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Hope of the Gospel: 4 - Jesus and His Fellow Townsmen

By George MacDonald

      And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read. And there was delivered unto him the book of the prophet Esaias. And when he had opened the book, he found the place where it was written, 'The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he hath anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor; he hath sent me to heal the brokenhearted, to preach deliverance to the captives, and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord.' And he closed the book, and he gave it again to the minister, and sat down. And the eyes of all them that were in the synagogue were fastened on him. And he began to say unto them, 'This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears.'--Luke iv. 14-21.

      The Lord's sermon upon the mount seems such an enlargement of these words of the prophet as might, but for the refusal of the men of Nazareth to listen to him, have followed his reading of them here recorded. That, as given by the evangelist, they correspond to neither of the differing originals of the English and Greek versions, ought to be enough in itself to do away with the spiritually vulgar notion of the verbal inspiration of the Scriptures.

      The point at which the Lord stops in his reading, is suggestive: he closes the book, leaving the words 'and the day of vengeance of our God,' or, as in the Septuagint, 'the day of recompense,' unread: God's vengeance is as holy a thing as his love, yea, is love, for God is love and God is not vengeance; but, apparently, the Lord would not give the word a place in his announcement of his mission: his hearers would not recognize it as a form of the Father's love, but as vengeance on their enemies, not vengeance on the selfishness of those who would not be their brother's keeper.

      He had not begun with Nazareth, neither with Galilee. 'A prophet has no honour in his own country,' he said, and began to teach where it was more likely he would be heard. It is true that he wrought his first miracle in Cana, but that was at his mother's request, not of his own intent, and he did not begin his teaching there. He went first to Jerusalem, there cast out the buyers and sellers from the temple, and did other notable things alluded to by St John; then went back to Galilee, where, having seen the things he did in Jerusalem, his former neighbours were now prepared to listen to him. Of these the Nazarenes, to whom the sight of him was more familiar, retained the most prejudice against him: he belonged to their very city! they had known him from a child!--and low indeed are they in whom familiarity with the high and true breeds contempt! they are judged already. Yet such was the fame of the new prophet, that even they were willing to hear in the synagogue what he had to say to them--thence to determine for themselves what claim he had to an honourable reception. But the eye of their judgment was not single, therefore was their body full of darkness. Should Nazareth indeed prove, to their self-glorifying satisfaction, the city of the great Prophet, they were more than ready to grasp at the renown of having produced him: he was indeed the great Prophet, and within a few minutes they would have slain him for the honour of Israel. In the ignoble even the love of their country partakes largely of the ignoble.

      There was a shadow of the hateless vengeance of God in the expulsion of the dishonest dealers from the temple with which the Lord initiated his mission: that was his first parable to Jerusalem; to Nazareth he comes with the sweetest words of the prophet of hope in his mouth--good tidings of great joy--of healing and sight and liberty; followed by the godlike announcement, that what the prophet had promised he was come to fulfil. His heart, his eyes, his lips, his hands--his whole body is full of gifts for men, and that day was that scripture fulfilled in their ears. The prophecy had gone before that he should save his people from their sins; he brings an announcement they will better understand: he is come, he says, to deliver men from sorrow and pain, ignorance and oppression, everything that makes life hard and unfriendly. What a gracious speech, what a daring pledge to a world whelmed in tyranny and wrong! To the women of it, I imagine, it sounded the sweetest, in them woke the highest hopes. They had scarce had a hearing when the Lord came; and thereupon things began to mend with them, and are mending still, for the Lord is at work, and will be. He is the refuge of the oppressed. By its very woes, as by bitterest medicine, he is setting the world free from sin and woe. This very hour he is curing its disease, the symptoms of which are so varied and so painful; working none the less faithfully that the sick, taking the symptoms for the disease, cry out against the incompetence of their physician. 'What power can heal the broken-hearted?' they cry. And indeed it takes a God to do it, but the God is here! In yet better words than those of the prophet, spoken straight from his own heart, he cries: 'Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.' He calls to him every heart knowing its own bitterness, speaks to the troubled consciousness of every child of the Father. He is come to free us from everything that makes life less than bliss essential. No other could be a gospel worthy of the God of men.

      Every one will, I presume, confess to more or less misery. Its apparent source may be this or that; its real source is, to use a poor figure, a dislocation of the juncture between the created and the creating life. This primal evil is the parent of evils unnumbered, hence of miseries multitudinous, under the weight of which the arrogant man cries out against life, and goes on to misuse it, while the child looks around for help--and who shall help him but his father! The Father is with him all the time, but it may be long ere the child knows himself in his arms. His heart may be long troubled as well as his outer life. The dank mists of doubtful thought may close around his way, and hide from him the Light of the world! cold winds from the desert of foiled endeavour may sorely buffet and for a time baffle his hope; but every now and then the blue pledge of a great sky will break through the clouds over his head; and a faint aurora will walk his darkest East. Gradually he grows more capable of imagining a world in which every good thing thinkable may be a fact. Best of all, the story of him who is himself the good news, the gospel of God, becomes not only more and more believable to his heart, but more and more ministrant to his life of conflict, and his assurance of a living father who hears when his children cry. The gospel according to this or that expounder of it, may repel him unspeakably; the gospel according to Jesus Christ, attracts him supremely, and ever holds where it has drawn him. To the priest, the scribe, the elder, exclaiming against his self-sufficiency in refusing what they teach, he answers, 'It is life or death to me. Your gospel I cannot take. To believe as you would have me believe, would be to lose my God. Your God is no God to me. I do not desire him. I would rather die the death than believe in such a God. In the name of the true God, I cast your gospel from me; it is no gospel, and to believe it would be to wrong him in whom alone lies my hope.'

      'But to believe in such a man,' he might go on to say, 'with such a message, as I read of in the New Testament, is life from the dead. I have yielded myself, to live no more in the idea of self, but with the life of God. To him I commit the creature he has made, that he may live in it, and work out its life--develop it according to the idea of it in his own creating mind. I fall in with his ways for me. I believe in him. I trust him. I try to obey him. I look to be rendered capable of and receive a pure vision of his will, freedom from the prison-house of my limitation, from the bondage of a finite existence. For the finite that dwells in the infinite and in which the infinite dwells, is finite no longer. Those who are thus children indeed, are little Gods, the divine brood of the infinite Father. No mere promise of deliverance from the consequences of sin, would be any gospel to me. Less than the liberty of a holy heart, less than the freedom of the Lord himself, will never satisfy one human soul. Father, set me free in the glory of thy will, so that I will only as thou willest. Thy will be at once thy perfection and mine. Thou alone art deliverance--absolute safety from every cause and kind of trouble that ever existed, anywhere now exists, or ever can exist in thy universe.'

      But the people of the Lord's town, to whom he read, appropriating them, the gracious words of the prophet, were of the wise and prudent of their day. With one and the same breath, they seem to cry, 'These things are good, it is true, but they must come after our way. We must have the promise to our fathers fulfilled--that we shall rule the world, the chosen of God, the children of Abraham and Israel. We want to be a free people, manage our own affairs, live in plenty, and do as we please. Liberty alone can ever cure the woes of which you speak. We do not need to be better; we are well enough. Give us riches and honour, and keep us content with ourselves, that we may be satisfied with our own likeness, and thou shalt be the Messiah.' Never, perhaps, would such be men's spoken words, but the prevailing condition of their minds might often well take form in such speech. Whereon will they ground their complaint should God give them their hearts' desire? When that desire given closes in upon them with a torturing sense of slavery; when they find that what they have imagined their own will, was but a suggestion they knew not whence; when they discover that life is not good, yet they cannot die; will they not then turn and entreat their maker to save them after his own fashion?

      Let us try to understand the brief, elliptical narrative of what took place in the synagogue of Nazareth on the occasion of our Lord's announcement of his mission.

      'This day,' said Jesus, 'is this scripture fulfilled in your ears;' and went on with his divine talk. We shall yet know, I trust, what 'the gracious words' were 'which proceeded out of his mouth': surely some who heard them, still remember them, for 'all bare him witness, and wondered at' them! How did they bear him witness? Surely not alone by the intensity of their wondering gaze! Must not the narrator mean that their hearts bore witness to the power of his presence, that they felt the appeal of his soul to theirs, that they said in themselves, 'Never man spake like this man'? Must not the light of truth in his face, beheld of such even as knew not the truth, have lifted their souls up truthward? Was it not the something true, common to all hearts, that bore the wondering witness to the graciousness of his words? Had not those words found a way to the pure human, that is, the divine in the men? Was it not therefore that they were drawn to him--all but ready to accept him?--on their own terms, alas, not his! For a moment he seemed to them a true messenger, but truth in him was not truth to them: had he been what they took him for, he would have been no saviour. They were, however, though partly by mistake, well disposed toward him, and it was with a growing sense of being honoured by his relation to them, and the property they had in him, that they said, 'Is not this Joseph's son?'

      But the Lord knew what was in their hearts; he knew the false notion with which they were almost ready to declare for him; he knew also the final proof to which they were in their wisdom and prudence about to subject him. He did not look likely to be a prophet, seeing he had grown up among them, and had never shown any credentials: they had a right to proof positive! They had heard of wonderful things he had done in other places: why had they not first of all been done in their sight? Who had a claim equal to theirs? who so capable as they to pronounce judgment on his mission whether false or true: had they not known him from childhood? His words were gracious, but words were nothing: he must do something--something wonderful! Without such conclusive, satisfying proof, Nazareth at least would never acknowledge him!

      They were quite ready for the honour of having any true prophet, such as it seemed not impossible the son of Joseph might turn out to be, recognized as their towns-man, one of their own people: if he were such, theirs was the credit of having produced him! Then indeed they were ready to bear witness to him, take his part, adopt his cause, and before the world stand up for him! As to his being the Messiah, that was merest absurdity: did they not all know his father, the carpenter? He might, however, be the prophet whom so many of the best in the nation were at the moment expecting! Let him do something wonderful!

      They were not a gracious people, or a good. The Lord saw their thought, and it was far from being to his mind. He desired no such reception as they were at present equal to giving a prophet. His mighty works were not meant for such as they--to convince them of what they were incapable of understanding or welcoming! Those who would not believe without signs and wonders, could never believe worthily with any number of them, and none should be given them! His mighty works were to rouse the love, and strengthen the faith of the meek and lowly in heart, of such as were ready to come to the light, and show that they were of the light. He knew how poor the meaning the Nazarenes put on the words he had read; what low expectations they had of the Messiah when most they longed for his coming. They did not hear the prophet while he read the prophet! At sight of a few poor little wonders, nothing to him, to them sufficient to prove him such a Messiah as they looked for, they would burst into loud acclaim, and rush to their arms, eager, his officers and soldiers, to open the one triumphant campaign against the accursed Romans, and sweep them beyond the borders of their sacred country. Their Messiah would make of their nation the redeemed of the Lord, themselves the favourites of his court, and the tyrants of the world! Salvation from their sins was not in their hearts, not in their imaginations, not at all in their thoughts. They had heard him read his commission to heal the broken-hearted; they would rush to break hearts in his name. The Lord knew them, and their vain expectations. He would have no such followers--no followers on false conceptions--no followers whom wonders would delight but nowise better! The Nazarenes were not yet of the sort that needed but one change to be his people. He had come to give them help; until they accepted his, they could have none to give him.

      The Lord never did mighty work in proof of his mission; to help a growing faith in himself and his father, he would do anything! He healed those whom healing would deeper heal--those in whom suffering had so far done its work, that its removal also would carry it on. To the Nazarenes he would not manifest his power; they were not in a condition to get good from such manifestation: it would but confirm their present arrogance and ambition. Wonderful works can only nourish a faith already existent; to him who believes without it, a miracle may be granted. It was the Israelite indeed, whom the Lord met with miracle: 'Because I said unto thee, I saw thee under the fig-tree, believest thou? Thou shalt see the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.' Those who laughed him to scorn were not allowed to look on the resurrection of the daughter of Jairus. Peter, when he would walk on the water, had both permission and power given him to do so. The widow received the prophet, and was fed; the Syrian went to the prophet, and was cured. In Nazareth, because of unbelief, the Lord could only lay his hands on a few sick folk; in the rest was none of that leaning toward the truth, which alone can make room for the help of a miracle. This they soon made manifest.

      The Lord saw them on the point of challenging a display of his power, and anticipated the challenge with a refusal.

      For the better understanding of his words, let me presume to paraphrase them: 'I know you will apply to me the proverb, Physician, heal thyself, requiring me to prove what is said of me in Capernaum, by doing the same here; but there is another proverb, No prophet is accepted in his own country. Unaccepted I do nothing wonderful. In the great famine, Elijah was sent to no widow of the many in Israel, but to a Sidonian; and Elisha cured no leper of the many in Israel, but Naaman the Syrian. There are those fit to see signs and wonders; they are not always the kin of the prophet.'

      The Nazarenes heard with indignation. Their wonder at his gracious words was changed to bitterest wrath. The very beams of their ugly religion were party-spirit, exclusiveness, and pride in the fancied favour of God for them only of all the nations: to hint at the possibility of a revelation of the glory of God to a stranger; far more, to hint that a stranger might be fitter to receive such a revelation than a Jew, was an offence reaching to the worst insult; and it was cast in their teeth by a common man of their own city! 'Thou art but a well-known carpenter's son, and dost thou teach us! Darest thou imply a divine preference for Capernaum over Nazareth?' In bad odour with the rest of their countrymen, they were the prouder of themselves.

      The whole synagogue, observe, rose in a fury. Such a fellow a prophet! He was worse than the worst of Gentiles! he was a false Jew! a traitor to his God! a friend of the idol-worshipping Romans! Away with him! His townsmen led the van in his rejection by his own. The men of Nazareth would have forestalled his crucifixion by them of Jerusalem. What! a Sidonian woman fitter to receive the prophet than any Jewess! a heathen worthier to be kept alive by miracle in time of famine, than a worshipper of the true God! a leper of Damascus less displeasing to God than the lepers of his chosen race! It was no longer condescending approval that shone in their eyes. He a prophet! They had seen through him! Soon had they found him out! The moment he perceived it useless to pose for a prophet with them, who had all along known the breed of him, he had turned to insult them! He dared not attempt in his own city the deceptions with which, by the help of Satan, he had made such a grand show, and fooled the idiots of Capernaum! He saw they knew him too well, were too wide-awake to be cozened by him, and to avoid their expected challenge, fell to reviling the holy nation. Let him take the consequences! To the brow of the hill with him!

      How could there be any miracle for such! They were well satisfied with themselves, and

                        Nothing almost sees miracles
            But misery.

      Need and the upward look, the mood ready to believe when and where it can, the embryonic faith, is dear to Him whose love would have us trust him. Let any man seek him--not in curious inquiry whether the story of him may be true or cannot be true--in humble readiness to accept him altogether if only he can, and he shall find him; we shall not fail of help to believe because we doubt. But if the questioner be such that the dispersion of his doubt would but leave him in disobedience, the Power of truth has no care to effect his conviction. Why cast out a devil that the man may the better do the work of the devil? The childlike doubt will, as it softens and yields, minister nourishment with all that was good in it to the faith-germ at its heart; the wise and prudent unbelief will be left to develop its own misery. The Lord could easily have satisfied the Nazarenes that he was the Messiah: they would but have hardened into the nucleus of an army for the subjugation of the world. To a warfare with their own sins, to the subjugation of their doing and desiring to the will of the great Father, all the miracles in his power would never have persuaded them. A true convincement is not possible to hearts and minds like theirs. Not only is it impossible for a low man to believe a thousandth part of what a noble man can, but a low man cannot believe anything as a noble man believes it. The men of Nazareth could have believed in Jesus as their saviour from the Romans; as their saviour from their sins they could not believe in him, for they loved their sins. The king of heaven came to offer them a share in his kingdom; but they were not poor in spirit, and the kingdom of heaven was not for them. Gladly would they have inherited the earth; but they were not meek, and the earth was for the lowly children of the perfect Father.

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See Also:
   1 - Salvation From Sin
   2 - The Remission of Sins
   3 - Jesus in the World
   4 - Jesus and His Fellow Townsmen
   5 - The Heirs of Heaven and Earth
   6 - Sorrow the Pledge of Joy
   7 - God's Family
   8 - The Reward of Obedience
   9 - The Yoke of Jesus
   10 - The Salt and the Light of the World
   11 - The Right Hand and the Left
   12 - The Hope of the Universe


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