Killing Jesus, Part 2 — A Cliffhanger

Fourth Sunday after Epiphany  |  Luke 4:14-30

Killing Jesus, Part 2 — A Cliffhanger

“Kill him,” they said. They must have, though Luke does not record their words. Kill him, stone him, throw him off the cliff. And of all of their options, beating, stoning, and throwing a man off a cliff, they chose the cliff.

Why, we might wonder. Was it the simple convenience–a man killed and the body disposed of all at the same time? Deniability? So that though everyone involved would know the truth, the death of Jesus might look like an accident to outsiders?

God knows. People in groups behave differently, though seldom better and never smarter, which is the explanation for modern politics.

And what did they mean to do with the others, his friends, his followers? It seems unlikely that Jesus managed the trip without someone tagging along, but it is possible that he was alone. Luke names none of the disciples before this point in the narrative. In fact, it is only afterward that Luke tells the story of Jesus healing Simon’s mother in law, and that comes even before Simon choosing to follow Jesus. The details of Luke’s Gospel differ from Mark’s earlier account, and Matthew skips over some of the story altogether.

John’s Gospel, well, is different. John is telling a theological narrative, not an action story. Where we might say Mark, Matthew and Luke tell us much of what happened, what our eyes might have seen, John tells us what his heart understood. The truth a blind man sees may be greater.

Christ Preaching, by Gottlieb

The congregation in Nazareth looked at Jesus and saw a native son, the child of Mary and of Joseph the carpenter, all of whom they knew. They knew as well that Jesus was respected in Capernaum where he had gone to live. They expected great things of their returning son. They expected to be flattered, included, thanked, to be seen as great themselves by association with this so called teacher and miracle worker.

Why was he even there at all? Forty days of struggling with demons in the desert, forty days of hunger and exhaustion, and Jesus comes here, to his boyhood home, to read in the synagogue surrounded by the faces of old men he knew from childhood. Why make the journey here, when he could have stayed home in Capernaum to rest and gain back the weight he had lost in the wilderness?

Maybe he wanted them to be the first to hear the good news, After all that ordeal, he came to tell them that the promise of the prophets had been fulfilled.

Today, he told them. In your hearing, right now, this moment, the promise is fulfilled.

Then Jesus sat in the synagogue surrounded by these good, faithful people, and he began to tell them how much God loved other folk. Foreigners. People who did not even understand how to worship God properly. People whose religion was suspect. People who were different. The strangers in their midst.

They were disappointed. Perhaps they forgot their own story.

Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.

That was the word of the Lord, forgotten in their anger and indignation. They were willing to share their scraps, but not their place at the table.

It was bad enough to think that God might love the stranger as well as themselves. To think that God might love the stranger first or, God forbid, more, that was unbearable. It offended their faith. It offended their sense of order. It offended their pride.

This was no prophet. This was no one speaking in the name of God. This was only Jesus, and had they not known him from boyhood? Who was he to teach them? The stories from Capernaum were only stories, though some people here in Nazareth had seen and heard strange things around the boy. No, this was not the boy they had known. He had become a stranger to them.

Better to kill Jesus than to hear that God did not love them first, better, more than strangers. Better to kill Jesus, to kill the God who did not meet their expectations, and then they would be free to worship the god they created, the god made in their own image, the god who met their expectations perfectly. Better to kill Jesus and be right, than to listen to his words, to consider the possibility that even with their house of worship, their robes, their prayer books, their traditions, that they might be wrong.

Well, who likes to be wrong?

Better not to consider the stranger in their midst. In welcoming the stranger, might not they also welcome into their midst the God whom they had not made, the God they claimed already to know? Somehow they knew that God was dangerous, that God had ideas about helping the poor, embracing the stranger, taking risks to help someone else.

When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

They rejected Jesus. They tried to kill him. When they shoved him out to the edge of the cliff, they were pushing the stranger along with him. They had God out there on the edge, but they didn’t know that is where God always lives.

We shouldn’t be so hard on them. Be honest. Most of us would have done the same thing.

The story is that Jesus turned and passed through the middle of the mob. They had lost sight of him, after all. And just think, any of them could have reached out and touched him, probably were touched by him, could have stopped and turned and gone with him, but they plunged on without him. They were more interested in following their own ideas than they were in looking for a word from God, and they were left alone, on that cliff, gazing down into the abyss.

Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.

The truth is that we are always on the edge, our lives balanced precariously at the top of a cliff, and God is always passing through our midst, usually unnoticed, untouched. We are watching the wrong things, loving the wrong things. Sometimes God comes to us as the stranger beside us, and sometimes as the stranger within us, the thought that comes unbidden, the idea that leaps into our mind.

Perhaps we might recast the words of the prophets: Love ye the stranger in your midst, for so comes God among us all.

When we accomplish this much, to love the stranger we meet and the stranger within, then we will know that this day the scripture has been fulfilled in our hearing, the messiah is at hand, and the good news has already come to pass.

The Great Isaiah Scroll, found at Qumran. Israel Museum.


This post is part of an ongoing three year project based on the Sunday gospel passage from the Revised Common Lectionary.

Killing Jesus, Part 1 — A Cliffhanger

Third Sunday after the Epiphany  |  Luke 4:14-30

Killing Jesus, Part 1 — A Cliffhanger

Everything started so well. Jesus stood in the synagogue of his childhood home, Nazareth, reading from the scroll of Isaiah.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

All of this, all of these good things, have come to pass, Jesus tells them. So far, so good. If he had stopped there, things might have been ok. He could have gotten up and walked away, but no. He had to elaborate. He had to tell these people that grace extended to other folk. Different people. Foreigners.

Jesus Unrolls the Book in the Synagogue, by James Tissot

That’s when they dragged him out and threw him over a cliff. Well, almost.

They bum rushed Jesus, frog walked him to the edge of a cliff, and they made to throw him over. It didn’t take a lot of planning on their part. Nobody had to stand up and say, Hey, here’s what we can do to him. No, they just did it, as though they had done such a thing before this occasion, these religious folk with an inclination to violence.

It makes you wonder what one might have seen at the bottom, what kind of bones and rags were bleaching in the sun down there. Somehow their reaction feels modern, like something one might hear on the news, an incident involving a fringe religious group, except that the people in this story are not fringe lunatics. They are mainstream, church folk, salt of the earth.

Incidentally, the Lectionary gives the same passage of scripture to both the Third and Fourth Sundays after Epiphany, though the story is split between them. It’s a cliffhanger.

Mark, not Luke, is the Gospel known for using halves of one story to bookend another one. Still, it is worth considering where Luke places this story. Before Jesus visits the peculiarly violent congregation of Nazareth, he was in the wilderness, being tempted by Satan himself. After escaping from the mob, Jesus goes home to Capernaum and so to the synagogue there, only to be met by a man “who had the spirit of an unclean demon.”

It is an odd sandwich, with the faithful people in the middle and demons on either side. Jesus escapes his meetings with demons unscathed, but the religious folk nearly kill him. There is no peace, says the Lord, for the wicked. (Isaiah 48:22)

Temptation in the wilderness, violence in the church — it is no wonder that Jesus did most of his teaching while walking out in the open, along the seashore and in the streets, more like a Greek philosopher than a Jewish rabbi. The people he found there did not think themselves to be so special, so important, in the eyes of God. They knew the real thing when they saw it, and they knew they weren’t it. The congregation gathered on the pews were different than the congregation called together on the street, which leaves us with questions.

Why does one group get so angry so quickly, to the point that they try to throw Jesus off a cliff, unwittingly trying to kill God himself? And perhaps more to the point, to which congregation do we belong?

Next week — Killing Jesus, Part 2

Christ in the Synagogue in Capernaum
Christ in the Synagogue in Capernaum