“22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is this not Joseph’s son?” 23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ ” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you; no prophet is accepted in his hometown.
25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months and there was a severe famine over all the land, 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many with a skin disease in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
The problem of immigration is not new. If we can imagine for one moment the amount of movement throughout the Mediterranean Region (including Southern Europe and Northern Africa), India, and even Asia, we begin to comprehend the enormity of the immigration issue. To set the stage, we need to first understand how land borders were defined in Jesus’ day. First all that land that we recognize as Biblical was under the control of the Roman Empire. The Empire established vast networks of forts and outposts along trade routes, rivers, and other natural landmarks that helped establish a border. Individuals, however, could cross borders without any form of documentation – if you lived within the Empire, you were part of the whole of the Empire.
Great! Now that we understand a tad bit of the geography, what in the world does that have to do with our passage?
The question that Jesus poses to his hometown crowd, “Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum,” sets the stage for the confrontation about to ensue. Jesus heals a servant of a Centurion. Yikes.
Why does this matter?
Jesus is challenging his own people to broaden their understanding of the kingdom of God. He isn’t pulling any punches with his cultural references. Those he encounters in the synagogue know the stories of how he healed the Centurion’s servant – both of which are not Israeli. God’s favor and blessing were bestowed on them through the Centurion’s faith alone. Jesus proclaims that “in no one in Israel have I found such faith” as that possessed by the Centurion, who knew Jesus could heal his servant with just a word.
He goes on to refer to Elijah, truly a prophet and man of God, who had to travel a distance to find a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. This widow was not an Israelite either. And yet, she garnered God’s favor. She provided lodging and food for Elijah and was spared certain death—she and her son being down to the last of her meal and oil—by following Elijah’s instructions from God. The widow’s son becomes ill during Elijah’s time there and Elijah cries out to God who then revives the son. The widow also had an uncanny belief in a God that was not her own, thus her son was spared.
And finally, Jesus mentions Naaman from Syria, another foreigner who was the head of Aram’s army and who suffered a skin disease. On a recent raid of an Israelite city, Naaman came into possession of a young girl who became his wife’s attendant. The young girl remarked to Naaman that if he prayed to the God of Israel that God would heal his skin disease. Naaman told Aram this news and was given permission to reach out to the King of Israel. The King, somewhat displeased with the request, made a spectacle of himself at which time Elisha steps in and saves the day. Naaman was instructed to wash in the Jordan River seven times and his skin disease would be healed. After a rebuff of Elisha’s prescription, he complied with some coaxing from his advisors and was healed.
Three examples are given in this passage. Three examples of faith held by those who were not Israeli, who were healed and restored by the power of God. This is what upset the people of Jesus’ hometown to the point of almost shoving him off the cliff’s edge. Jesus is tying his message of good news to those outside the Jewish faith. He is exclaiming in this moment that everyone is part of God’s kingdom, not just the people of Israel. This is a monumental claim.
The Israelites believed that they were the “chosen” people of God. Jesus turns that revelation on its head. Now we see him proclaiming God’s favor on all people. The blessing that the Israelites believed they possessed exclusively was no longer exclusive – actually, it never was. Jesus reorients us once again to an inclusive understanding of the gospel.
As we consider the implications for our own time, we might consider the lesson that Jesus provides his hometown, that all people are created in the image and likeness of God. Jesus points to these specific individuals who were not Israeli but still received God’s favor as a touchpoint of how we are to respond to those who are not like us or who come from somewhere else.
The practical side of immigration is obviously more difficult than healing someone in the Jordan River, raising someone from the dead, or with a word healing someone from a great distance. In truth, we have placed ourselves in a position to have to defend borders that perhaps God never intended. If we could see every person as a child of God, as part of the whole of the created order, would that change how we also see our borders? Would it change how we understand God’s blessing?
If we erase our man-made borders and only take notice of God’s kingdom as the whole human race, we might find that we have fewer differences than we think. Then we can begin to heal all of the wounds that borders create – literal borders and figurate borders.