While Jesus is reading, all eyes are fixed upon him and all ears attend; here was a passage of enormous potent for Israel, still in captivity, yearning to be set free. When he closed up the scroll, gave it to the attendant, and, as was customary, sat down to comment upon what was written, it is clear from Luke’s language that the atmosphere was charged with expectation (4:20).
As he begins to speak—”this day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears” (4:21 KJV)—it seems that two responses swept over the crowd in rapid succession; in the first there was a buzz of excitement and appreciation, but almost immediately it seems to have been followed by second-guessing: is this not just our neighbor, the son of Joseph? (4:22).
Jesus responds to the skepticism he knows is rising in their hearts with a “proverb” (Greek parabolē; the Hebrew equivalent, māšāl, can mean any figurative saying as well as “parable”). Jesus knows what they really want is for him to do in their own midst some of the miracles he has done up north in Capernaum (4:23). They want to see signs and wonders here and now, in their own village; they have little interest in the larger context.
His response immediately points up two things that his audience in Nazareth, as elsewhere, does not like to hear: first, that Israel more often than not has rejected the prophets (4:24) and, second, that, as a result, wonders of the Lord were sometimes then performed by the prophets among the Gentiles instead, as witnessed by Elijah’s blessing of the widow of Zarephath (4:25; cf. 1 Kgs. 17:9-24). Jesus is here reminding his hearers pointedly of the same thing John did in the previous chapter (Luke 3:8-9): if Israel thinks its special covenant relationship with God is all that matters, their disobedience not withstanding, they have not been paying sufficient attention to either the Law or the Prophets.
Cyril of Alexandria grasps the point firmly: by these two stories of Elijah and Elisha, he says, Jesus is referring to the “heathen who were about to accept him and be healed of their leprosy, by reason of Israel’s remaining impenitent” (1983: Homily 12). It seems more than probable that Luke, a Gentile himself, must have noticed these long-standing biblical patterns and pondered over their recurrent frequency in the teaching of Jesus and the ministry of the apostles.
We have to conclude from the suddenly impassioned and violent response of the crowd in the synagogue that, here as elsewhere, any suggestion that God would bypass the Jews and confer his blessing on the hated Gentiles has produced a hair-trigger animosity; Lightfoot’s general observations about this reflex suggest that the pattern of response to this message everywhere in the New Testament was well grounded in long-standing Jewish prejudice (1979: 3.59).
The enraged crowd drags Jesus out and tries to shove him off a cliff, presumably so as then to stone him. But somehow, mysteriously, he escape (4:29-30), for, as Bede says, reflecting Luke’s words, “the hour of his passion had not yet come” (quoted in Aquinas, Catena Aurea 3.1.163).