Rejection at Nazareth

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Jesus goes home and is not exactly given a warm reception. Who doesn’t like Jesus? What does this incident teach us about God and about people?

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All passages read from the English Standard Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.

Intro

Not everyone liked Jesus.

Think about that for a second. What’s not to like about Jesus? He’s Jesus! You’d think the Son of God would be pretty likeable. Of all the people that would have a hard time making friends, it’s tough to imagine Jesus being part of that crowd.

John the Baptist, sure. He’s off eating locusts and calling people vipers and whatnot. Matthew doesn’t really paint a picture of a super friendly dude with him.

But Jesus? How do you not like Jesus?

Just today, I checked YouTube and on the most prominent video post of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, 17,000 people gave it a thumbs down. 17,000 people heard one of the greatest musical works of all time and went, “Boo!” I wish so badly I could see what videos those people “liked”. Probably Fergie songs and trailers for Transformers movies.

No matter how great something is, there’s going to be someone out there that will hate it and want to destroy it. Which, is kind of an encouragement to those of us who can be a little polarizing sometimes. “See, it’s not my fault, it’s the people who are wrong!” As the poet Taylor Swift once wrote, “the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate.”

This section of Matthew that we’ll begin covering today throws this fact into sharp relief. Jesus has been working miracles, he’s been teaching and offering grace to everybody.

Now… Matthew paints a picture of the Feedback.

Feedback, Part 1
Rejection at Nazareth
Matthew 13:53-58

Feedback

Last episode we wrapped up our first series, Coded Messages, where Jesus begins teaching primarily in parables. We learned a lot those three episodes, but one of the themes that came up in the parables that springs up again here is that not everyone is going to welcome Jesus with open arms. Jesus’s message will not always (or even primarily) be responded to positively. Recall that 1 in 4 of the soils in the Parable of the Sower produces any fruit.

Despite that rejection, though, Jesus will generate faith and enthusiasm in a small group. There will be some who believe in him. There will be some who follow him.

We’ll see this play out over the next four episodes starting today. There are five instances back to back, starting here at the end of chapter thirteen and going all the way through chapter fourteen. Five instances, four episodes of Feedback to Jesus and his message.

Let’s look at today’s passage.

And when Jesus had finished these parables, he went away from there, and coming to his hometown he taught them in their synagogue, so that they were astonished, and said, “Where did this man get this wisdom and these mighty works? Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary? And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas? And are not all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.” And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.

Matthew 13:53–58 (ESV)

Setup

Jesus heads back home to Nazareth after his last chunk of teaching. This is where he grew up. He was born in Bethlehem, spent a little time in Egypt, then spent most of his childhood and all of his young adult life in Nazareth. These were the people that knew him his entire life.

Can you imagine that? They knew what Jesus was like as a kid. They knew what he was like as a young man. We don’t really think about that middle part of Jesus’s life much, because we don’t know much about it. We know “baby Jesus”, we know “grown adult minister Jesus”, but there’s like twenty-some years in between there that we know virtually nothing about. Luke gives us one brief snapshot of Jesus at twelve, but that’s it!

These people did, though! They knew him his whole life. Now he’s come home after word about him as spread all throughout the region. The people who were closest to him get to see him for all he truly his.

And it says that at first, they were “astonished”. There’s a connotation of admiration there in that word. They’re impressed by him. It’s the same word used at the end of the Sermon on the Mount, where we’re told the crowd was astonished at his teaching.

That astonishment doesn’t last very long, though. They treat him kind of like a magician, if you think about it. At first, they’re amazed, then that amazement turns to skepticism and questioning pretty quick. “Where’d he learn to talk like that? Where’d he learn to do that?” It honestly reminds me of bad audience members at a magic show. They stuff down their astonishment and poke and prod.

The difference, of course, is that a magician ultimately doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. I can do some pretty neat things with a deck of cards, but I am still bound by, you know, physics and stuff. If I showed you how I did some of my tricks, your reaction would be very predictable: “Well, that’s not impressive at all!” Of course not, I’m misdirecting and tricking you.

Jesus, though, he’s the real thing. There’s nothing to expose here. That doesn’t stop them from immediately trying to tear him down. They don’t want to believe their eyes and ears. See, you can be very impressed by Jesus and still deny him. That’s exactly what they do.

Bringing up his family and his background is a way for the crowd to get at Jesus’s lack of formal training. “This guy was a carpenter, where’d he learn to interpret Torah? Where’d he learn to do these miracles? He’s not special, I know his sister.”

These people are the ones who had the immense privilege of knowing Jesus his whole life, yet that is the very thing that does them in. It’s tragic. It’s almost Tales from the Crypt-like in its dark irony. What should be this incredible blessing ends up being their undoing.

Jesus isn’t the first spokesman for God to get this sort of treatment. The prophets had to deal with this routinely, as well. See, what God has to say is not always obvious or palatable to your audience. In my experience, you can make enemies seemingly no faster than by reminding Christians of what the Bible actually says. We’re prone to wanting to make up our minds and have nothing, not even Scripture, change them.

Jesus was much more than a prophet, of course, but he was no less. He was speaking for God to the people. Above that, he literally is the Word of God. But nobody’s trying to have their assumptions challenged.

Jeremiah, the prophet, experienced this rather prominently. We’re told in verse one of his book that he was one of the priests at Anathoth. Then, in chapter eleven, we get this:

Therefore thus says the LORD concerning the men of Anathoth, who seek your life, and say, “Do not prophesy in the name of the LORD, or you will die by our hand”—

Jeremiah 11:21 (ESV)

A few verses down in chapter twelve, this:

For even your brothers and the house of your father, even they have dealt treacherously with you; they are in full cry after you; do not believe them, though they speak friendly words to you.”

Jeremiah 12:6 (ESV)

Prophets all throughout Scripture seem to make a habit of making enemies. In fact, one of the hallmarks of false prophets and teachers over and over is that they exclusively tell people what they want to hear. Stand up for what God has actually said and you’re going to cause trouble, quick.

There are two main lessons I take away from this passage and I want to look at them one at a time. There’s a lesson about people and a lesson about Jesus.

Lesson About People

The first we’ll look at is the lesson about people. Jesus spells this one out for us in the text. They’re his only words in the whole thing, “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown and in his own household.”

First, that’s a really clunky sentence in English and it can maybe be a little tricky to parse. It’s the rare triple negative! There’s an episode of the show Impractical Jokers, this hidden camera show where these guys try to embarrass each other, where they have to stand outside with a protest sign and get someone to join them, but the signs have been written by the other guys. One of the Jokers, Sal, goes out and flips over his sign which says, “Don’t stop letting people not help.” They basically spend the whole time trying to figure out what the sign is actually saying. This verse kinda reminded me of that a little, not gonna lie.

If you strip out “not” and “except”, it’s going to be a little easier for us to read. “A prophet is without honor in his hometown and in his own household.” Ah, much better.

It has a proverbial ring to it, but there’s nowhere that we can find this exact formulation before Matthew writes it here. It does have many similar equivalents, though, in Greek literature in particular with prophet swapped out for philosopher. Philosophers kind of are the secular Greek version of a prophet, anyway, if you think about it.

Why is it, exactly, that prophets have no honor amongst the people closest to them? Shouldn’t they be their biggest champions? Michael Watkins, in his commentary on Matthew, gives a particularly well formulated view of what’s going on here.

If a person is not particularly striking or gifted at one point in life, then family, friends, and neighbors often won’t let them grow into something more significant. It’s usually an ego issue. If Jeff can remember when Mitchell was just the boy down the block, then all the hype about Mitchell’s accomplishments must be an obvious fraud or delusion. Otherwise Jeff begins to doubt his own accomplishments. Or else he tries to ride the coattails of Mitchell and to pride himself for being the real contributing factor for any good that Mitchell has accomplished. Pride and ego, the twin towers that define sin, are the source of the cancer of comparison. And in the battle, sinful comparison always causes someone to lose inappropriately, because pride and ego must be fed.

– Michael J. Wilkins, Matthew, The NIV Application Commentary. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2004).

Basically, it’s “crabs in a bucket” or “tall poppy syndrome”. Crabs in a bucket is the idea that if you, well, put a bunch of crabs in a bucket, none of them are ever going to get out. The ones that start climbing higher than the others are going to be grabbed and pulled back down in by the ones at the bottom who themselves are clawing and scraping to get out. The high achievers get brought back down by the poor performers.

Tall poppy syndrome is a phrase more common in Australia and New Zealand, but is the same basic meaning. The idea being that when one flower starts to grow a little taller than all the others, it gets cut back down to size.

They’re both saying essentially the same thing. If you are successful and I am not successful, I have to reckon with why that might be. That means it could be my fault and that idea is too painful, so instead I have to cut you down to prove you’re actually not better than me. People will try to tear others down in this way at any turn and, what do you know, they even do it with Jesus.

If I know you, you can’t be special, because what does that say about me if we came from the same place? If you strip away my excuses by virtue of your success, I have to answer questions about myself I’d rather ignore. So I resent you. It’s the comparison trap, if you’ve ever heard that expression. That’s exactly what this is.

The good news is that there’s a beautiful antidote to this in the Gospel. As great as achievement is, our identity in Christ is… well… just that, in Christ. That releases us from the comparison trap completely. We’re to find who we are in him, not in anything we do.

Christians are called to a contentment that results in a strong work ethic. That may seem counterintuitive to some, but it’s the truth. Contentment doesn’t have to mean that you give up and don’t try. That’s completely against the grain of what God calls his people to. Contentment in Christ still works hard.

Even before the Fall, when everything was good and perfect, Adam had a job. He worked in the Garden of Eden. Work is not a bug, it’s a feature. It’s something we’re built for. Contentment in Jesus doesn’t eradicate work, it sanctifies it. We’re called to do everything to the glory of God. We’re told to do every job as though we were doing it for Jesus directly. Look at what Paul says in Colossians chapter three.

Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men,

Colossians 3:23 (ESV)

Work heartily, not for anyone else, but for the Lord. Not for the eyes on you from the people around you. Not for your boss. Not even for yourself. Work for the Lord.

What that means is that my worth is not determined by what I produce or how successful I am by worldly measures. This podcast doesn’t have nearly as many listeners as John Piper’s or Preston Sprinkle’s. Preston’s Patreon is way more successful than mine. That doesn’t mean that I have to look enviously at them or get bitter that they have something I don’t. I’m freed from that by the Gospel.

I can only be responsible for working hard as if directly for Jesus. Whatever fruit comes from that, great. If someone else is more successful, good for them. It frees me to genuinely be happy for my friends when they succeed.

I listen to a lot of standup comedy and a lot of podcasts by comedians. One thing that’s been brought up a few times is how many people in the industry look at it as this zero sum game where so few people are happy for even their friends when they’re successful because the immediate thought is, “Why are they getting this when I deserve it?” That’s a mentality that is not at all foreign to the Church and it’s sad.

There’s nothing wrong with asking, “Why are they getting this and I am not?” if the motivation is finding ways to work better, smarter, or harder. By all means, improve in your craft, whatever that is. If Jesus was my boss, I’d be constantly trying to get better! However, when the motivation is jealousy or envy, we’ve built an idol out of our idea of success.

My worth in Christ is not determined by how much money I make or how many clicks I get. My worth is solely determined by who he says I am. My identity has to be wrapped around that and nothing else. Anything else we try to hang our identity on is an idol in our lives.

Lesson About Jesus

That’s the lesson about people. Now, the lesson about Jesus.

Verse fifty-eight of this passage can potentially be troubling. Let’s take another look at it.

And he did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.

Matthew 13:58 (ESV)

What does that mean? Isn’t he Jesus? Can’t he just do whatever he wants? Mark actually goes a step further and says he, “could do no might work there” except for a few healings. What’s going on here? Can someone’s lack of faith prevent Jesus from acting?

When Jesus does the miracles he does in the gospels, he does them in what Leon Morris calls “an atmosphere of faith.” There are people around believing for healing or exorcism. The general response of the people to Jesus when he’s performing miracles is faith. There are instances, though, where Jesus heals those who seem uncertain or, in the case of the possessed, are flatly unable to profess faith. And even in this situation, he does some mighty works, he’s just not doing many in Nazareth. A look at the words Matthew uses in this section will help us unlock the situation in Nazareth and what makes it different.

We’re told first in verse fifty-seven that they “took offense” to Jesus. Now, the word Matthew uses is scandalizo. If you’ve ever heard a sermon on or studied for yourself the passage where Paul talks about causing someone to “stumble” this might sound familiar. It’s 1 Corinthians 8, where he says this. He’s talking about eating meat sacrificed to idols.

Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.

1 Corinthians 8:13 (ESV)

In my youth, I heard about this verse all the time and the worries of causing someone to “stumble”. The problem, though, is that “stumble” was defined as just offending or upsetting them, when that’s not really what Paul is talking about. What he’s talking about is causing them to leave the faith completely. To fall away from Jesus.

Paul isn’t necessarily saying, “if someone gets mad that I eat that meat, I’ll stop.” If that is the rule we live by, then all Christians are under the tyranny of those with the tightest scruples. In this section, Paul specifically calls the person who is offended “weak”. What Paul is saying is more, “if my eating this meat is going to make someone fall away from Jesus, it’s not worth it.” Those are very different ideas.

When we see this word, scandalizo, throughout Scripture, that passage in 1 Corinthians is the only time it’s translated “stumble”. Seven other times it’s translated “offense” or “offended”, but the remaining twenty times it appears, it’s translated either “sin” or “fall away”. Scandalizo isn’t merely being shocked or appalled, it’s someone departing from faith entirely.

To bring it back to Matthew, when the crowd “took offense” at Jesus, it doesn’t mean that they clutched their pearls and said, “HOW DARE HE”. Rather, they’re rejecting him outright. They’re denying him. The New Living Translation is not one I personally read all that often (not that I have a problem with it, I don’t mean to slander it, it’s fine), but I think they do a pretty solid job of translating that word, scandalizo in this passage.

And they were deeply offended and refused to believe in him.

Matthew 13:57a (NLT)

That, I think, gives a more helpful translation of the crowd’s response to Jesus. They were offended, sure, but they refused to believe in him. That’s the spiritual environment we see here in Nazareth.

At the end of the passage, in verse fifty-eight, we get another clue to what’s going on by the word “unbelief”. It backs up what we’re saying with scandalizo. The word Matthew uses for “unbelief” is apistia. This is a completely different word than the one Jesus uses when he tells the disciples they have “little faith”, oligopistos. The distinction, in this case, is important.

Both words share the same root, pistis, which means “faith”. The prefix oligo means “little” or “few”. So, oligopistos literally means “little faith”. The disciples had faith, but in small quantity. In Nazareth, we see apistia. The prefix “a” in Ancient Greek is a negater. We occasionally bring this into English in the same way. A “theist” believes in a higher power, an “atheist” believes there is no higher power. When something is motivated by politics, it’s “political”. When something is done with the intention of taking no political stance, it’s “apolitical”. If pistis means “faith”, then apistis means “no faith”. None, nada, zilch.

This isn’t a case of the people in Nazareth not believing in Jesus “enough”. They didn’t believe in Jesus at all. This is the important distinction here. They had no faith in him, they put no trust in him. The Nazarenes rejected him outright. They refused to believe in him.

Dispense with the idea that you have to meet some imagined threshold of belief before God will act on your behalf. That’s just not what we see in the Bible. If you trust that Jesus can do something, that is enough.

If, like the people of Nazareth, you deep down believe or decide that God cannot heal you, or cannot intervene in your situation, then he likely won’t. You have apistis, you have no faith. And I say likely, because he’s still God and can still do whatever he wants. The odds are, though, if you set yourself directly opposed to him, he’s not going to work a miracle in your life.

But if you have some faith, you have enough faith. The power of faith lies not in the person who has the faith, it lies in the person that faith is in. My faith is powerful not because I’m so good at “faithing”. My faith is powerful because it is in Jesus. As someone once put it, it’s not about the size of your faith in God, it’s about the size of the God in your faith.

Now, that’s not to say that God is always going to heal. If he did, you wouldn’t be listening to this podcast because I’d be too busy holding down an actual job to make it. What it means is that the reason God has not healed my static migraine is not because I don’t have enough faith, but because he has chosen not to. It means that he’s taking this situation and he’s going to use it for good and for my good. He’s bringing glory to himself and producing something in me to make me closer to Jesus.

If faith the size of a teeny, tiny mustard seed is enough to move a mountain, why do we carry around this burden that we don’t have enough faith for the miracle we’re asking God for? Why do we walk around feeling like it’s our fault?

You are released from that.

If you believe that he can, that is enough. Whether he does or does not, our job is to trust him. Trust that he can heal, can provide, can meet that need or answer that prayer. Trust that if he does not, it is for his glory and your good. And trust that he is enough.

That’s the Gospel.

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Teaser

Jesus once called John the Baptist the greatest man that ever lived. In part 2 of our series Feedback, we take a look at how his story ends. Why didn’t the best dude ever get a happy ending?