Risky Midrash: The Jubilee Pertains to Our Enemies Too

NaamanBy Ched Myers, for the 3rd Sunday of  Epiphany (Jan 24, 2016: Luke 4:22-30)

Note: This is part of a series of Ched’s occasional comments on the Lukan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during year C, 2016.

The audience reaction to Jesus’ inaugural sermon in Nazareth is somewhat ambiguous (4:22). Though they “witness to him” (the Gk emarturoun with the dative is usually positive), they also “wonder” about him (ethaumazon, which can connote surprise in a negative sense; see Lk 11:38), no doubt skeptical about how such eloquence can come from a humble construction worker’s son. This explains Jesus’ immediate move to the defensive, then quickly to the offensive.

First he anticipates the “no prophet is recognized in his home town” syndrome (4:23-24, drawing on Mark 6:1-6). Then Jesus sharpens the latent conflict with the emphatic phrase “But I tell you the truth” (Lk 4:25; Gk ep’ alētheias appears again in Lk 22:59). He proceeds to offer a midrash that re-reads the Isaianic Jubilee through the lens of two great wilderness prophets. The Elijah tale concerns going to an outsider (I Kg 17:8-16), while the story of his disciple Elisha illustrates how to draw an outsider in (II Kg 5). Indeed, the tide of popular opinion will quickly turn against Jesus’ “clarification” of the scope of this Jubilee.

Elijah was an egalitarian Yahwist, probably a peasant revolt leader or dissident headman associated with local shrines, not the central Israelite cult. He was from Gilead, a prosperous fringe area of Israel which often played a “swing” role concerning who ruled, and he may have been a refugee after Syria conquered Gilead. The literary context of the passage Jesus cites has to do with the saga of Ahab, worst of all Israelite Kings (I Kg 21:25f). His foreign wife Jezebel worships Baal, and his officials have rebuilt Jericho against the express prohibition of tradition (16:31-34; see Josh 6:26). Thus Elijah pronounces drought (allusive of Moses’ struggle with Pharaoh), and is consequently pursued by the king. The prophet is thus sent by the Spirit to take refuge in wilderness and survive on margins (I Kg 17:1-7)—as were both John the Baptist and Jesus in Luke’s narrative!

Ironically, the wadi where he dwells dries up—the prophet is hoisted on his own droughty petard! So God next dispatches him to Zarephath, a Phoenician town on the coast between Tyre and Sidon (and which had once been as significant a city as those two; a sixth century CE church was dedicated to St. Elijah there). He is told to seek a widow’s aid—a scandalous overture from a Judean male to a woman of an “enemy” group. If Elijah is such a miracle-worker, why doesn’t he just conjure himself something to eat rather than go to a hostile outsider? Yet she is herself also marginalized, and these two unlikely allies help each other through the famine.

Afterwards Elijah famously does battle with prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel, even as Jezebel “had killed off the prophets of the Lord” (I Kg 18:4). This is apex moment in his prophetic career, defeating a hated tyrant and ending drought all at once; yet again it earns him only exile. His final struggle with Ahab is over the royal house’s murderous expropriation of Naboth’s land (I Kg 21); the king is later killed in the battle for Gilead—Elijah’s tribal homeland. Elijah is, in sum an archetypal rebel leader, constantly skirmishing with the powerful.

Traditional interpretations assert that Jesus invokes Elijah’s visit to a Gentiles to somehow foreshadow the mission of Paul. This story indeed challenges Judean exclusivism, but such a de-politicized approach misses a crucial point. By embracing the dissident Tishbite at the outset of his ministry, Jesus is stepping into his own role as a prophet who will shortly be similarly embattled because of his own solidarity with poor outsiders and opposition to the apostasy of Judea’s insider elites. After all, Jesus has apprenticed with the Elijah figure John the Baptist (the two are associated throughout the gospels), and gone on his own wilderness vision quest (Lk 4:1ff). What is “being fulfilled in your hearing” (Lk 4:21) in this Nazareth synagogue is Jesus’ resuscitation of this radical prophetic tradition.

To further underscore this theme, Jesus turns to the example of Elisha (Lk 4:27 = II Kg 5). Naaman was an Aramite general who had been skirmishing with and defeating Israel. But he is a leper, and a captured Israelite slave girl tells him about Elisha’s capacity to heal. The general’s approach is political (II Kg 5:5-8), as per diplomatic protocol, but the unnamed Israelite king panics, suggesting this is a parody. Elisha scorns the king: “Let him come that he may learn that there is a prophet in Israel” (5:8).

Naaman is instructed to wash in the Jordan River seven times, a double Hebrew symbolic. The general’s Syrian ethnicity is offended (“Damascus has better rivers!”), but he relents. Elisha in turn refuses to accept his payment; as one commentator puts it, “Prophetic power controls an international confrontation.” Elisha teaches an enemy a lesson through compassion, but also resistance. This too will be Jesus’s strategy. Indeed, this very sermon has offered his community hope, but also a critique of their assumptions of entitlement. The widespread view among first century Jews was that messianic and/or Jubilee blessings would fall exclusively on their “chosen” nation; Jesus has made it clear that others—including their historic enemies—would be included, and perhaps even prioritized.

Now comes a second “audience reaction,” this time decidedly hostile (4:28-30). One thinks of the analogy of Martin Luther King’s Riverside speech in 1967. Americans who loved the Nobel Peace Prize winner’s eloquence bristled when he turned his searing critique on the Indochina war; his prophetic questioning of the nation’s integrity and “meddling” in foreign policy matters was perceived by most as “going too far”.

The intent to throw Jesus off a cliff suggests the serious offence of “false prophecy”—exactly what King was accused of. But Jesus “passes through them”; after all, for Luke, a “prophet can’t perish away from Jerusalem” (13:33). Verse 31 is a poignant follow-up—it emphasizes that even after this near-fatal skirmish, Jesus persist in teaching in the synagogue, though in another town.

The pattern has been set for the prophet’s journey in this inaugural “coming out” in Nazareth. Moreover, Jesus will soon “enact” his consequential sermon in a sequence in Luke 7:1-22 that mirrors its themes in inverse order.

In word and deed, Jesus models the prophetic vocation. And as Dr. King showed, it is as controversial today as it was in the gospel.

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