“When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 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. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.” Luke 4:28-30
I can never read this story about the lynch mob trying to kill Jesus without being reminded of my own experience of almost being lynched. Interestingly too, my near- lynching experience happened not that far from where the mob tried to kill Jesus!
It was April 2004, outside Ashkelon prison, south-west of Jerusalem. I was waiting to greet my friend, Mordechai Vanunu – the ‘nuclear whistle-blower’ – as he concluded his 18-year prison sentence (11.5 years of which had been spent in solitary).
Morde had been punished because he told the world about Israel’s secret nuclear weapons facility, hidden under the Negev desert. Like those whistle-blowers who came after him (Ed Snowden, Chelsea Manning, Julian Assange, …), Morde was targeted and, in his case, successfully abducted by Mossad agents, shipped back to Israel and made to pay for exposing the lies being told by his country’s leaders.
Over the 18 years of his confinement I had written to Morde every month, who had been a part of my church and Bible-study group, and I always promised him that I would be there, waiting for him, on the day of his release. Somehow, I always envisaged that it would only be me and a few friends waiting for him. As it turned out, there were thousands there, and the vast majority were baying for Morde’s blood!
I was close to the front gate of the prison which was secured by a cordon of police officers who were holding back the crowd, and we were pressed against each other so tightly that it was very difficult to move at all. When Morde finally appeared and was then thrust into an armored car that went rocketing out of the gates and away from the crowd, the police cordon broke and the crowd rampaged on the streets.
I tried to make my way back to the bus that had brought me to Ashkelon but was stopped by a French woman from a TV station who asked me if she could interview me right there in the street. I said ‘sure’, but no sooner had she started the interview than we were surrounded by a mob of men who started cursing and spitting on me.
I don’t think they specifically knew that I was a friend of Vanunu’s, but I was wearing my clergy collar and was obviously a supporter. Apart from the occasional ‘go home’, they were screaming at me in a language that I didn’t understand. And then I was getting kicked and punched instead of spat upon, and as the numbers grew I could no longer see any daylight between the members of the mob enclosed around me.
As the blows increased, I realised that there was nothing I could do to defend myself. I put my hands together in a position of prayer, hoping that someone (or God) might intervene. And then a hand grabbed me in the middle of my back and pulled me out of that ruck and pushed me in the direction of my bus, and I didn’t look back. I kept walking, and have no idea what happened to the woman who was interviewing me.
Forgive the long introduction to a sermon that’s not about me or Morde, or even primarily about mob violence. In my defense, the draft was originally twice as long. Once I started reliving that day, it all came out. These things leave an impact on you.
What is interesting, by contrast, is how briefly the Gospel deals with Jesus’ incident. We are told “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. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way” (Luke 4:29-30).
Are we supposed to see a miracle here? Was the lynch mob suddenly blinded, such that they could no longer see Jesus, who glided through the crowd without anybody realizing He was gone, or was it something closer to my experience where there was such confusion amidst the mass of angry bodies, writhing and pushing each other, that nobody was probably entirely sure exactly who they were trying to beat up?
We don’t know the details. That’s probably because none of the disciples were a part of that mob, and because Jesus probably never spoke about it, as most people don’t talk a lot about these sorts of experiences. It would be interesting to know, if He had talked about it, how He understood it. Did Jesus see it all as a big misunderstanding or, more likely, did He recognise that this was just a foretaste of what was to come?
What we do know is that this is Jesus’ first experience of mob violence. It will not be His last. Eventually the mob will kill Him, with the help of the Roman government, of course, which, in a sense, was just another kind of mob.
Why do we do such terrible things in groups that we would never do as individuals? The process is called ‘deindividuation’ in social psychology. It’s a term that describes the astonishing way normal, educated, and often apparently moral people become murderous fanatics when part of an uncontrolled mob.
What causes it? One theory is that individuals feel anonymous in the larger group and sense that none of their actions will be counted against them as individuals. Kierkegaard believed that the problem with every crowd was simply that the weight of individual responsibility was always divided by the number of persons in the mob.
However we understand it, people do things in groups that they would never do as individuals. The lessons passed down from the early chapters of Genesis, and from the Tower of Babel story in particular, remind us that while sin has always been a part of the human condition, it’s when sinful people get together to ‘make a name for themselves’ (Genesis 11:4), that things really start to unravel.
That’s why I can never take seriously these horror movies about Freddy Krueger or any of the terrible super-villains, no matter how revolting their crimes. Criminal people can do terrible things, I grant you, but it’s when we get together as a community that things get really awful. Jack the Ripper killed a lot of poor women, but it took a whole country working together to create the Holocaust.
When you walk around Syria or Yemen, and even when you see the conditions being experienced by the men on Manus Island, it’s not wicked individuals that are causing all this. It’s takes a whole pack of us, working together. The question is why? Why do we do it? Well … why did the mob that went after Jesus want to kill Him?
The Gospel-writer makes it clear that it was something Jesus said. Luke begins, “When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.” (Luke 4:28). The potentially confusing thing here though is that Jesus had said a lot of things.
Jesus was in Nazareth. He was at the synagogue. He was given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah to read and he read from chapter 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:18-19)
Is this what upset people, or was it the very brief (8-word) sermon that Jesus gave on the passage – “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:21)
Some commentators have suggested that these are exactly what upset the people. Jesus was proclaiming God’s ‘Jubilee Year’ – a time of true freedom and abundance when the gap between rich and poor would disappear and when debts would be cancelled. Some suggest, understandably, that this announcement would have enraged the rich members of the synagogue who stood to lose out in this great redistribution. That would make sense, except that the Gospel writer says that Jesus was well-received up to this point. It was what He said after that that upset people.
“Jesus said to them, “Surely you will quote this proverb to me: ‘Physician, heal yourself!’ And you will tell me, “Do here in your hometown what we have heard that you did in Capernaum.”” (Luke 4:23)
Clearly people were looking for a sign (a miracle) from Jesus to show that He was qualified to make His announcement – proclaiming God’s Jubilee Year. Jesus says that they’re not going to get a sign, and he follows this by giving two examples from Biblical history that make the point that miracles aren’t simply produced on-demand.
It’s at this point that everyone gets upset, and no doubt they would have been upset with the way in which Jesus seemed to be so presumptuous. Even so, when you think someone is presumptuous, you tell them to pull their head in. You don’t try to kill them. Is there another piece to the puzzle here? Of course. It’s the occupation!
If you want to know the problem that was plaguing the Jewish population of Palestine in the first century, the answer is always the Roman occupation. I’m not saying that individual people weren’t struggling with their own issues. For sure, people were struggling with illness and with debt, and no doubt plenty of parents were struggling with the good-for-nothing guy that their daughter was infatuated with. Even so, as a group, as a community, and as a mob, the problem was always the occupation.
It’s exactly the same in Palestine today. I’ve heard people suggest that Palestinian education system is to blame for bringing up children to hate their Israeli neighbours, or that the ideology of Hamas is to blame. No. The problem is always the occupation (in this case, the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank).
Whatever form of freedom Jesus was talking about when he ‘proclaimed the acceptable year of the Lord’ that day in Nazareth, what the people of Nazareth would have heard was the promise of an end to the occupation.
The Roman occupation was a political problem – yes – but it was also a spiritual issue. It was about the place of the people of God in the plan of God. It was about history, Scripture, covenant and promise. It was about everybody’s dream for a better world, and what Jesus did in Nazareth, in the scene depicted for us in Luke chapter four, was that he tapped into the dream of the community for an end to the Roman occupation and, from their perspective, he then threw it back in their faces!
On the one hand, Jesus clearly announces Himself as the spirit-filled Messiah spoken of by the prophet Isaiah – the one who would bring in the new world order. On the other hand, he made clear that He was not interested in leading them in any armed revolution, and you can’t do that – not to the people of Nazareth at any rate.
Our dreams are important to us. We have dreams about who we want to be. We have dreams for our families and for our children. We may even have dreams about what we want our house to look like one day. There’s nothing wrong with having dreams, and surely nobody has the right to come and simply smash our dreams. The problem is just that not all of our dreams are in alignment with Jesus’ dream.
Of course, there are no shortage of preachers around who will tell you that Jesus is just waiting to give you whatever your heart desires. ‘Name it and claim it’, they say. ‘Jesus will give you a bigger bank balance and a better sex life! Whatever it is that you want, ask and you shall receive’. Well … tell that to the congregation in Nazareth
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:18-19)
I believe Jesus’ vision of the coming Kingdom fully included an end to the Roman occupation of Palestine, just as I believe that the unfolding of that Kingdom today fully includes the ending of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The Kingdom includes both of these acts of liberation, and it includes a whole lot more! It includes the ending of all wars, of child abuse, violence, the persecution of asylum-seekers, the imprisonment of those who tell the truth to power, and even of death itself!
The dream of the Kingdom is something that we can all tap into. Even so, both in terms of the content of that Kingdom and in terms of how we get there, we need to work on taking on Jesus’ dream, rather than relying solely on our own imaginations.
There’s an old joke about someone who is being shown around Heaven on their first day there. They are being introduced to all sorts of amazing places and all sorts of amazing people from all sorts of backgrounds and faith traditions. Then the new- comer asks what the big walled-off section is in the middle of Heaven that they can’t see into. She’s told that that’s the Sydney Anglican section, as those people dreamed of a Heaven where they would be the only ones there.
We all dream of a better world, but our dreams need guidance too. Let the dream of Jesus be our dream. It is a big dream – a dream of freedom, justice, peace and love. And as Dom Helder Camara said – “when one person dreams it is just a dream, but when we all dream together, it is the beginning of a new reality.
First preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity, Dulwich Hill on Sunday 3rd February, 2019.