A Reflection on Luke 4:21-30 by Fr. Robert Leus, CJM
This Sunday Gospel reading is a continuation of the storyline within which Jesus was portrayed as a lector in the synagogue where he read an Old Testament prophecy that revealed so much about himself being the One who was to bring the Good News of freedom to captives, of deliverance to slaves, of declaring a year of jubilee, etc.
The end part of this storyline is what we heard this Sunday. Jesus closed his reading with the line: "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" (v. 21). The people present there, “amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth,” reacted by asking among them, “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?”
Now, that question is a double-edged sword, a sentence loaded with two opposite meanings depending upon how it was said, with emphasis on intonation and manner of expression.
For example, in English we have the single word “really” and it that can be a response to something that was spoken and heard. If one says, “Really?” in the form of a question, it can mean an expression of surprise and amazement if the spoken loudly with a rising intonation, but it can also mean doubt/disbelief if expressed in a sarcastic manner. At the opposite end, when one says, “Really (period)”, the statement becomes more of an affirmation if said slowly in a modulated voice.
This holds true to the question raised by the people in the synagogue who heard Jesus say, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” If we look at the sentence that followed the question, “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?”, it says that they—the people there—were “amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” Therefore, the listening crowd were simply expressing surprise, awe and wonder at what they heard Jesus say.
Yet if we pick out that same question to form a new, single-sentence paragraph just below the statement expressing amazement and then read it using a slurred falling or sarcastic intonation, therefore it will surely mean contempt, an deliberate statement of doubt and an act of belittling Jesus’ ability or authority.
The key in interpreting this question lies upon how it is vocally read or spoken. The same key must be applied to Jesus’ two other statements in this same Gospel reading: (1) "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing" [v. 21] and (2) “I assure you that no prophet is welcome in his own hometown [v.24].
What cannot be denied, however, is the human factor — that judgment happens at the very ears of the one listening to the person speaking or orally reading regardless of how a statement was read or spoken. This is the common pitfall of persons who react quickly without discernment. And, this same group of people will most likely consider the crowd in the synagogue as reacting in the same way they do.
Using this line of thought, readers will surely see the people in the synagogue as reacting in contempt
of Jesus based on what they already know about his family background having known how he grew up in his hometown—that Jesus was just the son of a carpenter named Joseph from an insignificant town called Nazareth; that he was not of wealthy means, etc., etc.
This is the usual, narrow-minded judgment of another human being — one’s own people will base their judgment of character, person or authority upon familiar personal history: parental and ancestral lineage (ex. “Isn’t he the son of Joseph?”), the place of birth and early growth (ex. “What good came spring forth from Nazareth?”), known occupation (ex. “Isn’t he the son of Joseph the carpenter?”) — as if one’s own past dictates the future, leaving no more room for progress and development. Often times, many cannot believe and accept that people of ordinary means and ordinary background are also capable of doing extraordinary things under the most ordinary circumstances.
What the Gospel means to say today is that Jesus Christ is not exempted from personal bigotry and even communal or societal prejudice. This is not the only time in the Scriptures when simple folk or people of power questioned Jesus’ ability and authority. Yet the best part is—that Jesus remained true to Himself, never letting any negative situation to hinder His mission to proclaim the Good News of God’s salvation through God’s infinite Mercy.
The gospel readers and listeners like us should learn better from Jesus’ example—never to allow any negative view or situation to cloud our vision of the Truth in the Gospel. The same should be applied to the question “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?” — for it speaks to the readers the glaring truth that Jesus was indeed NOT Joseph’s son anyway. Of course, the readers would know that by now as opposed to Jesus’ fellow Jews of his time. While the Jews then could not see beyond what they knew of Jesus’ ordinary past, the Gospel readers and listeners are already being affirmed of what has long been revealed to them — that Jesus is truly the Son of God and Joseph was divinely chosen as his foster father here on earth.
The Catholic world’s Jubilee Year of Mercy invites us to rise above our own personal narrow-mindedness in judgment as well as our communal-social prejudices. We need to learn to look beyond judging or pre-judging other people based on their ordinary backgrounds, giving our fellow human beings more room to develop and improve themselves regardless of their beginnings, expanding the possibility for many to embrace the Gospel and to see the true Jesus in the faces of their neighbors, extending the arms of salvation to all and not limiting it only to a select few. Jesus after all came to same ALL.
God’s loving Mercy should also move us to doing acts of compassion. Like Joseph, we are encouraged to be foster parents/siblings to our neighbor, to do good to many witnout minding the absence of blood relations, but rather envisioning our mutual bond in God’s parenthood over us and His entire creation and of our singular brotherhood with Jesus in the Father’s heavenly kingdom that is yet to come.
As Joseph, being patron of the Universal Church, has embraced us all as his foster children, so should we embrace all—regardless of culture, creed, color and cradle—just as the Father has hovered over us all as His sons and daughters in His own Son Jesus Christ.
So, will we be offended if we overhear anyone, regardless of intonation and intent, surprisingly say about us, “Isn’t this the offspring of Joseph?” Before we are overcome with negative emotion, remember to look beyond our foster childship in Joseph and see through our spiritual siblinghood with and in Jesus Christ and our place in heaven as children of God. If we keep this vision in mind, only then can we divest ourselves of our prejudices and move our spirits to do great things to many out of mercy and compassion just as Jesus himself did and still does.