by Father Mike Stubbs
“I had a relative who was able to predict the exact time of his death, down to the minute and hour.”
“That’s amazing! What was he, a prophet?”
“No, he was a criminal, executed by the state.”
Sometimes we think of a prophet as a person who can foretell the future. While there’s an element of that in the prophets of the Bible, that does not tell the full story about them. In the Bible, a prophet is a person through whom God speaks. Often their message points to the future, a warning about future calamity, a promise of future salvation. But always, the prophet speaks on behalf of God.
Luke’s Gospel, in particular, describes Jesus as following in the line of the prophets. This Sunday’s Gospel reading, Lk 4:21-30, reinforces Jesus’ image as a prophet.
First of all, Jesus implicitly identifies himself as a prophet by citing the saying: “No prophet is accepted in his own native place.” Then he associates himself with two prominent prophets from the Old Testament: Elijah and Elisha.
Jesus points out incidents from their lives that suggest an outreach to the gentiles. He does this to justify his own outreach to the marginalized in his society — the poor, women, Samaritans. The townspeople take this as a rebuke to their own insider mentality. They become infuriated and try to lynch him. But somehow, he mysteriously escapes.
We can look upon Jesus’ challenge to the townspeople and their violent reaction as a kind of prophecy that anticipates the whole of his ministry. Jesus will continually challenge his society to reach out to those on the margins. His prophetic stance will ultimately lead to another violent reaction: his death on the cross. But once again, Jesus will mysteriously escape the bonds of death by means of his resurrection.
If Jesus’ challenge to the people of Nazareth and their violent reaction foreshadow the rest of his ministry, it only makes sense that this incident occur at the beginning of that ministry. It happens that way in Luke’s Gospel, but not in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark.
In their Gospels, the incident in the Nazareth synagogue takes place toward the end of Jesus’ ministry (Mt 13:53-58; Mk 6:1-6).
While their versions include Jesus’ saying about a prophet not being accepted in his own native place, they omit the material about Elijah and Elisha and the attempted lynching. In their Gospels, the reaction of the townspeople amounts to a lack of faith, rather than the violent rejection in Luke’s Gospel. The incident at the Nazareth synagogue fits into their Gospels in a different way than in Luke’s. In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark, the incident does not serve to foretell the rest of Jesus’ ministry. It does not emphasize Jesus’ role as a prophet to the strong extent we see in Luke.
Each Gospel adapts the story to suit its own needs. And Luke wants to emphasize Jesus as the one anointed to proclaim good news to the poor. That is the message that God wants Jesus to bring.