When Relationships Get Ugly (Thinking Through Luke 4:14-21)

Relationships can get very ugly very quickly. Whether between people groups or among family and friends, things can turn sour fast. I’m sure I don’t need to give examples as you probably have first-hand experience. Don’t we all!?

We have an example of relationships getting ugly fast when Jesus made a positive first impression on his hometown crowd and then that same crowd attempted to throw him off a cliff! Digging into this event will help us with our ugly relationships.

So what happened? Let’s see where it begins:

When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Luke 4:16-21 (NRSV)

We will see why things got ugly when we compare what Jesus went on to say, and not say, with what Isaiah went on to say in Isaiah 61 had Jesus just kept reading.

The first thing we notice is that Jesus stopped quoting Isaiah at a significant moment. He stopped mid-sentence. Had he gone on to read further, he would have read:

…to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,

Isaiah 61:2 (NIV emphasis added)

Jesus stopped short of talking about vengeance. Maybe that is our first clue on handling ugly relationships?

To understand what is going on here more fully, it will help us to realise that Isaiah had prophesied to God’s people about the Babylonian invasion of the promised land, the exile of many to Babylon, and then here in the passage quoted by Jesus, their subsequent return. Isaiah was looking forward to the day God’s people would be set free from the Babylonians, a day of “release to the captives” when “the oppressed go free.”

According to Isaiah, not only could God’s people look forward to freedom from these foreign oppressors, the tables would be turned on the enemy. For example,

Strangers shall stand and feed your flocks,
foreigners shall till your land and dress your vines;
but you shall be called priests of the LORD,
you shall be named ministers of our God;
you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations,
and in their riches you shall glory.

Isaiah 61:5-6 (NRSV)

According to Isaiah’s prophecy God’s people would no longer be slave-labourers for the Babylonians but instead the foreign enemies would be labourers in the promised land. Also, the wealth of God’s people would no longer belong to Babylon, but instead the wealth of nations would be brought to God’s people. This is a reversal of fortunes.

Those in Jesus’ day would have latched onto this reversal of fortunes, especially when Jesus said “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” What those listening to Jesus would have been thinking is, “great, just as we needed rescue from Babylon, we now need rescue from these Romans who have invaded our land! This miracle worker may just be the one who will lead the rebellion!”

However, Jesus neither went on to read that part of Isaiah 61 nor to apply it to the current situation, making no insinuation that the tables would be turned and the Romans would become subject to the Jews. As much as the crowd would have loved to have heard that, he said this instead:

Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 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; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.

Luke 4:24-27 (NRSV)

Instead of speaking about the tables being turned against the foreigners, Jesus gave two examples from the Old Testament of foreigners receiving a greater blessing from God than God’s people. This is not what the crowd wanted to hear, and this is the point things got ugly and they took Jesus out to throw him off a cliff. This is also the point that helps us with ugly relationships.

Jesus did indeed come to set the prisoners free, but God’s people had bigger enemies than the Romans to worry about. Sin was the greater enemy. The Romans themselves were captive to that same enemy, and in fact, without Christ, so are we. The Romans, though being the oppressors, were themselves prisoners. They were captive to sin, captive to thinking that brute force was the way toward a better world, captive to life without God.

Indeed the brute force of Rome combined with the ignorance of the Jewish religious leaders in the execution of Jesus. Here again, Jesus stopped short of vengeance. Rising from the dead Jesus did not call for immediate destruction of his enemies, but instead sent out his disciples to tell people the good news of the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom that is entered through the receiving of God’s forgiveness and grace. That forgiveness was, and is still, offered to all God’s enemies.

Our Ugly Relationships

Do you have ugly relationships with others? We have bigger enemies to worry about, enemies that all humans face, like hatred, grudges, gossip, and dangerous ideologies or theologies. Let us seek release from these enemies. Perhaps we should put more of our focus and energy on battling these sins than on doing battle with the people we have ugly relationships with. That battle may begin with our own hearts.

When relationships get ugly let us begin by stopping short of seeking vengeance. We might need to learn the art of stopping our thoughts and words mid-sentence, before things go too far. The thought of justice comes naturally to us. The jump from justice to vengeance is a short hop that comes naturally to us. The way of the cross does not. We have God’s Spirit to help!

When our relationships get ugly, let us be like Jesus and remember love first.

Our relationships, our world, could be different if we become enthused by the grace of God, whose first response to His enemies, and ours, is love.

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