Luke 4:21-30 – Sidonian and Syrian: The Geography of Faith


In the first part of Luke 4 the Evangelist presents Jesus as a messianic figure who has entered into human history to heal and to save the sick and the lost. The activity of Jesus is the activity of the Spirit. Story becomes theology; history becomes eschatology. After Jesus had claimed that the words of Isaiah 61, “the Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” had been fulfilled in himself, the people in the synagogue marveled at the graceful words he had spoken. Some wondered immediately, “Is not this the son of Joseph?” implying both that he is one of them, and how did he become a prophet. Jesus is an anomaly. Even though I’m one of you, my prophecy will not be accepted. Even though he is one of them, he remains a stranger. This scene is the background against which is painted a new picture, in the unfolding of the sermon at Nazareth.

He says to them, “I tell you in truth.”  The truth is that out of all the widows of Israel, Elijah was sent to a widow in the land of Sidon, “to a woman who was a widow.” There is a curious theory by Wellhausen in his commentary on Luke that this should read “to a woman who was Syrian.” He suggested that the original Aramaic would support this view. So he read Sura (Syrian) instead of Xera (widow). (See also Mark 7:26 where Jesus enters the home of a woman who is a “Hellenis, Surophoinikissa,” a Greek, a Suro-Phoenecian).  Suro is Syrian; Phoenician is Sidonian. This makes some logical sense since later in verse 27 Naaman, the other illustration, is referred to as the Suros (Syrian). The point Jesus was making is that the prophet has more credibility with the Syrians than with the people of Nazareth. I find this theory fascinating but I do not subscribe to it. I believe the Evangelist in Luke-Acts is both meta-logical and meta-historical. His interest is not is a logically historical narrative of the life of Jesus as is easily seen in the way he has used the Markan material and his own special source. In Luke, story is theology; history is eschatology.

The other truth that Jesus tells is about Naaman the Syrian who was healed of his leprosy. As early as 1899, scholars began questioning whether this was the same as modern day leprosy, though no conclusion is beyond doubt. The fact of the matter is that the story of Naaman is an illustration of the idea that the healing of leprosy was an event that would take place in the time of the Messiah.

The Evangelist has a special interest in widows which reflects his concern for the poor and the oppressed. Witness his treatment of Mary in chapter 1 and Anna in chapter 2. He takes two stories of widows from Mark, Luke 20 and 21, and adds three of his own: our present widow, Luke 4; the widow of Nain, Luke 7; and the widow facing the unjust judge, Luke 18.

The Sidonian widow of I Kings 17 whom Jesus mentions shares the very last of her resources with Elijah, risking her life and that of her son. She says to Elijah “As the Lord YOUR God lives….” She is willing to take a risk believing an alien God and a foreign prophet. On the other hand, the people of Nazareth are not willing to accept one of their own. The Syrian Naaman, in 2 Kings 5, a man of power and position, was referred to Elisha for healing of his leprosy by “a little maid from the land of Israel,” a captive of war. Naaman was willing to believe the word of a foreigner and to trust in an alien God. After his healing he says, “I know there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.”  These two stories point to the intersection of the human story with the Divine story, and at the point of intersection something new happens. I wonder if the Evangelist, writing for a Greek audience, was acquainted with the story of Mnemosyne, the Goddess Memory, who was the daughter of Ouranos (Heaven) and Gaia (Earth).  Mnemosyne, Memory, the complete integration of the divine and the human, holds in reserve what humanity authentically is, the human through which the divine shines forth. The illustration of Naaman intends to demonstrate that the Messiah has come to bring about something new to all. This universalism of the Evangelist is an essential part of the eschatology that he is presenting.  Both female and male are part of the salvation story. Male and female will again stand at the beginning of the New Creation.

I believe that the Evangelist is offering this perspective because he is presenting a foundation that the early Christian community may use to find answers to troubling questions of faith. The early community was challenged internally by the Gnostics among them who had their own understanding of Jesus. The early Church needed answers, and the Evangelist was especially interested in presenting his Greek (Hellenistic) readers with answers that appealed to them. Hellenistic Christianity as we can see from the letters of Paul was struggling to understand itself and its place in the story of redemption. The Evangelist is telling his readers that they are not strangers and outsiders. The Gospel is also for them. (Paul: to the Jew first, and them to the Greek).

The Evangelist tells us that the people in the synagogue at Nazareth were furious (thumos) and wanted to throw Jesus off a cliff. But he evaded them. In verse 15 they praised him in the synagogue; in verse 22, all spoke well of him; and then in verse 29 they wanted to kill him. On the Sunday of the Passion the crowds shouted, “Hosannah!” On Good Friday, “Crcify him!” The beat goes on.

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