The four gospels take a dim view of Nazareth, the hometown of Jesus Christ. Early in his gospel, John says that Philip, one of Jesus’ first disciples, invited Nathaniel to meet “Jesus, son of Joseph, from Nazareth.” “Can anything good come from Nazareth?” Nathaniel replies. (John 1,46).
The other gospels recall the sad rejection of Jesus by his hometown after his baptism by John the Baptist. According the Matthew, it takes place after Jesus has spoken to a large crowd in parables. Then, he goes to Nazareth and speaks in the synagogue to his own townspeople, who are at first astonished at his wisdom, but then wonder where did “the carpenter’s son” get all this. They know his mother and his family, and they reject him. (Matthew 13,54-58)
Mark’s gospel puts the event after Jesus has raised a little girl from the dead. Going to Nazareth with his disciples, he’s greeted in the synagogue with astonishment because of his wisdom; they’ve heard of his mighty deeds, but then they ask where did this “carpenter” get all of this? He’s “Mary’s son” and they know his family. Jesus “was amazed at their lack of faith.” (Mark 6,1-5)
Luke’s gospel has the most detailed description of the event, which he places at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Last Sunday we read the first part of his account: in the synagogue Jesus takes up the scroll from Isaiah and reads “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” And he says, “This reading is fulfilled in your sight.”
This Sunday we hear about the reaction to his claim. “They are amazed at the gracious words that come from his mouth,” but then ask “Isn’t this Joseph’s son.” Then, enraged by his sharp rebuke to them for refusing to accept him, they take Jesus to the steep hill on the outskirts of their town and are ready to throw him over, but he passes through their midst. (Luke 4,16-30)
Why do they reject Jesus? The reason seems to be that they know his family and what he’s done for a living, and they can’t believe someone like him could be a messenger of God to them. He’s just a carpenter. What does he know? He came from an ordinary family, some of whom may not have been nice people at all. So they dismiss him.
At Nazareth we see an example of what’s called the “scandal of the incarnation.” People can’t believe that God could come to us as Jesus did.
That scandal still continues. One obvious instance of it is when people claim to be “spiritual, but not religious.” They want God and not the human ways God comes to us. They want God to be in the beauty of a sunset, but not in a church. They want God as they would like him to be, and not in the messiness of humanity.
I think of that line from one of the English poets:
“I saw him in the shining of the stars, I marked him in the flowering of the fields, but in his ways with men, I knew him not.”
The scandal of the Incarnation is always with us.