It’s Saturday morning at the Nazareth Fitness Center. All present are exercising hard: pumping iron, plying the treadmill, pushing themselves to the limit. This is no ordinary gym. These folks take their health and physiques seriously.
When Jesus walks in, the members smile and say, “Welcome home, son! Haven’t seen you for a while.” They watch him as he heads off to lift weights, followed by time on the elliptical.
They nod to themselves: Yep, this hometown boy is one of them: strong and fit. And confident. He does them proud.
Why change the setting from a synagogue to a fitness center? To highlight elements that the two settings might share, namely, conscientious individuals who strive to maintain a high level of spiritual/physical health.
The analogy works until a subtle, self-congratulatory dimension in the biblical account: “The eyes of all looked favorably on him” turns into violent antagonism: They drove him out of the town to the brow of the hill to hurl him down.
It is hard to imagine such a quick turn of events inside a fitness center. This is where some of the backstory to the biblical account becomes necessary.
In the Mediterranean society in which Jesus lived, family honor came first. By leaving his home, Jesus stretched the social norms. In other words, by stepping out of the carpenter shop, he was stepping on lots of toes. In that time and place, individuals were expected to mind their communal place. Sons, for instance, would be expected to assume the trades of their fathers and adult children were expected to care of their parents when they got old.
In Jesus’ time and place, a person did not do what Americans do: leave home and family to pursue one’s dream. When Jesus left Nazareth, he stretched the limit of what was socially acceptable. When he returned, he stretched it further by refusing requests to perform miracles on his home turf.
When the congregation transforms into an unruly mob, we can’t help but think, “What a different world that was!” But, as we ponder the distance in time and the difference in customs, we realize that, beneath it all, one thing hasn’t changed: the destructive power of anger that is rooted in envy.
So strong was this anger within that assembly, that it overpowered the words that Jesus had just proclaimed from the Prophet Isaiah:
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.
Beautiful words. Powerful words! Yet, cries of anger drowned out the promises of God.
Is this the reason why the Spirit has drawn us here today? To assure us that God’s message of love and healing will ultimately prevail, even in today’s world, so prone to anger and inflammatory rhetoric? (Keep in mind that Christ passed through the gauntlet of rage without harm; the hatred of the mob did not infect his spirit.)
When you and I leave this liturgy today, the anger of the world will still be out there in the world, waiting to strangle the hope we have in Christ.
But we have another vision to pursue, not the spirit of division, but the Spirit of Christ. The Spirit of Faith, the Spirit of Hope, the Spirit of Love…Love without prejudice, Love without limit, Love without end.