When those in the synagogue heard these things, they were all filled with rage. They stood up and drove him out of the town.
Luke 4: 28-9
Why has the reaction of the people of Nazareth to Jesus so dramatically and suddenly changed? When Jesus first finishes reading from the scroll of Isaiah and telling the people that “Today this scripture that you have heard is being brought to fulfillment,”, the people “are amazed at his graceful words.” Moments later, however, these same people are “filled with rage.” What has Jesus said or done to make them so violently upset with him. He has simply told them that he has come not only for them but for all, even their feared and despised neighbors. As Luke Timothy Johnson writes in his commentary on these verses: “. . . [Jesus] is not acceptable in his own country because his mission extends beyond his own country.” (The Gospel of Luke, p. 82).
It is often said that God made us in God’s image and likeness, and we are constantly returning the favor. Humility, that is a lived awareness of our own smallness, is the foundation of true faith, because, to the degree we forget our true place in the world, we reduce the world and God to our own size. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is God, the Lord alone.” (Deut. 6: 4) There is only room for one true God, and we are not to usurp God’s place.
Jesus is a problem for his relatives, friends, and neighbors when he reminds them that God is not only theirs but is rather the God of all, even those they consider their inferiors and enemies. We all want to be special, including holding access to privileged information. We want to be “in the know,” be it about the personal lives of others or even the ways of God. It’s not our access to secrets or even our faith that make us somebody, however, but rather it is our faith that reveals to us that we are all special as the beloved children of God. God’s love and mercy for others does not diminish us, and God’s love of us does not make us more than anybody else. We are all ordinary persons in our common life in God, and it is what is common to us all that is most unique and special.
Jesus has come, as Isaiah writes, “to announce good news to the poor, to proclaim release to captives and recovery of sight to the blind; to send off the oppressed with liberty . . .” (Luke 4: 18). The “secret” is that as common and ordinary we are all “poor, captive, blind and oppressed.” We have many subtle and even unconscious ways of self-aggrandizement. One is, as the citizens of Nazareth in today’s gospel, to resent a God who is not singularly ours. Another more subtle form, however, is to see ourselves as those who are sent to the poor, the captive, the blind and the oppressed as if we are not included among them, as if we do not need the saving love of Jesus as much as any others. When we know “our place” among the sinful and suffering, we can appreciate the gratuitousness of God toward all, rather than resenting it. Today may we appreciate and rejoice in the love and mercy that is given to us all in common.
But I have not described the extreme state of the infirmity into which the blessing of peace leads unwary Christians. They become not only over-confident of their knowledge of God’s ways, but positive in their over-confidence. They do not like to be contradicted in their opinions, and are generally most attached to the very points which are most especially of their own devising. They forget that all are at best but learners in the school of Divine Truth, and that they themselves ought to be ever learning, and that they may be sure of the truth of their creed, without a like assurance in the details of religious opinion. They find it a much more comfortable view, much more agreeable to the indolence of human nature, to give over seeking, and to believe they had nothing more to find. A right faith is ever eager and on the watch, with quick eyes and ears, for tokens of God’s will, whether God speak in the way of nature or of grace. . . . But as for those who have long had God’s favor without cloud or storm, so it is, they grow secure. They do not feel the great gift. They are apt to presume and so to become irreverent….When Christians have but a little, they are thankful; they gladly pick up the crumbs from under the table. Give them much, they soon forget it is much; and when they find it is not all, and that for others, too, even for penitents, God has some good in store, straightway they are offended. Without denying in words their own natural unworthiness, and still having real convictions of it to a certain point, nevertheless, somehow, they have a certain secret over-regard for themselves; at least they act as if they thought that the Christian privileges belonged to them over others, by a sort of fitness. And they like respect to be shown them by the world, and are jealous of anything which is likely to interfere with the continuance of their credit and authority. Perhaps, too, they have pledged themselves to certain received opinions, and this is an additional reason for their being suspicious of what to them is a novelty. Hence, such persons are least fitted to deal with difficult times.
John Henry Newman, Sermon VIII, Contracted Views in Religion