Jesus launched his public ministry on the Sabbath and, as was his custom, he attended the synagogue that morning. It was customary synagogue practice in Jesus’ day to offer anyone in the congregation to read the Scriptures and make comments and Jesus did.
When he got to the podium, he opened the Scriptures to the prophet Isaiah—a process that required unrolling one side and rolling the other until you come to the desired passage. The passage reads as follows:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
(Luke 4:18–19, ESV. Cf. Isaiah 61:1-2)
He then rolled the scroll back up, handed it to the attendant, went back to his seat and sat down. All eyes were on him as the other congregants awaited his commentary on the text.
His words were few and to the point:
Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
You might think this would have offended the others in the meeting, because Jesus was claiming to be the Messiah. He had come to bring deliverance to Israel. To the contrary, they were quite pleased. You see, this was Nazareth, the place where Jesus grew up and where people knew about his miracles. Nazareth was not a part of the wealthy central Judean region where Jerusalem sat. It was not a center of power. In fact, it was among the poorest regions of Israel.
So, we can understand why Jesus’ reading of the text and his interpretation would please the people. They saw themselves as the recipients of the blessings of that text. They saw themselves as the oppressed (by Roman occupation), captives of foreign pagan power. They saw themselves as the poor who needed economic liberation. They welcomed the announcement that the day of God’s favor had arrived because they considered themselves to be the recipients of that favor.
That’s why Luke tells us that “all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words coming from his mouth” (Luke 4:22).
I recently watched a YouTube video of Simon Brodkin, the English comedian and professional prankster who is known for disguising himself and sneaking into exclusive events. In this video, he disguised himself as an orthodox Rabbi who sang rap. He explained that he wanted to show how the show, “Britain Has Talent,” was rigged in favor of people with sob stories, were full of patriotism, and free with their praises of the four judges. He created his own rap song that he said was awful and then proceeding to go through the long application process. He did come before the four judges and, as he predicted, they loved him and gave him four yes votes to move forward in the competition. At that point, someone discovered who he was and they kicked him out of the competition. But, he had made his point. People love to hear themselves praised and they love to have their national pride reinforced.
My first thought was: “This guy is a bit of a sociopath; unable to see the value of patriotic feelings and personal pride.” But then my thoughts returned to Jesus’ inaugural address at the synagogue in Nazareth.
You see, Jesus was not pleased by the congregation’s adulation. There was something wrong with this picture. Most leaders would have stopped while they were ahead. Jesus went on to say some things that transformed their praise into outrage.
First, he said: “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself.’ What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well” (Luke 4:23). The thing is, they weren’t saying that at all. The text tells us that the congregation loved what he read and what he said. It seems like Jesus is going out of his way to antagonize an otherwise receptive audience.
But this is not enough; Jesus doubles down: “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown.”
The attendees that morning must have been completely confused. Why is Jesus reacting this way?
Then Jesus refers to two Old Testament stories that caused the people to make a 180 degree turn in their attitude toward him. First, he references a story in the Old Testament about the prophet Elijah. Elijah helped a widow who was suffering the devastation of famine and hunger.
“In truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over the land, and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow.”
Sidon was a fishing town on the Mediterranean coast located about 25 miles north of Tyre, deep in the heart of territory long viewed by the Jews as enemies of God. The Sidonians had often been the oppressors of Israel and they engaged in the idolatrous pagan religions of the region.
Jesus doesn’t stop there; he goes on to reference another story. This one was about a Syrian military commander named Naaman who had incurred leprosy and how Elisha the prophet heals him.
Both stories show God reaching out and giving aid to gentiles. Jesus’ point — and the reason he was not satisfied with the praise of the congregation — was that God’s redemptive purposes are not just for Israel, but include all people, everywhere, who are in need and call upon His name.
This message did not resonate well with his audience. If his purpose was to rile the audience, Jesus was successful. Luke tells us…
When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. But passing through their midst, he went away. (Luke 4:28–30, ESV)
What does all this have to do with leadership?
It seems to me there are two kinds of leadership or two kinds of leadership theory. One kind I call, “celebrity leadership.” This is leadership that seeks its own personal glorification. Success in this kind of leadership is measured by one’s popularity. This kind of leadership dominates our thinking about leadership in America today. If one is successful at confirming people’s self-concept and thereby gaining their approval in vast numbers, we dub him or her a leader.
But there is another kind of leadership that goes deeper beneath the surface of cultural conformity. Sometimes what we need is not a pat on the back and to be told that we are as great as we always thought we were. Sometimes, what is needed is a different kind of leader to come along and make deep cuts across the grain of popular culture. What is needed is a leader who will expose our own blindness—not out of a motive like Simon Brodkin to simply show how clever we can be and how counter cultural we can be—but to wake us up to dangerous attitudes that will, if left untended, destroy us.
Greg Waddell provides consulting services for churches and organizations. Contact Dr. Waddell today at gregwaddell[at]leadstrategic.com to discuss the needs of your organization.