Scots Church Adelaide
Running the Gauntlet of Compassion

Week of Sunday January 31: Epiphany 4
Gospel: Luke 4:21-30

Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’


20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ 22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ 23He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ 24And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. 25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’

28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

31 He went down to Capernaum, a city in Galilee, and was teaching them on the sabbath. 32They were astounded at his teaching, because he spoke with authority.


I’m fresh back from holidays, ready to start work, just as Luke’s gospel gets down to the main act. We have had the introductions in the first chapters: This is Who Jesus Is. It’s all formalised with his baptism and genealogy at the end of chapter 3. The temptations at the beginning of chapter 4 show us a person who has a very different approach from the ways of the world. (I’m always reminded of Jesus of Montreal high above the city, as the business men try to do a deal with him.)

When Jesus comes home to Nazareth he reads from Isaiah, reciting the centrality of the tradition of God’s compassion:

he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

Then he throws down the gauntlet to his people. If I were preaching at the opening of, say, a community health centre in my parish, I could read that text from Isaiah, and say “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” It would be true. But for Luke’s listeners, Jesus words are an unmistakable Messianic proclamation, not just one more small fulfillment of Isaiah.

I’ve spent some time thinking about the cliché of the gauntlet. The gauntlet was an ultimatum. It had an element of insult; oftn the knights would first slap the glove against the other’s chest or face. There was dishonour involved in not taking up the challenge. I have used the cliché, instead of saying “Jesus issues his people with a challenge,” because the reading is full similar intense emotion. The situation became life threatening.

The tradition Luke has written down for us may have some of its origins in explaining why Jesus was rejected by his own people. But the drama of the reading slaps down an ultimatum to accept Jesus Messianic claim. The people are insulted.

And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. 25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.

There was a colleague, during the Vietnam War, who upended the Chalice on the Communion Table, and poured out the wine. It was a prophetic challenge to our complacence, but also a deep insult. People were enraged, as were the people of Nazareth.

There is more than insult here. There is also judgment. After this event, Jesus goes back to Capernaum, Luke tells us, and “they were astounded at his teaching, because he spoke with authority.” The contrast between the two towns is starkly drawn.

Something else is happening, too. As I read the text this morning, I was reminded of one of those memories that hang in our minds, perhaps for decades, of often very small events, which we don’t quite understand. “Why have I remembered that?! What is it trying to tell me?”

During my first parish, there was a deep pastoral issue in our Synod, which was tearing us apart. I was chosen to lead an evening’s education and discussion about it, for the parish council and elders of our parish. I presented material which I had researched exhaustively. I shared the stories of other people, and stories of my own journey. It is a resource for which people have often thanked me, since then.

All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. (Bill Loader suggests that the Greek word charitos, which NRSV translates as gracious, also has overtones of compassion; “The people were ‘amazed at the words of compassion’...”)

At the end of the evening, a parishioner came up to me, serious, pious, friendly, smiling, excited, disdainful, and a little triumphant. I’ve never quite understood the mixed messages of his words and demeanour. “You nearly had me convinced,” he said. “You nearly changed my mind. It was very good! But I understand what God wants.”

He was having a 'Nazareth moment.' He was almost seduced by the gracious words. Instead, he rejected them for what he knew to be true. There was no cliff nearby, but it was the beginning of his leaving the parish.

People become possessive about truth and knowledge. When their knowledge power is threatened, they often become aggressive. This can include refusal to face new truth. It can include vilification of the other. Luke could have written similar things about Christian communities, had he known what we know about the history that followed. A different race, a different culture, a different setting - to those obsessed with protecting their own and fearful of change these are dangers to be avoided, enemies to be attacked. (Loader)

There was more graciousness than gauntlet in what Jesus did that day in Nazareth. The challenge was great. The issue was ‘life and death,’ as it is when the gauntlet is thrown down. But his words were gracious in every sense of the word. They were gift.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.

It doesn’t matter if “compassion” is philologically derivable from the Greek charitos; Bill Loader’s translation is true, anyway. Jesus spoke “words of compassion.”

The great challenge is whether I will accept the gift, or choose to be insulted. If the Body of Christ today is the people of my congregation, will I give honour to the prophet who is among his people? Will I listen to the words of compassion from the woman next to me in the pew? Will I hear the words of grace from the child in the Sunday School? Or will I idolise the words of a celebrity preacher from overseas, and reject the Christ when he comes to me?

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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