Stories Jesus told with women in them
The widow of Zarephath (Luke 4:25-26)
Here’s the set-up for today’s story: Jesus had come out of the desert, exhausted, malnourished, at the point of death, having fasted for nearly a month and a half, and endured numerous intense spiritual onslaughts from His enemy, called Satan, or the devil. He was now ready to begin His three year public ministry.
Luke’s next story seems to imply the very next place Jesus headed towards was back to His hometown of Nazareth, in the Galilee region. In actuality, the apostle John (much later, probably twenty years later) filled in the back story of Jesus’ first cleansing of the temple, as a sort of public and symbolic proclamation of what He intended to do in the next three years, His choosing of His disciples, the wedding in Cana, His first journey through Samaria, and a few other events.
Luke telescoped all those stories into a sentence, revealing what fascinated him the most. Luke, the scientist and medical man was engrossed by the work of the Holy Spirit, and he summarized Jesus’ entry into public ministry by saying Jesus was now in the grip of a supernatural agent. Jesus was “in the power of the Spirit,” Luke wrote, as He made His way through Jerusalem, the surrounding countryside, and up the Jordan River’s banks, through Cana, to His childhood home in Nazareth, preaching and healing all along the way. “Everyone praised Him,” Luke confirmed, and you can kind of hear his own admiration for Jesus in those words.
When Jesus got to Nazareth, He apparently waited until it was the Sabbath before He made His public appearance. Maybe He spent a couple of days at home with His mother, brothers, and sisters, for a little downtime. But come Saturday morning, Jesus went to the synagogue where He had studied Torah, and Mishnah since He had been a little boy of five years old.
When it came time for the reading of the scriptures, Jesus stood up, and the thick scroll containing all of the prophet Isaiah’s collection of sermons was handed to Him. The book of Isaiah, in our modern-day Bible, is divided into 66 chapters. Imagine the growing anticipation as Jesus kept methodically unrolling Isaiah’s enormous scroll until He finally got to what we now have as chapter 61, to read these words:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
No one breathed. All eyes were fastened on Jesus as He quietly, methodically, re-rolled the scroll, and handed it back to the attendant. Everyone’s head slowly swiveled, as they watched Jesus make His way back to His seat. He had left a significant portion of the text, the part about God’s judgement, unread. No one had ever done that. Who was this, to take such liberties with the very Word of God?!
“Today,” Jesus said—and I imagine He must have looked them all back in their eyes, one by one; I imagine He must have smiled with gentle yet unswerving authority; I imagine His voice was rich and powerful, and easily filled the room, though He spoke naturally—“This scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” The Word had spoken the Word. How electrifying!! Did their hair stand on end? Were there sharp gasps of shock? Dismay? Joy?
Luke said they all spoke well of Jesus, and were “amazed at the gracious words that came from His lips.” Many of those men (downstairs) and women (upstairs, in the gallery reserved for women) had known Jesus since He was a little boy, learning scripture at their knees. Had they laughed when He said something silly, as little children will do? Had some of those women helped Mary with her growing pile of children, changing diapers, fixing meals, babysitting from time to time? Had some of those men ruffled Jesus’ hair as they talked business with His dad, or encouraged Jesus’ young attempts at projects?
Now, they all turned to each other and asked, “Isn’t this Joseph’s boy?”
You know those situations when there’s text—what everyone is saying—and subtext—what no one is saying, but we can all sort of tell is there? We call it “reading between the lines” sometimes. It’s the stuff no one ever actually calls out because it’s so socially uncomfortable and kind of horrifying, when it happens. Like, when someone asks you, “Does this look good on me?” And it’s their favorite thing. So you smile, and try to say something nice. And they look you right in the eye and say, “You’re lying, because you’re too afraid to tell me what you really think.”
If only the Lord would have left well enough alone. Everyone was trying to be super nice to Him when He had done something really awkward and maybe even heretical, kind of changing the way the text was supposed to be read, kind of declaring something everyone hoped could be true, but they’d never heard before, and no rabbi had ever taught, or dared to teach. Still, after all, He was their hometown boy, and He was turning out pretty good.
But Jesus didn’t leave it alone.
Jesus said to them, “'Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, "Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum."
“'Truly I tell you,' He continued, 'no prophet is accepted in his hometown. I assure you that there were many widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the sky was shut for three and a half years and there was a severe famine throughout the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them, but to a widow in Zarephath in the region of Sidon. And there were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleansed—only Naaman the Syrian.'
"All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove him out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way."
Hang onto that widow story, I promise we’ll get to it in the next blog.
(All Bible quotes are from Luke 4:14-30 from the New International Version--NIV)