How to grow a 500-nobodies village into a city of 80,000 in 3,000 years
–throw your only prophet out; wait 300 years; and build a tourist magnet.
Well, that’s Nazareth. (Santa Rosa, too? Let’s read deeply into Luke.)
–[in print edition, here, a photo of modern Nazareth with the Basilica of the Annunciation in the center]
Sunday, January 28, 2007. First Congregational United Church of Christ, Santa Rosa, California,
an Open and Affirming, “God is Still Speaking” community. Early service of scripture reflection and communion, the Rev. Bob Cramer, Leader.
Luke (chapter 4, verses 21-30) says that when Jesus visited Nazareth for the first time in his public ministry, his friends and neighbors listened with awe to his reading of Isaiah. They seemed to accept Jesus’ announcement that the ancient prophet’s vow – to create happiness out of poverty, liberate the powerless, and restore sight to the blind – would come true now. “How could that be? Isn’t he just one of us? What is happening?” they thought. “But hey, he’s making waves, he’s becoming famous, he’s curing people in Capernaum … “.
Before looking at Jesus and his neighbors, let’s bone up on Nazareth. It had existed for 12 centuries before the time of Jesus! I can imagine a tiny community with only one essential resource. I came from one. In Nazareth it was an eternally-renewing spring of water coming from surrounding hills. That was pretty much it. You went somewhere else for work. Or didn’t. It was home to 500. That’s all the spring would support.
A mile south was the fortified town of Japha, which the renowned historian, Josephus, called Galilee’s largest “village.” A major city, built, abandoned and rebuilt, lay just three and a half miles to the northwest. It was called Sepphoris, and Jesus and some of his family might just possibly have helped in its rebuilding. So Nazareth was not isolated, just tiny – a place one normally wouldn’t leave, where someone new might rarely come. Like Tylerville, New York, where there are more people in the cemetery than above ground? (That’s where I come from.)
Nazareth is to be found in no ancient records except the gospels. And if one gospel has any historical underpinning, their only promising prophet alienated even his own family, and it was not until the fourth century of the Common Era that the Emperor Constantine built a church there. That stimulated pilgrimages and by the seventh century Nazareth was elevated to city status. By the 17th century, Franciscans had turned the Basilica of the Annunciation into the largest Christian center in Israel, and Nazareth is now a city of 80,000 people.
The two-volume Luke-Acts has a thing about Nazareth: the author mentions Nazareth 15 times. The other canonical gospels taken all together mention Nazareth only 14 times. And while all the gospels including Thomas report Jesus’ one-liner, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his home town,” Luke is the only one to fashion a narrative around that famous idea, to explain it. “I can assure you,” Luke has Jesus say, “there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was dammed up for three and a half years, and a severe famine swept through the land … and yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but instead to a widow in Zarephath near Sidon” [in a neighboring land].
And Jesus is said to have continued, “In addition, there were many lepers in Israel in the prophet Elisha’s time; yet none of them was made clean, except Naaman the Syrian.” Filled with rage, the villagers left the synagogue and ran Jesus out of town, “to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, intending to hurl him over it. But he slipped away.” [I cannot resist telling you that Nazareth, nestled in the Galilean hills, yes … has no precipice or cliff at its edge.]
Jesus didn’t do miracles in Nazareth. Could he have, but he just didn’t? Was there no need in Nazareth? Were the citizens just a tad too thin-skinned, too easily offended by a suddenly-uppity local boy preaching at them? Who knows?
But we do know that Luke begins with a youngster in Jerusalem confounding his elders. It proceeds to an episode where Jesus plainly says the God of Israel sends prophets and healers to all the world, not just a local tribe bound in covenant to a parochial deity. And then Luke morphs into The Acts of the Apostles, where a church with truly global reach is established and built, successfully, against all odds.
Maybe Luke is meant to challenge us, even today, to see how comfortable we are when we feel at home, entitled to our blessings, when nearby are a fortress-America type of town and a city that is headquarters for the very oppressors who rule from a throne in Rome. And all around and in between and as far as the world extends, there are the blind, hopeless victims of oppression whom Jesus, following his global (not parochial) God, would serve … and would challenge his neighbors, and us, to reach out, meet, serve and become identified with.
Online last week, someone asked, “Could it have been that a people, even though they were God’s chosen and were covered by the covenant, weren’t feeling chosen or covered? Felt oppressed and in need of deliverance and were offended or threatened by the fact that Jesus called them to recognize the wideness and impartiality of God’s favor?”