but God had sent the prophet Elijah into gentile territory, into the land of Sidon, to the town of Zarephath. And there, by a well, Elijah met a widow. He asked her for a drink of water, and then asked her to bake him some bread, because he was hungry. Now there had been a famine in the land. It had not rained for three and one half years. There had been no crops.
And the poor woman replied to Elijah that she had only a handful of flour, and a tiny bit of oil, and that she was going home now, to use up the last of it, so that she and her son could share one final meal together, and then having eaten that meal, they were prepared to die together by starvation. In my imagination, I can see a young widow, perhaps in her 20’s, with a young boy. Day after day they had together watched their food supply get smaller and smaller. I am sure that they both knew that today was the last day that they would eat. Perhaps this tender and loving mom had already discussed with her son what it would be like to die of starvation. What else would they have talked about? They had endured much together in life, they would be together in death.
But God spoke to this widow through the prophet Elijah. Elijah said, “The jar of meal will not be emptied, and the jug of oil will not fail until the day that the Lord sends rain on the earth.” (I Kings 17:14) And Elijah stayed with the woman and her son, and they ate and they were not hungry. One day, the young boy became sick, and it appeared that he had died. But Elijah prayed and the son became whole. Yup, there there were many widows in Israel, but God ministered to a gentile widow and to her son, thus preserving their lives.
And “There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them were cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” Naaman was also one of those barely human gentiles. Naaman was a commander in the Syrian army, which at the time was engaged in a cold war with Israel. Living in Naaman’s house was a little Israelite slave girl, who had been captured in one of the skirmishes between Syria and Israel. We know nothing of her parents. In spite of the fact that she is a prisoner of war, she tells Naaman that there is a prophet in Israel who can cure him of his leprosy. After a profoundly embarrassing diplomatic failure, Naaman ends up, ultimately, at Elisha’s house. But for some reason, unknown to all of us, Elisha doesn’t even come out of his house to greet Naaman, but instead, sends word that Naaman should dip himself seven times in the Jordan River, and he will be healed.
It turns out that Naaman the Syrian is just as much the racist as are the folks back home in the synagogue at Nazareth. He flies into a rage, and refuses to stick even his big toe into that filthy old, Israelite river. The whole world has cleaner rivers than that one. Everybody can see that. That’s why we’re at war with these filthy Israelites, and besides, what I really expected was that the prophet would come out of his house, wave his arms around, do some hocus pocus and some magic stuff, offer prayers, and heal me! If not for the wisdom of one of Naaman’s servants, Naaman would have gone back home, forever, as the sputtering, angry leper that he was. But the servant said, Look! If the prophet had asked you to do something extraordinary, you would have done it. This is it! This is the extraordinary thing! Do it! And Naaman did it, and he was healed.
Both of these stories were very familiar to the folks in the synagogue in Nazareth. But the way that Jesus told them made the people exceedingly angry; really, really angry. So angry that they wanted to kill him. Things have suddenly gone terribly wrong. Earlier in this worship service, people were speaking well of Jesus and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. But now that those words have become less gracious, the worshipers have become less impressed with Jesus and have driven Jesus out of town and to the edge of a cliff. They intend to push the son of Joseph to his death.
But at the edge of the cliff Jesus simply turned around and walked back through the middle of the mob. There will come a day when Jesus will not resist an angry mob, and that angry mob will, in fact, drive him to his death. But I wonder, as Jesus made his way through that enraged synagogue crowd, were some of them beginning to realize that Jesus was more, much more than the son of Joseph? Were they beginning to understand that Jesus just might be the Messiah, the Son of the Living God? I hope so, because I hope that the same is true for us. It’s OK that Jesus is the son of Joseph. That only means that he is just like us. And even though that was a problem for the folks in Nazareth, it shouldn’t be a problem for us. The more that we know Jesus, the more he becomes to us. The son of Joseph is also the Son of God, the Messiah, our savior.
I hope also that some of the folks in that angry crowd were also open to having some of their racist attitudes challenged. It was their racism that made them angry at Jesus. But as he walked through their midst, were any of them wondering, could it be that Jesus is the Messiah of more than just the chosen people? Could it be that God’s mercy is extended to all peoples, Jew and gentile alike? Is that why he was telling us those stories about the widow and the leper?*
I hope, that as some of the people watched Jesus make his way through the crowd, that their lives were in the process of being transformed, and that some of their racist attitudes were being eliminated from their lives. All of us have much to learn from Elijah, Elisha and Jesus. We know deep in our hearts that God’s mercy is available to all people, and perhaps especially to the poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed. And maybe even to the barely human. For we are in fact, from time to time, all of these things, and we do desperately want the mercy of God in our own lives.
*The story of the widow of Zarephath is found in 1Kings chapter 17, beginning at verse 8, and the story of Naaman the leper resides in II Kings chapter 5.