Luke 4: Cliff Diving

Hey, so I found a great way to get thrown off a cliff by an angry crowd!

One of the things that Luke Johnson’s commentary on the Gospel of Luke has helped me see is how the author of this Gospel focuses on reordering events to help tell his story of Jesus, even to the point of messing things up a little. To wit, in Luke 4, the author pulls a story that comes a little later in the other gospels – Jesus being rejected in his hometown – and bumps it up, probably to establish what Jesus’ message and ministry is *before* he calls disciples to join him in the work. 

But he doesn’t clean up the details very well: the Nazarene crowd wants Jesus to do all the cool tricks they heard he did in Capernaum, but in Luke’s telling, Jesus hasn’t actually been to Capernaum yet. Jesus heals Simon’s mother in law *before* he meets and calls Simon to be his first disciple. [Insert mother in law joke here.] That kind of awkwardness is tolerable, because it helps underscore how important that opening set of stories in Luke’s account of Jesus’ ministry must be.

After being tempted in the desert for forty days (which is also reorganized by Luke, a point for another day), Jesus makes a couple of unnamed tour stops on his way to his hometown, Nazareth. The crowd (much like those in Acts) seems awfully fickle: they are expecting big things, but they also don’t believe that Joseph’s kid could be all that. They hail him, and then they run him to the edge of a cliff with the intent to throw him over. They may have impulse control issues. Maybe you know a type of sports fan who fits this mold.

But here’s what gets Jesus almost thrown off a cliff. He tells them who He is: The Savior. And then He adds: But I’m not *your* Savior.

Imagine someone develops a viral reputation as the one true hope for uniting America. He or she is the greatest, wisest, most eloquent leader anyone’s ever heard speak. He or she is so smart, so able to connect with any audience or individual and understand their hopes and struggles, so able to motivate opposing groups to unite under common causes, so able to solve seemingly intractable problems, that the country has never seen anything like him or her. 

Imagine this person shows up at the Washington Monument at the 4th of July fireworks show and speaks to America for the first time, and it’s clear that this person is a leader who can call us all to be the best we can be while making America all that it can be. 

And then imagine this person continuing past the applause line to say, “Oh, by the way, I’m not here for *you*. I’m here to lift up South Sudan, and Yemen, and El Salvador. Because that’s where God goes. Not America.”

That person might have a tough time getting out of the crowd.

That’s sorta what Jesus did. He tells a people that is convinced that a majestic Savior is coming to restore the greatness of Israel that he is *that guy*, pulling from Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has chosen me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free the oppressed and announce that the time has come when the Lord will save his people.” It is ON, they must be thinking.

“This has come true today, as you heard it being read.”

Think of the reaction of a full football stadium when the home team scores. (It’ll happen again, someday.)

But then he says, look, when God showed up through Elijah, it wasn’t for an Israelite widow; it was a foreigner. When God showed up through Elisha, it wasn’t for a local leper but a foreigner. God shows up for the dispossessed and outcasts, not the folks sitting in the stands with season tickets and a parking space.

So they run him out of town and try to throw him off the cliff. (I’ve never been able to visualize how he gets out of that jam – maybe he points over their shoulders and yells “Squirrel!” and runs when they all turn to look. The text is not clear on that point.)

So why did Jesus do this? 

Luke writes this gospel to make some arguments about who God is and who Jesus is. Clearly, Jesus is a prophetic Messiah – one who delivers a freeing message and does wonders like Elijah and Elisha, rather than a military or royal leader. And His message is that God wants to turn everything upside down – his Isaiah passage just echoes what Mary says in the Magnificat about the poor and captives and blind and oppressed all coming out on top. (You will hear this theme again.)

But more than anything, Luke uniquely hammers that Jesus’ ministry marks a transcendence of God from a tribal God – that is, a God who only has one favored people – to a universal God who loves, values and saves those on the outside, regardless of their tribe. And even though the Jewish people at this time are very much on the down and out – they are ruled by Romans and have no real power and their Temple is about to get destroyed – Luke’s story is that God came not just to the powerless Jewish people but to the people that those Jews saw as unworthy outcasts. Get ready to hear about Samaritans a lot, as just one example.

Even though this is Luke’s reflection on the fact that it was Gentiles, not Jews, who flocked to follow The Way of Jesus’ first disciples, I also think there’s a point that applies through the ages. 

There’s a reason that the first commandment is about idolatry: Have no other gods before me. The early church, and every iteration after, has suffered from the temptation to idolize, creating “God 2.0s” that take the God of revelation and add a little. 

We want the God of mercy who calls us to love God and neighbor, but we want that God to also give us material prosperity. 

We want the God of mercy, but only for people who agree with us, or look like us. 

We want the God who loves everyone, but who *really* loves the people in our country just a little bit more. 

We want a God who picks us first for His team and lets us bat lead off, the God who needs us to be the star quarterback and not the water boy. 

We want to be Peter, not Andrew or Simon the Zealot or that guy who didn’t get picked to be the 12th apostle. 

We want God, plus.

From the comfort of low elevation, let me say that American Christians suffer from this a lot. We have translated our success as a world power into God’s election, even though the history of salvation shows a God who only always picks the losers, not the winners. We have a Middle Eastern Jesus who somehow has blond hair, blue eyes, and wears an American flag pin. We want a kickass Jesus who rides a Harley into battle with multiple automatic weapons and rides off with the heads of the bad guys dangling from his handlebars. That’s not Jesus. That’s Vin Diesel, or maybe The Rock.

This Jesus from Luke 4, this Jesus from the Bible, would weave through the crowd at The Mall on Independence Day after lowering the boom and head for the homeless shelter on 2nd and E Street. Then he’d head for the nearest prison. Then the crisis pregnancy center. Then the border. Then to a country that you can’t find on a map and have only vaguely heard of. Then to the people who don’t need God 2.0. The ones who need the original recipe.

That’s Luke’s Jesus and Luke’s image of God. We are blessed to see followers pop up in every age who follow that lead. But a lot of them, they don’t yell “Squirrel” fast enough, and there’s definitely a good sized crowd ready to throw them off the cliff.

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