One of the major themes running through St Luke’s Gospel, which we are following every Sunday this year except in Lent and Eastertide, is to be found in what the old man Simeon said to the parents of Jesus’ when they took him as an eight day old baby to the Temple. ‘This child’, he said, ‘is destined for the fall and the rising of many.’ (Luke 3:34)
Prior to this, Luke records the newly pregnant Mary telling her cousin Elizabeth that hr child would ‘cast down the mighty from their thrones’ and ‘exalt the lowly’, fill the ‘starving with good things’ and send the ‘rich away empty’. It was Mary’s expectation that Simeon’s prediction would be fulfilled by her son going on to reverse the order of power in Jewish society – the mighty would be brought low and the lowly lifted up. This is often referred to as the ‘great reversal’, something Karl Marx could not have wished for better. How out of step this image of Our Lady is with the way she has mostly been presented in Christian art!
After Jesus emerged into public life, this great reversal had begun. It turned out that the people in the best position to accept Jesus ended up rejecting him. They were the learned of their time and what one might call the Jewish establishment. Conversely, it was the uneducated and illiterate people, as well as the irreligious types like the tax collectors, prostitutes and others, who were drawn to Jesus.
In today’s Gospel (Luke 4:21-30) we learn that people in Nazareth – those who had known Jesus since his early childhood – ended up wanting to kill him. Why? He had just delivered the text from Isaiah (last Sunday’s Gospel) expressing his preferential option for the poor. This led them ask: ‘Isn’t this the son of Joseph, surely?’ This was not a straightforward question: it was asked with a cynical and dismissive tone. While they were surprised at Jesus’ eloquence, they rejected him when they considered his family background. They felt that no one from such a lowly family could ever speak authoratively to them about God. So they, his childhood neighbours in Nazareth, found his message impossible to take seriously.
This led Jesus to enrage them by giving examples from Jewish history of how their rejection of him was similar to how the great Prophet Elijah and others had been rejected in previous times. ‘No prophet’, he said, ‘is accepted in his own country’. And furthermore, he said, their rejection of him would lead God to reach out to people outside Judaism.
So how might we to respond to this?
Perhaps we might ask: when do I fall into a similar trap as the residents of Nazareth? Is it possible that, like them, I also feel I know enough about the Gospel so that I, unwittingly, have a closed mind to some of its demands and challenges? Like the Nazarenes, would it be too uncomfortable for my lifestyle to learn a bit more about the Gospel and what it asks of me?
Like the Nazarenes, do I welcome or reject a challenging message from someone on the basis of who is delivering it, and how they speak, look and dress? And do I reject some people, as the Nazarenes did, because of their family background or where they live? And are the values by which I judge such people truly Christian?
To hear the Gospel afresh – with the ears of someone who has never heard it before – can be disruptive and even play havoc with our comfortable lives. So, understandably, this might be too much for those of us who, like the Nazarenes, want nothing to do with any ‘great reversal’ in our lives.
Holy Name, Jesmond
30 January 2022