Jesus, the local boy, came to Nazareth as an itinerant rabbi and was given an opportunity to have his say. His audience, full of proud Nazarenes, understood Isaiah 61 to mean foreign neighbors would serve them and make them wealthy. With everyone listening intently Jesus read this familiar and deeply beloved passage. Yet to their shock and amazement he stops reading at the very point when judgment and servitude is pronounced on the Gentiles.
The crowd witnessed against him, not for him, and was offended at how he took a text of judgment and turned it into an affirmation of mercy. Why would Jesus omit the verses they considered critical to the text? Stunned, they wait for further comments.
“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.’ And he said, ‘Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. But 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 all 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. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” (Luke 4:23-27)
The Faith of a Widow
The widow in Sidon refers to 1 Kings 17:1-16. In the eight century BC the prophet Elijah denounced King Ahab for worshiping Baal and announced a famine before fleeing. As the famine set in Elijah goes to a small village called Zarephath near Sidon (Lebanon). He notices a widow gathering sticks to bake a final loaf of bread for her only son. With no other family to care for them and the food supply exhausted, she was making this her final act before giving in to death.
The prophet told her, “Give me the food!” How could he ask a desperate woman for her last morsel of food and expect her starving son to stand by watching?
According to her worldview, every god’s power was limited to their territory. Yahweh, of the land of Israel, could only help those living in Israel. Sidon was Baal’s country, and only Baal had power there. The widow assumed the God of Israel was powerless in her district.
Was this one reason why Elijah confronted the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel? He wanted them to have home court advantage. He was proving to Israel that Yahweh could defeat Baal on his own turf. Yahweh was God over the whole earth.
Even Jonah thought he could flee from Yahweh by escaping the land of Israel on a ship. Wrong!
Naaman, the visiting Prime Minister from Damascus, took soil from Israel with him so he could pray to Israel’s God while living in Damascus. Naaman did not expect God to hear him unless he stood on some soil from the land. His solution was taking dirt to Damascus. This was not necessary. God is Lord of all.
In an age holding such beliefs, how could Elijah expect a starving widow to trust a prophet from Israel whose god, in her view, was powerless to help anyone in the region of Sidon?
The woman took an astounding leap of faith into the unknown. She obeyed the prophet and gave him the bread. She is rewarded with a jar of oil with an unlimited supply. Her radical faith in the God of Israel was sustained by a divine supply of oil, the food possibly coming from trading this valuable resource. Her story is a model of faith.
The Faith of a Foreigner
Jesus’ second story is recorded in 2 Kings 5:1-15. Naaman, a royal official, was suddenly struck with leprosy. He follows the advice of his wife’s maid and travels to Israel for a cure. After visiting the king he heads to the home of Elisha. Naaman was a powerful man expecting extraordinary courtesy everywhere he went. To his surprise Elisha sends a servant with his instructions. Major insult! The servant tells Naaman to dip in the Jordan seven times.
Naaman was used to the melted snows of Mount Herman that flowed through his hometown, crystal clear cool water. Those in Damascus enjoyed the finest source of ever-flowing water in the Middle East. How could he be expected to get dirty in a muddy stream? Naaman leaves upset yet one of his servants encourages him to follow the prophet’s counsel. He dips seven times in the Jordan river and is healed.
Jesus presented a second Gentile whose remarkable faith was rewarded. To the members of the synagogue Jesus was saying: “If you want to receive the benefits of the new golden age of the Messiah, you must imitate the faith of a Gentile woman and man. I am not asking you to merely tolerate or accept them. You must see such people as demonstrating great faith and acknowledge they can instruct you in the nature of authentic faith.”
Come and Go!
Jesus edited the Isaiah text and showed a delicate balance between going out and attracting in. The Anointed One is sent to proclaim the captives free, illustrated by Elijah leaving Israel and helping a woman in Sidon. The Messiah will also attract people to come as Elisha attracted Naaman to Israel.
3 Qualities of Faith
In both of these stories faith is lived out in three areas: intellectual assent, obedience, and trust. The widow of Zarephath ascends intellectually to a place of knowing Yahweh can help her in Baal country. She trusts the God of Israel for tomorrow by obeying the prophet and giving him bread. She combines intellectual assent, obedience and trust.
Similarly, by traveling to Israel Naaman the Syrian validated that the God of Israel could help him. He eventually obeyed the prophet’s counsel and washed in the Jordan river. Without trusting the God of Israel for his future he would not have done so.
Jesus and Women
Another significant factor has to do with gender. The first story concerns a woman, the second a man. Jesus did not take stories of faith from Abraham, Moses or David. He selected stories involving a woman and a man, inaugurating a new fellowship in which men and women share equally. Jesus was revolutionary with regards to gender equality. Read the Gospels carefully and you will see Him doing this over and over. Jesus is presented in the temple to both Anna and Simeon. Jesus has a conversation with a Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well and calls Zachaeus out of a sycamore tree in Jericho. Consistently in His ministry He supports both Jew and Gentile, men and women.
Jesus gave evidence of mercy from those outside the covenant community. He was saying,
“You really want redemption to come? It is not going to be by sitting around wondering when enemies are going to get what is coming to them? It will happen when you start showing mercy to those around you, to everyone created in God’s image.”
The congregation at Nazareth became angry. Our passage concludes,
“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)
Jesus disagreed with their political and economic goals and the people became furious. They drove him out of town to throw him off a cliff and stone him, yet he walked through the crowd and went on his way.
Jesus rejected the narrow nationalism of his day. Scripture about judgment was transformed into a message of grace and his listeners got upset. They became angry when Jesus suggested redemption is not dependent upon location or ancestry but being willing to show mercy, set the oppressed free, and show compassion, even if persecuted.
- Faith has three major components.
- Intellectual assent! An ongoing understanding of who God is.
- A daily walk of trust! Maintaining faith throughout life, no matter what happens.
- Obedience! Doing and fulfilling the commands of Jesus.
- To follow Him you must engage in the following:
- Proclamation! Sharing the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.
- Justice advocacy! Bringing liberty to those oppressed.
- Compassion! Meeting the felt needs of others.
The story is a snapshot of Jesus ministry. He proclaimed a message bringing interested listeners to a hostile response and violent behavior. Jesus’ life would end when a crowd turned hostile and violent, crying “crucify him!” In a few short years He would be placed on a cross and three days later walk out of a garden, the resurrected Savior.
Will you live a life of faith, one of intellectual assent, trust and obedience? Will you engage yourself in the mission of Jesus, proclaiming the good news of His life, death, and resurrection? Will you engage in justice advocacy for those oppressed by doing acts of compassion that meet the needs of others?
How can you continue the mission of Jesus? Share your comments below.