Open Matthew 13:53-58.
Jesus taught like an artist. His word pictures lift us above the human conflicts to a plateau where we can see what the earth was meant to be — a place of peace, responsive to heaven’s government.
This is future, yet it’s already here in the present. Jesus has re-sowed God’s world, and some seeds are heading toward harvest. Sure, there are weeds in God’s field, but there’s wheat as well. The mustard seed is growing. The leaven is permeating the dough. People trade other dreams for God’s reign. The net is in the water, and God will sort the good from the bad.
God’s reign is here. Only the good that God intended will last.
Jesus’ kingdom vision was inspiring, but was it credible? Compared to Herod or Caesar, what kind of king was Jesus of Nazareth?
That’s the point Matthew makes as we travel back to Nazareth with Jesus (13:54). There’s a pecking order in every community. At the top are the wealthy and influential, then the ordinary people, followed by the battlers who know their place. There are elders, and those with less seniority. Head of the synagogue might be the most honoured position in a place like Nazareth.
This social order gets disturbed when a new family moves into town and jostles for position. The established order is also disturbed when a villager comes back after achieving recognition elsewhere.
Jesus returns from this Galilean tour and makes his kingship claim in Nazareth (compare Luke 4:21). That’s a serious threat to the social order.
He instructs them, in their synagogue. They’re shocked and confused. What right does a builder’s son have to tell everyone what to do? He should be respectful of his elders, especially his mother (compare 12:46-50). His brothers and sisters know their place, but he’s trying to lord it over everyone! Somebody needs to stop him, remind him of his place.
As always, it’s Jesus’ kingship claim that scandalizes people. That’s Matthew point:
Matthew 13:53-58 (interpretative translation)
53 When Jesus had concluded these wisdom stories, he moved on from there. 54 He came to his hometown, and started instructing them in their synagogue, much to their astonishment. They asked, “From where did he get this insight and forcefulness? 55 “Isn’t this the builder’s son? Doesn’t he belong to the one called Mary, along with his brothers — James and Joseph and Simon and Jude? 56 Don’t his sisters know their place among us? Where did he get all this from?” 57 They were offended at him.
Jesus told them, “A prophet isn’t shamed, except at home, in his own household.” 58 He didn’t do many powerful acts there, because of their mistrust.
The repetition focuses us on the origin of Jesus’ authority:
- From where did Jesus get this foreign wisdom, acting as if he was a person of power? (13:54)
- From where did he get all this illusion of grandeur? (13:56)
The people of Nazareth certainly didn’t give him kingly status. Neither did the other Galilean towns (11:20-24). Unlike Caesar, Jesus’ authority is not given by the people of the earth. His regal appointment comes from heaven.
That’s threatening for those who think they have power in this world. People don’t easily relinquish power and recognize the Lord appointed by heaven to govern us.
Recognizing the authority behind Jesus would mean bowing the knee, giving him allegiance. People struggle to do that. When someone speaks for God (a prophet), people around him typically try to put him back in his place.
Most amazing is what Jesus doesn’t do. He doesn’t impose his authority. He has the power to enact God’s restorative work, healing as he has in other towns. He doesn’t. Because they don’t trust him, they lose the benefit of his power. Jesus is king, not dictator.
God stands ready to restore the earth as his kingdom, but he doesn’t force his regal authority on humanity. He’s waiting for us to give allegiance to his appointed ruler. That’s how the kingdom of God is restored.
What others are saying
Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of Matthew: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 395–396:
How could anyone believe that God had stepped into history in the person of a young man who had spent most of his life in their own community? … Everyone would have assumed that they knew Jesus already (cf. Lk 13:26–28); indeed, Nazareth was a small town from which even Nazarenes, like other Galileans, would not expect a great prophet (2:23; cf. Jn 1:46). They never expected the kingdom to come in a hidden way or to come as close to them as it did; hence, as Matthew continues to reiterate (cf. 2:1–12), those closest to the kingdom did not recognize it, and it passed them by.
W. D. Davies and Dale C. Allison Jr., A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel according to Saint Matthew, ICC (London; New York: T&T Clark International, 2004), 453:
Following the preceding parables, 13:53–8 illustrates that the failure to understand leads not to indifference but to hostility. Those who do not grasp the secrets of the kingdom of Heaven necessarily find Jesus offensive.
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