Why did things go so badly wrong in the synagogue at Nazareth in such a ridiculously short space of time? One minute Jesus enjoys unanimous approval, his hometown listeners astonished by his gracious words. The next minute they are universally enraged to the point of threatening him with violence. It is common human experience to feel one has said the wrong thing or been misunderstood. But the breakdown in relations between Jesus and his own people is difficult to understand.
Was it his fault or theirs? Was it something he said or something they said? They merely chipped in with what seems like a reasonable comment: 'Is not this Joseph's son?' He replies by assuming that they are thinking of him as a physician who ought to heal himself, a wonder-worker who ought to do at home what he has become famous for doing elsewhere. He then proclaims that a prophet is never accepted in his own country, and cites examples from the careers of Elijah and Elisha to show how God's care reached beyond the boundaries of Israel when there were already many needy people within those boundaries.
Was Jesus claiming a status that they considered extreme by placing himself in the line of the great prophets of Israel? What kind of threat or offence to his listeners was implied in his declaration that no prophet is acceptable in his own country?
Some contemporary figures, who might be described as prophetic, endured violent opposition from their own people. A Hindu extremist assassinated Mahatma Gandhi. John Hume was obliged to protect his home against attacks from his own rather than the other side. What entitles them to be called prophetic is their ability to see the humanity of the enemy and the energy they put into reminding their own side that they share a common, needy humanity with the enemy.
Jesus is certainly prophetic in this way, witness his parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), his healing of Gentile sick (Luke 17) and his death on behalf of all people (Luke 24:46-47). He teaches his followers that they are to be merciful, as the Father is merciful, and shows gracious care towards all, even towards enemies (Luke 6:32-36). Preachers of God's Word carry a message that reaches beyond racial, political and religious boundaries to link up with the humanity of the other person, who is also a son or daughter of God, a brother or sister of Jesus Christ.
A genuine prophet is always reluctant, knowing the dangers of the task. Jeremiah pleads his youthfulness as an excuse for not accepting the prophetic call, and is assured of God's help in the confrontations that must follow. It seems like a nice job, carrying God's Word to the people. That Word is always just, truthful and gracious. But it is not always welcome, because it is also a sword that penetrates human hearts and exposes the foundations of falsehood and injustice. The prophet must confront his own people, sooner or later, with this gracious and penetrating Word. (The first member of his people who must be confronted is, of course, himself.)
Jesus Christ is not just another prophet. He is not just the greatest of the bearers of the Word of God. We believe that he is the Word of God, full of grace and truth, come to his own home, and his own people received him not (John 1:11). Whatever our own home or country is, whatever the nation, tribe, race, language, politics or philosophy with which we identify ourselves, the Word of God comes to dwell among us. As gracious, he is welcome. As penetrating to the foundations of falsehood and injustice, he may not be so welcome. The temptation is to domesticate Jesus and his good news, to make it ours, familiar, homely and comforting. But the Word is a sword, and when preached faithfully it wounds its hearers with a wound that opens to new life.