Each of the Scriptural authors brought his own unique set of perspectives and goals to the process of writing and editing the texts that comprise our Christian Scriptures. The Gospel authors, for example, crafted their source materials into unique narratives intended to address the issues that were significant for each author’s church community. Much of the meaning of the Scriptures remains hidden to us unless we are willing to read the texts from the author’s point of view.
Today’s Gospel reading is a good illustration of the necessity of understanding the historical background of the texts of Scripture. At first glance, this Gospel passage appears to be slightly confused or disjointed. The people in the Synagogue in Nazareth make a sudden about-face with regard to their attitude toward Jesus and his preaching. The crowd’s unexpected change of mood makes the story appear slightly uneven, but the uneveness is essential to Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ life. The crowd’s rejection of Jesus illustrates a central theme in Luke’s Gospel.
Luke begins his story of Jesus’ return to his hometown by portraying the residents of Nazareth as being deeply impressed by Jesus’ preaching. Almost immediately, however, they begin to have second thoughts about their initial positive judgments about Jesus. The Gospel says, “All spoke highly of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They also asked, ‘Isn’t this the son of Joseph?’” (Lk. 4:22)
The apparent fickleness of the crowd in the synagogue at Nazareth is easy enough to interpret. Luke has taken two inherited sources and edited them together in order to serve a larger agenda. The crowd’s rejection of Jesus is taken from Mark’s Gospel. (Mk. 6:1-6) Luke took a separate narrative tradition about the crowd’s favorable response to Jesus and attached it as an introduction to the rejection story.
What was Luke’s intent? What did he hope to accomplish by focusing his readers’ attention on what could be interpreted as a failure in Jesus’ ministry? After all, it doesn’t speak very highly of Jesus that the effectiveness of his preaching lasted for so short a time.
Throughout Luke’s Gospel we see instances of people and groups rejecting Jesus and his teachings. This recurring pattern culminates at his Passion when he is rejected by the religious leaders in Jerusalem who had him put to death. This is obviously a reference to a practical matter faced by Luke’s church community. We can surmise that Luke’s congregation had experienced some disappointments and failures in their efforts to spread the Gospel message. Like the sower of seeds in the parable in Matthew’s Gospel (Mt. 13:1-23), Luke’s congregation had evidently made legitimate efforts to spread the Good News but found their efforts to be futile. Today’s Gospel story about Jesus’ mixed reception in his hometown makes several observations about failure in ministry.
First, Jesus was undeterred by his former neighbors’ lack of faith. He lamented the fact that they would not listen to him (Lk. 4:24), but he changed neither his message nor his methods. Jesus’ disciples should expect to experience the same sort of rejection that Jesus experienced. At no point, however, should we grow discouraged about our mission to preach the Gospel to all people.
Second, we should expect to have to live with a certain amount of cognitive dissonance arising from disappointment over the faithlessness of those who reject faith in Jesus. It makes no sense for anyone to reject the Gospel message, but people do so daily. It may be the case that those who reject the possibility of faith don’t really understand their own actions. Regardless of the cause of faithlessness in the world, there is no cause for despair over faithlessness.
Lastly, Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth was not the end of his preaching, his ministry, or the efficacy of the reconciliation he made possible by his death on the Cross. The Church’s failures are, likewise, not a signal of the end of the preaching of the Gospel. The end is yet to come – in the sense that we await the final completion of God’s plan of salvation. Until the Lord returns in glory, there remains hope for all. I think that this is the lesson Luke wants us to take to heart.
We live in the period of history between the original proclamation of the Gospel and its final fulfillment. Our current situation as believers is, therefore, unavoidably incomplete. We don’t know when we will see the completion of what we know is to come. The imperfections of our world, ourselves, our discipleship, and our evangelization efforts are to be accepted as the temporary, but reigning truth about faith.
Perhaps, the occasional disappointment and confusion we experience are necessary. Perhaps, these are graced moments that remind us of the source and goal of our hoped-for salvation. Nothing, and no one, in this world is a legitimate substitute for our ultimate satisfaction and joy, as these are to be found only in God. Neither our successes nor our failures are the end of faith; the goal of our lives is yet to be reached. Luke’s Gospel wants us to know that, if we find ourselves now in a situation of imperfect faith, we are precisely where we need to be.