Jesus visits his homeland.

by K.W. Leslie, 10 May

It didn’t go well.

Mark 6.1-6 • Matthew 13.53-58 • Luke 4.16-30.

Luke puts this story right at the beginning of Jesus’s ministry, right after he got tempted by Satan and gathered some students. It sounds like the right spot for it—if you’re gonna start teaching, you do it in your hometown, right?—but it’s not really. Because it seems Jesus already had a reputation as a teacher and faith-healer, which he got from somewhere… like the other synagogues and towns where he taught.

Mark has it after Jesus cured Jair’s daughter, and Matthew has it after Jesus shared some parables. It begins with Jesus going to his patrída/“fatherland,” or as Luke nails it down, Nazareth, the town he grew up in. Friday evening after sundown, he taught in synagogue.

Mark 6.1-2 KWL
1 Jesus went out from Kfar Nahum to his homeland. His students followed him.
2A When Sabbath came, Jesus began to teach in synagogue…
Matthew 13.53-54 KWL
53 When Jesus finished these parables, this happened:
He left there, 54A went to his homeland, and taught in their synagogue.
Luke 4.16-21 KWL
16 Jesus came to Nazareth, where he was raised.
By his custom, he entered synagogue on the Sabbath day, and arose to read.
17 Jesus was given the book of the prophet Isaiah.
Unrolling the bible, he found the place where it’s written:
18 “The Lord’s Spirit is upon me because he anointed me to evangelize the poor.
He sent me to proclaim forgiveness to captives, and restored sight to the blind.
To send away the shattered in forgiveness,
19 to proclaim a year of the Lord’s acceptance.” Is 61.1-2
20 Closing the bible and returning it to the assistant, Jesus sat to teach.
Every eye in the synagogue was staring at him.
21 He began to tell them this: “This scripture has been fulfilled today, in your ears.”

Luke gives us more of a glimpse of synagogue custom: The men stood round the podium up front. (The women stood in back, sometimes behind a partition, sometimes not, and had to be quiet ’cause synagogue was for men.) The teacher would stand to read the bible, ’cause respect. Then the teacher sat down and interpreted what he’d just read. The men would ask him questions about his interpretation—sometimes to understand him better, sometimes to challenge it.

Well, Jesus just gave ’em something challenging. He claimed Isaiah’s statement about what God had sent him to do, also applied to himself.

Yeah, let’s look at Isaiah. The guys who wrote the New Testament tended to quote only part of a verse, partly ’cause they wanted to save papyrus, partly ’cause they expected their readers to know the rest of it—or to unscroll a bible and read the rest of it. They didn’t quote it out of context; we do that. So it’s unlikely Jesus only read the first two verses of Isaiah 61: He read the whole chapter, and maybe chapter 62 too. I’ll quote a little bit more than Luke did:

Isaiah 61.1-4 KWL
1 My master LORD’s Spirit is upon me because the LORD anointed me to bring news to the needy.
He sent me to bandage the brokenhearted,
call captives to freedom, release to those in chains,
2 to call a year of favor from the LORDand a day of revenge from our God.
To comfort all who mourn, 3 and to set an end to mourning in Zion:
to give them a fine headcovering instead of ash,
oil of joy instead of mourning, clothing of praise instead of a dim spirit.
God wants to call them righteous oaks, God’s planting, his glory.
4 They built ancient ruins, abandoned by the first people.
Now they’re building cities anew—the generations-old abandoned ruins.

And so on. Israel gets restored, the gentiles come to know Israel and their God, blessings and peace and so on forevermore. And it all starts with Jesus. So, y’know, good news!

Except the locals had their doubts: It all starts with this guy?

“We know this guy.”

It’s been said you can’t go home again. The idea is that things just aren’t gonna stay as you remember them. Sometimes it’s because home changed. Sometimes you’ve changed.

Jesus had certainly changed. When he was last in Nazareth, he wasn’t Jesus the Prophet, Jesus the Healer, Jesus the Possible Messiah, or even Jesus the Rabbi. He was Jesus the Tékton, a word which tends to get translated “carpenter,” but the ancients used to apply that word to stoneworkers, sculptors, and smiths. Jesus didn’t just make tables and carts; he could make anything. (Stands to reason; he made everything. Jn 1.3) So he was the guy you hired to build your barn, tile your floors, fix your windows, dig a well, unclog your drains. He was Jesus the Handyman. His hands weren’t used for healing; they were used for work.

In Matthew Jesus is called “the handyman’s son,” meaning his adoptive father Joseph had that trade, not Jesus. But trades have always passed father to son: If Joseph was a handyman, so was Jesus and his brothers. At least, until Jesus left that career and became a rabbi.

But it was too late for the people of Nazareth: They already had him pigeonholed. He wasn’t Jesus the Rabbi; he was Jesus the Handyman. They knew him, or thought they did. They knew his family. They were his background. And like every insecure boor who shouts at anyone who’s tried to improve their life, “You think you’re better than me? You’re not better than me,” Jesus’s backwoods neighbors decided to take him down a few notches.

Mark 6.2-4 KWL
2B …and his hearers were astounded,
saying, “How’d these things come to this man?
“Why was wisdom given to this man?” “How were such powers put in his hands?”
3 “Isn’t this the handyman, Mary’s son, brother of James, Jose, Judas, and Simon?
Aren’t his sisters here with us?” The people were tripped up by him.
4 Jesus told them this: “A prophet isn’t worthless—
unless he’s in his homeland, with his relatives, or in his home.”
Matthew 13.54-57 KWL
54B Thus they were astounded and said, “How’d this wisdom and powers get to this man?
55 “Isn’t this the handyman’s son?”
“Isn’t his mother called Mary, and his brothers James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas?
56 Aren’t all his sisters with us? So where’d he get all these things?”
57 The people were tripped up by him.
Jesus told them, “A prophet isn’t worthless—unless he’s in his homeland or home.”
Luke 4.22-24 KWL
22 Everybody witnessed Jesus, and wondered about the gracious words coming out of his mouth,
and said, “Isn’t this man Joseph’s son?”
23 Jesus told them, “Go ahead and tell me this parable, ‘Doctor, cure yourself.’
‘Do here in your homeland what we heard you’d done in Kfar Nahum.’ ”
24 Jesus said, “Amen, I promise you no prophet is acceptable to his homeland.”

John had referred to this statement of Jesus’s as well:

John 4.43-44 KWL
43 After the two days, Jesus left Samaria for the Galilee,
44 for Jesus himself testified that in their own homeland, prophets have no value.

Note in Mark they referred to Jesus as “Mary’s son.” Not, like Luke has it, “Joseph’s son.” That’s how the ancient Jews usually referred to people; by their father. Jesus would be called “bar Joseph,” not “bar Mary”… unless there was some question about who Jesus’s father actually was. And y’might recall in Jesus’s case there absolutely was some question about this.

Yes, Joseph adopted and raised Jesus, and was a saint about it. But the rest of Nazareth may not have been willing to accept Jesus in the same way his dad did. To them, Jesus wasn’t just Jesus the Handyman, but Jesus the Bastard, and previous generations had this ridiculous practice of blaming you for the fact your parentage was in question. Seems they were still giving Jesus crap because “Joseph’s not your real dad.” Even though adoptive dads are real dads. The guy who raised you is always more your dad than the guy who made you.

Jesus pointed out how prophets get no respect from their family. Ain’t that the truth. No matter how important or knowledgeable people become, there are always people who wanna make light of them because they “know” them. They’re insecure, jealous, envious; they’re convicted of their own sins and failings, and wanna defend themselves by attacking the messenger. There are all sorts of selfish and stupid reasons behind it. But it’s not a unique experience. Even our Lord had to put up with it.

Jesus couldn’t heal.

This part of the story astounds certain Christians, who imagine Jesus is sovereign and can cure anybody he wants. Sovereignty doesn’t work like that.

Mark 6.5-6 KWL
5 Jesus wasn’t able to do any acts of power there—
other than lay hands on a few sick people to cure them.
6 Jesus was amazed at their unbelief, and avoided teaching in that circle of villages.
Matthew 13.58 KWL
Jesus didn’t do many acts of power there because of their unbelief.

It’s not that the Nazarenes didn’t have the same ailments as everyone else: Crippling injuries, chronic pain, blindness, deafness, cancer, tuberculosis, smallpox, syphillis, cholera, bacterial infections of all sorts, migranes, toothaches, appendicitis, mental illnesses, and of course evil spirits. All things that are nothing to Jesus; he could cure ’em with a word.

And it’s not that Jesus lacked the power to heal. The Holy Spirit is still infinite, and he can heal us whether we believe in Jesus or not. It’s an accessibility thing. People didn’t believe in Jesus, or they were shamed into not believing—“Hey, you want people to find out you got healed by the guy who built your outhouse?” So they didn’t come to him to be cured; so they weren’t cured.

Sovereignty means the Holy Spirit can do whatever he wants… and he doesn’t care to cure, rescue, or save people who resist his grace. You don’t wanna be saved? You’re not saved then. Sucks to be you, but God’s granted you free will, and that means your actions have consequences. Sometimes dire consequences.

This attitude kinda surprised Jesus. Compared with the people who lived round the lake, who swarmed him so much he had to preach from boats, the people of his tribe were so convinced Jesus was a nobody, they disbelieved themselves right out of his kingdom. Yikes.

Jesus hadn’t encountered this degree of agnosticism before. Not even among pagans. These folks were completely closed-minded. Nothing Jesus said or did would make a dent in their firmly held beliefs. I’ve met Christians who are like this: They know what they know. Tell them otherwise, and prove it with all the scriptures you like, and they simply won’t believe you, and think you’re a nut for even trying to change their minds. They’re not interested in learning anything new. They don’t believe there is anything new to learn. Not even God can crack their stubbornness; they’ll reject their own sanity before they bend. As the bible and history have aptly demonstrated, there are many people like this. Apparently Jesus’s homeland was full of them.

This had to be particularly upsetting to Jesus. He loves everybody, but these people were neighbors and family: Of all the people he wanted in his kingdom, I expect he really wanted them. And with very few exceptions, they rejected him. As John put it, “He came to his own people, and his own people don’t accept him.” Jn 1.11 Heartbreaking.

Enraging the locals.

This story in Mark and Matthew ended badly, but in Luke it’s much much worse. Jesus didn’t just receive their dismissal; they straight-up tried to kill him. (No wonder he avoided them from then on.)

Luke gives a really shortened version of Jesus’s lesson. So we’re missing a few minutes of it, where somehow the subject came up of whether God’s blessings were for Israel alone, or for the whole world. There were a lot of people in Jesus’s culture who were part of a “Make Israel Great Again” movement; Americans know what I’m talking about. They didn’t want gentiles to receive God’s blessings. Especially the Romans, who’d been so awful to them.

Jesus’s response was to point out God doesn’t care about national borders. He’ll bless Israel, but he’ll also bless anyone who responds to him in faith. Two examples from the book of Kings:

Luke 4.25-27 KWL
25 “Truly I tell you: Many widows existed in Israel in Elijah’s day,
when the skies were closed for three years six months, while a great depression came to all the land.
26 Elijah was sent to none of them, but to a widowed woman of Zarefat, Sidon.
27 Many lepers existed in the Israel of the prophet Elisha,
and none of them were cleansed but Nahaman the Syrian.”

Their response? Homicidal rage.

Luke 4.28-30 KWL
28 Everyone in synagogue who heard this was filled with anger.
29 Rising up, they threw Jesus out of town.
They brought him to the edge of the hill on which their town was built, so they could throw him off.
30 Pushing through their middle, Jesus left.

Seriously, they were gonna take their fellow Nazarene, in some cases their relative, and push him off the cliff. That’s how angry they got at him: How dare God bless foreigners.

As one of those gentiles who got blessed, I am of course on Jesus’s side here. But I gotta point out this passage demonstrates how nationalism has no place in God’s kingdom. Every nation is getting absorbed into God’s kingdom. When Jesus returns to take over the United States, you think he’s gonna be happy with the border walls we’ve constructed?

But to the Nazarenes, the good news was too gracious. They hated its implications. A lot of Christianists still hate its implications: Doing stuff for the needy, whether they deserve it or not; putting Jesus ahead of our wealth and status; doing any good deeds whatsoever instead of taking advantage of cheap grace. Tell ’em otherwise and they start getting homicidal—and would act on it, if it weren’t guaranteed they’d get caught. That’s what the locals tried to do with Jesus.

Some interpreters try to turn Jesus’s getaway into a miracle: “Passing through the midst of them,” as the KJV puts it, is made to sound as if Jesus phased through them like a Marvel mutant. More likely Jesus passively put up with them running him out of town… till he realized they were running him off a cliff, and then pushed through them. He used to be a handyman, remember?—he wasn’t weak.

And so much for his hometown. Nazareth still gets remembered as where Jesus was raised, and it’s a largely Christian town today, but this is the last we’ll visit it in the gospels. Jesus was kinda done with it.