Throwing Jesus Over a Cliff

A Reflection for Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time

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Photo by Leio McLaren (@leiomclaren) on Unsplash

Today’s Gospel is Luke 4:21–30. Jesus is in his local synagogue, and he has just finished reading from the prophet Isaiah (chapter 61). Then he does something amazing. Jesus claims that he is embodying fulfillment of Isaiah’s promise of liberation.

“Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”

By welcoming and receiving him, the people in Nazareth would experience a true and lasting liberation that Isaiah foresaw. The ancient prophet looked forward to a time when people would value justice above all else because God holds justice dear.

“For I, the Lord, love justice,
I hate robbery and wrongdoing” (Isaiah 61:8).

And for a while, it appears that Jesus’ community offers Jesus a positive reception. The texts says, ‘all spoke highly of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.”

Quickly, though, they start having some doubts. “They also asked, ‘Isn’t this the son of Joseph?’” Careful readers of Luke’s Gospel know the answer to this question. No, this is not the son of Joseph. But you can’t blame the residents of Nazareth for not knowing he was the son of God.

Meanwhile, Jesus responds by saying that no prophet is welcome in his hometown. The community knew him when he was little. They saw him play with his friends as a child. They remember his awkward teen years. Some of them had hired him to work on their homes. Now, all of a sudden, he’s teaching them and claiming to bring Isaiah’s prophecy to Nazareth.

Who does this guy think he is?

When Jesus senses that the crowd is turning against him, he pushes back. He says that no prophet is welcome in their own hometown, not even the ancient prophets who had to go beyond the boundaries of Israel to find people who would accept their words and deeds. With this assertion, Jesus makes a remarkable claim.

He tacitly declares that he is a prophet. That’s a bold pronouncement. Imagine someone you know asserting that about themselves. “Y’all won’t listen to me because I’m a prophet, and no prophet is welcome at home.” You might find reason to scoff even more.

The people from Nazareth certainly did. They were so offended at this that they drove him out of town and tried to throw him over a cliff. Before they can follow through with their intentions, Jesus mysteriously “passed through the midst of them and went away.”

This event at the start of Jesus’ ministry foreshadows something similar that will happen at the end of his life. At the beginning of Holy Week, Jesus enters Jerusalem to the cheers of adoring crowds. Five days later, those crowds turn into an angry mob chanting, Crucify him.”

On Good Friday, Jesus is led to the top of another hilltop. At that time, he doesn’t talk away. He undergoes the pain, suffering, and death of crucifixion.

I suppose there are several lessons to learn from this incident, but this strikes me. People who encounter Jesus are often fickle. One minute they’re extolling his teachings, and the next they’re trying to throw him headlong over a cliff.

Christians go to church, worship, and listen to sermons. We talk about how much we love Jesus, listen to praise music, and read our Bibles. We know book, chapter, and verse. We tell everyone on social media how #blessed we are whenever anything happens. We give all the glory to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ whenever our team wins.

But when it comes time to embodying his teachings, we start to grumble. We might not try to throw him over a cliff, but we might attempt to build a wall to keep him out. Or separate him from his parents. Or advocate for policies that prevent him from getting healthcare. Or not pay him a living wage. Or put him in a home and forget about him. Or threaten him because he looks, live, or loves differently than you do.

Whenever we treat people as being less than the image and likeness of God, we throw Jesus over the cliff.

Jesus taught his disciples to see him when they look at other people. In as much as we serve others, we serve Christ. And as much as we mistreat others, we try to throw Christ over a cliff.

Of course, no one is going to show perfect hospitality, generosity, and compassion. But I believe that followers of Jesus must strive to perform the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy. And if we don’t at least give a good faith effort to extend loving kindness to others, we shouldn’t be surprised if Jesus mysteriously passes through our midst and walks away.

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