Not exactly the hometown hero

Some celebrities get to be the hometown hero, the local kid who made good and did his city proud (think, for example, of Cleveland’s love-hate-love-again relationship with NBA superstar LeBron James). Accomplish great things in the name of your city and they’ll throw you a parade.

But mess with people’s sense of pride, and they may want to throw you off a cliff instead.

The gospels give us some telling portraits of Jesus’ relationship to his neighbors. Luke 4:16-30 narrates the story of Jesus in his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, reading from the scroll of Isaiah. At first, the people are delighted. They whisper among themselves, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” (vs. 22, NRSV). It’s as if to say, “Who knew the kid would grow up to be so eloquent?” But when Jesus then tells them that “no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown” (vs. 24), and suggests that they shouldn’t be so smug in their interpretation of Isaiah, the mood shifts abruptly. They drag him to the edge of town and try to push him off a cliff.

Welcome home, preacher boy.

Then there’s the story in Matthew. Again, Jesus is in his hometown synagogue, teaching. People are amazed at his words and works. But the buzz is already negative:

“Where did this man get this wisdom and these deeds of power? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all this?” And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house.” And he did not do many deeds of power there, because of their unbelief. (Matt 13:54-58, NRSV)

Again, they say, “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son?” But this time, the tone is, “He grew up right here, and we know his family. So who the heck does he think he is?” Theologically, of course, that’s precisely the right question. But they’re not ready for the correct answer. In that situation, for Jesus to do more miracles would only make matters worse.

There’s a third and parallel story in the gospel of John, but it sits a bit awkwardly next to the other two. As we’ve seen in earlier posts, Jesus was on his way back from Judea to Galilee, and stayed two days in a Samaritan village where the people had responded to him with faith. Here’s how John describes his subsequent return to Galilee: “the Galileans welcomed him, since they had seen all that he had done in Jerusalem at the festival; for they too had gone to the festival” (4:45). Some of the Galileans, apparently, had been in Jerusalem for the Passover, and had seen some of the miraculous things Jesus had done there (which John doesn’t bother to include). Being duly impressed, they welcomed him home.

That makes sense. Just before that statement, however, John inserts this by now familiar comment: “for Jesus himself had testified that a prophet has no honor in the prophet’s own country” (vs. 44).

In Luke, that comment about dishonoring prophets nearly got Jesus tossed off a cliff. In Matthew, it described people’s resentment and unbelief. But in John, it prefaces a response of welcome.

That’s a strange way of dishonoring someone.

Or is it?

Scholars disagree on how to make sense of this. Some insist that when John says “the prophet’s own country,” he means Judea, and not Galilee. But then why wouldn’t John have said this earlier, when Jesus entered or left Judea?

I prefer my colleague Marianne Meye-Thompson’s reading. John is making an ironic contrast between Galilee and Samaria. It’s the despised Samaritans who responded to Jesus in faith, on the basis of his word alone.

And the Galileans?

Well, we have to read the rest of the story. More in the next post.