What we are going to be looking at today is the story of Jesus returning to his hometown of Nazareth and the people rejecting him because he was not who they thought he was. To explain what this case of mistaken identity was like, it might be helpful to use a modern example.
Imagine there was a boy who was raised in St Catharines. When he became an adult he went off and trained to be a pastor. After pastoring in a number of churches, he finally returned to his hometown of St Catharines and began preaching there. The people responded by throwing him off the Niagara Escarpment… Wait a minute, I don’t like where this illustration is going. Let me try something different.
This is not exactly the same but it is an example of people thinking they knew someone but really didn’t. Before our son Logan lived in the group home where he is now, he was in a larger one in Waterloo. One morning, Amanda and I were sitting at home when the phone rang. It was the group home calling to tell us that Logan had escaped and that he had been missing for an hour and a half. We rushed to the group home and found the street lined with police cars and even the k-9 unit. There was also a news truck there in case there was a tragedy to report. When we arrived, the police officer asked us questions about Logan and what he was capable of. We explained to him that he was very intelligent even though he might seem low functioning on the outside. We told them he had very good problem solving skills and that he was both strong and fast. The police officer put down his pen and told us that was exactly opposite of how the group home had described Logan. For the past two hours they had been searching with the assumption that Logan was low functioning and that he could not have gone far. It ended up that Logan walked 9 km from the group home to his school, knowing the route by memorizing on his bus trips. This was a case when thinking you know someone who you see every day could have led to some tragic results.
Let’s take a look at how things worked for Jesus.
Jesus in Nazareth
We all know, form countless Christmas pageants, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. That is true but that was not his home town. Joseph and Mary were there only for taxation purposes. It was Nazareth that was really Jesus’ hometown. We talk about the “Little Town of Bethlehem” but Bethlehem was actually a big town compared to Nazareth. Nazareth may have had as few as 500 people. For many years, skeptics claimed that Nazareth was uninhabited during the first century as there was not much archaeological evidence. More recently, archaeologists have discovered the remains of first century Nazareth and the evidence points to a very small town that was not really important.
I have lived in a small town, although not near as small as Nazareth, and I was amazed at how much people I didn’t know knew about me. We can expect that the people of Nazareth knew Jesus well. They knew Joseph and Mary. They knew Jesus’ numerous brothers and sisters. The people of Nazareth felt that they had a good understanding of Jesus.
When Jesus visited Nazareth, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath as we would expect. After the reading of the Torah, it was time for a reading from the prophets. Jesus, as a visiting rabbi, was welcome to provide the reading. At that time, the reader had the freedom to choose the book and passage. Jesus chose to read from Isaiah 61:1-2. As a teacher, Jesus was also welcome to share some reflections on the text. Up until this point, things are going well.
Jesus gave a very short explanation. “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
What was Jesus saying? He is identifying himself as the person prophesied by Isaiah as being anointed by the Spirit. The Hebrew for the anointed one is messiah.
The people were impressed at how articulate Jesus was but then went back to their own understanding, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” They knew that Jesus was Joseph’s son, they were questioning how that could fit with Jesus being the messiah. Even though words seemed positive, Jesus knew what they were really thinking. There was no way that little Jesus could have grown up to be the messiah.
In explaining why prophets are not welcome in their hometowns, Jesus only made things worse. He compared himself to Elijah and Elisha. Not only did these two prophets minister outside their hometowns, they were known for their ministry among the Gentiles.
This was too much for the people and they drove Jesus out of town and attempted to throw him off a cliff. Did you see how fast things changed here? Jesus quickly went from hometown boy who done good to a messianic pretender with pro-Gentile attitudes that needed to be cured with a mob execution.
The people thought they knew Jesus. They had known Jesus longer than the disciples, they knew certain facts about Jesus but they did not really know him. When Jesus revealed who he really was, they responded with anger because his version of who he was contradicted their own beliefs.
Do We Know Jesus?
I would love to tell you that the people of Nazareth were the last people to misunderstand Jesus but they were not even the last in the New Testament. People today continue to think they know Jesus, not knowing how wrong they really are.
How do we develop our view of Jesus? I would hope that we would go to the Bible, but there are other sources that some people rely on. There are television shows and movies that present their own perspectives on Jesus. There are documentaries, songs, books and magazine articles. You could develop an idea about Jesus without ever going near the Bible.
There is also the temptation to create Jesus in our own image. We assume the values and beliefs that we already have are correct. Since Jesus is so bright, he obviously must agree with us. Therefore if we are a social activist, a hellfire preacher or a spiritual mystic, then Jesus must be as well. There are enough sayings of Jesus that we can make the Bible fit our worldview.
The most extreme example that I have seen is that of religion columnist, Tom Harpur. I have studied his books and have seen the trajectory he has been on. Tom really struggled with John 14:6 which says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This exclusivist claimed seemed to him to have been the cause of much conflict. This figure of Jesus of Nazareth and his call for our allegiance was offensive. Tom’s way of dealing with this was to move from a liberal but orthodox view of Jesus to seeing him as only a myth. If we get rid of a historical Jesus who claimed to be the Christ and the Son of God, the walls between us and Jews, Muslims and others fall down. If Jesus was not a real person, than every person, Christian, Muslim, atheist, can have a spiritual Christ inside of them.
That sounds very nice but the problem is that all the evidence points to Jesus being real and the Gospels being accurate descriptions of his words and actions. We cannot start with who or what we wish Jesus was. We have to start with who Jesus really is.
What does the Bible say about Jesus? Jesus is for social justice but he also cares about correct theology. Jesus preaches love but he also calls people on their sin. We have to look at everything the Bible says about Jesus. Some of it may be difficult and challenging for us but we can’t get around the real Jesus.
You may have been raised in the church and feel that you know who Jesus is. Jesus is so familiar that we hardly even notice him. Jesus is just the hometown boy. But is he? Have you given Jesus permission to shake off the assumptions you have put upon him? Are you willing to see Jesus in a fresh way? I don’t mean an innovation by the latest religious bestseller. Are you willing to allow the Bible to challenge your understanding of Jesus? Will you get frustrated and try to throw him off the cliff or will you lay down your agenda and follow him?