Since this week already has a monastic flavour, let’s hear from Sister Johanna OSB, our friend at Minster Abbey in Kent. Another story from the early part of Jesus’s active ministry, soon after his Baptism.
When they heard this everyone in the synagogue was enraged. They sprang to their feet and hustled Jesus out of the town, and they took him to the brow of the hill their town was built on, intending to throw him off the cliff, but he passed straight through the crowd and walked away. (Lk 4:29-30).
This violent scene recorded by Luke erupts after Jesus has preached in the synagogue of Nazareth, his home town, for the first time. When he begins to preach, everyone seems rather pleased to see Jesus up there – they are even said to be ‘astonished by the gracious words that came from his lips.’ In fact, the text tells us that ‘He won the approval of all.’ Then, inexplicably, it all starts to go horribly wrong. We are not told exactly what Jesus said that made everyone so angry, but before we know it, Jesus is being confrontational with the congregation: ‘[N]o prophet is ever accepted in his own country,’ he famously tells them. And things quickly get worse and worse; soon the crowd becomes demonically violent – they want to kill him.
My meditation on this text today was not so much focused on the way the violence intensifies against Jesus. I was absorbed, instead, by what happens at the very end of this scene, as the brief text above describes it. (If you wish to read the full text, you can turn to Luke 4: 16-30). It is amazing that – in the middle of a riot, no less, where an enraged crowd is determined to kill Jesus by throwing him off a cliff – Jesus was able simply to slip quietly through the crowd, and walk away. St Luke does not comment on the strange phenomenon. But it is a curious moment to imagine, and I spent some time just thinking about what that scene might have been like. I imagine a confused cluster of outraged men running around, looking all over the place and shouting, “What’s happened to him? Where is he? I thought you had him?” But no one knows where Jesus has gone.
Usually when I read this passage, this final scene seems to slip away as easily as Jesus slipped through the crowd that day. But today I realised that it tells a breathtaking story of its own. It seemed on one hand to be saying that the demonic presence within the crowd had no real power over Jesus. But then I thought of Jesus in his final hours. The crowd that bayed for his execution was also fuelled by the demonic and was way out of Jesus’ control (see Lk 23: 13-25), and in the end, when the crowd demanded Jesus’ death, Pilate had no choice but to order it. Why was Jesus powerful over evil in today’s passage and not powerful later on?
Although the mystery of evil, and of Jesus’ surrender to it in his Passion, is too deep for me to speak fully of it here, this much can be said. In today’s passage from Luke 4, we are looking at the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, not the end. He demonstrated his power over the demonic here, as part of his self-revelation and of his mission to make known the kingdom of God. He would not allow the devil to end his mission before it had really begun. Three years later, when his public ministry had reached its fulfilment, Jesus’ hour had arrived, and he had his final revelation to make – which was his ultimate victory over death. He could not make this revelation without allowing death and evil to take their course, all the way to his own death on the Cross, all the way to Hell. And he harrowed it and triumphed over all evil. Other Gospels emphasise that Jesus voluntarily laid down his life. He could have avoided this death, but he chose it voluntarily to show his ultimate power over it. This is a very deep mystery.
As I thought about all this, I realised that I have, as a follower of Jesus, a certain participation in this mysterious trajectory – which is really Jesus’ trajectory in me. In my life, looking back, I can see that Jesus has been able to walk me straight through, unharmed, some circumstances which have been ‘crowded’ with evil. Some of these circumstances I am aware of and I give thanks to him for delivering me from them. There are other destructive circumstances from which he has delivered me that I am not aware of because his grace was at work ahead of time, preventing me from even entering into what I would not have been able to survive. But, there is also a third category here: he has also carefully chosen some circumstances of suffering that have constituted his ‘hour’ within me, when he seemed to allow a series of destructive events to over-take me, even seem to overwhelm me. And he has walked me through those experiences, also, harrowing my Hell, and completing his ‘hour.’
But let me not crow too loudly here. I see clearly that this walk is still going on – a walk through a fallen world in which evil and good are mingled, and in which I still may be misled or overwhelmed. And, this confusing and risk-riddled existence will continue until I take my final breath, because that is simply the nature of our life on earth. But I need not be frightened: my ‘way through this crowd’ is led by Jesus, and I must walk with him, holding on tightly to his hand, and trusting that with him – and only with him – I will be able to elude the grasp of evil, and walk away, unharmed.