A Reflection on Luke 4:21-30
I must confess, I am rather sceptical when it comes to praise. It’s not that I don’t like to be complimented – on the contrary, I enjoy affirmation as much as anyone. It’s just that I’ve experienced the kind of praise that seeks to recruit me to someone else’s agenda a few too many times.
For example, after a worship gathering which I facilitated some time ago, I was approached by a man who could not say enough good things about how the service had been structured and about my preaching. He went on and on about my insight and ability, and how he had been touched by my ministry. Then he asked if he could speak to me once I had finished greeting the other congregants. When I sat down to talk to him, he proceeded to give me a long explanation (including a few significant names that were conveniently inserted at important moments) about a project he was launching that really “needed” my “unique” gifts. When I finally managed to extricate myself, my colleague, who was the resident minister of that church, apologised and informed me that this was a common occurrence with this man, and that the project was not genuine.
I suspect that this is a little like what was going on with Jesus in that synagogue in Nazareth. The people must have heard about Jesus’ reputation. He had already been preaching in the region and the people were so impressed that the word had spread. Now he comes to his hometown where, according to custom, he is invited, as a visiting preacher, to read the Scripture and teach the people. At first there was a sense of pride, it seems. When Jesus announced that Isaiah’s prophecy had been fulfilled, the people did not respond negatively at all. Rather they were amazed that this son of their village had come so far. Perhaps they even wondered if this meant that they had been specially chosen as the Messiah’s place of origin. What honour this would bring to a town that was the butt of derisive Proverbs! They could use this. Perhaps it would even mean a special place in the new order the Messiah was to bring. So far so good, for Jesus. His own people are ripe to become his first and most loyal supporters.
But he couldn’t leave it at that. I wonder if Jesus was already feeling the pull of their agenda. I wonder if he knew that if he didn’t confront them right away, they would claim ownership of him and his ministry. I wonder if he wrestled with the temptation to make his people proud by allowing them to direct and define him, as all communities do with their children as they grow up. Perhaps, having just faced the blatant temptation in the wilderness, this siren call was subtler and more difficult to identify and resist. It was packaged in praise, after all.
But Jesus did resist it – very strongly. He immediately made it clear that he was not to be owned by his village, nor even by his nation or religion. Lifting out of the Scriptures the stories of God’s grace to foreigners and outcasts, Jesus confronted the people of his home with their exclusivity, their self-righteousness, and their rigidity. He revealed the disturbing, subversive nature of his call, while aligning himself with the prophets in order to show his continuity with the Scriptures and the faith these people loved. Essentially he gave them no way out. They either had to admit their flaws and be changed, or they had to reject him completely. They chose the latter, and, though they tried to finish him off in a kind of “family justice”, Jesus seems to have rather easily slipped away. But the battle had been won. Their praise had failed to imprison him.
As those who seek to follow Jesus, we will face similar temptations. On the one hand we will encounter those who will use praise to manipulate, recruit, and own us. If we remain addicted to the good opinion of others they may well succeed, and we will be diverted from our call. We see the results of this dynamic in churches that make relevance, attractiveness and relationship with important people higher values than justice, confrontation, and the call to repentance and change. We also see it in individuals who refuse to have difficult conversations or be involved with the unpopular work of social justice for fear of incurring the disapproval of others.
On the other hand, we may he tempted to win others to our positions and causes through flattery and praise. We may be tempted to praise only those who abide by our agendas or values, and demonise those who don’t. It can be much easier to simply stroke someone’s ego than to do the tough work of real dialogue in which we might be called to change. But in the end, such fickle praise only robs us, and those whom we abuse with it, of real life-giving encouragement, growth and community. Which is why, like Jesus, we may find ourselves choosing to challenge and resist praise when it comes – as offensive as that may sound.