We arrived in Nazareth, where Jesus grew up. I travelled with him from Capernaum. It was Saturday, a rest day. At the first hour of the morning, the Nazarenes were all jammed into their small and dilapidated synagogue. The men were wrapped in sheets with black and white stripes. Some entered the synagogue chewing dates to stave off hunger, something which was prohibited. The women, as was customary, stayed in one corner behind the dividing screens. Among the rest of the village women was Mary, the mother of Jesus.
All: “Listen Israel / the Lord is our God / only the Lord. / Love the Lord your God / with all your heart / with all your soul and with all your might. / Remember these words as I command you today….
We started the ceremony by reciting aloud the morning prayer. Then followed the eighteen ritual prayers. When it was time for the reading, the old Rabbi signalled to Jesus, who was by my side. Jesus made way through his townmates and went toward the lectern where the sacred books were kept….
A young man opened the sandalwood box and took out the scrolls where God’s Law was written in black and red letters. It was the Holy Scripture where the wise men of Israel, for over a thousand years, scrutinized the meaning behind every word and every syllable, the will of the Lord. Jesus took the book of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll, raised it with his two hands and started to read haltingly, the way peasants did, for lack of schooling…
Jesus: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me.
The spirit of the Lord has called me to bring good news to the poor: their liberation!
The broken hearts shall be mended,
the slaves shall be set free,
the prisoners shall see the light of day
I come to proclaim the Year of Grace of the Lord, the Day of Justice of our God:
to console the weeping,
and put a crown of triumph on their humiliated heads,
they shall be garbed in party dresses and not in
they shall sing songs of triumph and not lamentation.”
Jesus finished reading. He rolled up the scroll and returned it to the assistant of the synagogue, then sat down in silence. All our eyes were glued on him, awaiting a commentary of the text. Jesus likewise, seemed to be waiting for something. His head was cupped between his hands, and he was noticeably nervous. After a while, he stood up and began to speak…
Jesus: Brethren… I…. I…. the truth is, I don’t know how to speak before so many people… Pardon me for not speaking like the priests or the doctors of the Law… Well, I’m just a peasant like you, and I don’t talk much. Still, I thank our Rabbi for having invited me to comment on the Scripture…
Rabbi: Don’t be nervous, young man! Say anything, whatever occurs to you. Then tell us what happened in Capernaum, about the leper…. People keep on saying many strange things…
Jesus: Well, brothers and sisters, I would like to say that… that these words of the prophet Isaiah are… really great. I heard the prophet John say the same words in the desert. He said: “This is going to change. The Kingdom of God is near.” And I thought: yes, if God has something in His hands, but… but what? What is it that God has to change…? Where will the Kingdom of God begin?… I don’t know, but now, after reading the words of the Scripture, I think I have understood what it means.
The smell of sweat of the Nazarenes mixed with the burned incense, and one could hardly breathe. Everybody felt the warm air that enveloped the whole synagogue. Jesus was perspiring tremendously….
Jesus: Brothers, sisters…. listen to me… I… I’m bringing you great joy: our liberation. We, the poor, have spent our whole life bent like animals over our land. The powerful have placed a very heavy yoke on our shoulders. The rich have robbed us of the fruit of our toil. The foreigners have taken over our country and even the priests have joined them and threatened us with a religion based on laws and on fear. And so we are like our ancestors in Egypt during the time of the Pharaoh. We have partaken of bitter bread, and drunk lots of tears. They have given us so many beatings that we even thought that God has already forgotten us. No, my brothers and sisters. The time has come and the Kingdom of God is near, very near.
Old Ananias, the owner of a press house and an oil mill, and all the lands bordering the hills of Nazareth, which extended up to Cana, raised his cane like a long accusing finger:
Ananias: Hey, you, young man, son of Mary, what stupid things are you talking about? Will you explain to me what it is that must change? Whom are you alluding to?
Jesus: Everything has to change, Ananias. God is a parent who does not want to see his children treated like slaves nor dying of hunger. God’s like a carpenter who uses a plane to level off a wall: everyone shall be equal, there’ll be no rich nor poor; no pharaohs nor slaves; everyone’s family to everyone. God’ll come down from heaven to be with us, the most trampled upon on earth. Haven’t we always heard that God ordered the Year of Grace? Haven’t we just heard it?… God wants a year of truce every fifty years. God wants to tear up all titles of property, all debt contracts, and all deeds of sale and purchase; he wants the land to be divided equally among all of us, because this land belongs to God, and everything in it. There are not to be any differences among us. That no one shall have more nor less. This was what the Lord commanded Moses a thousand years ago, and is still waiting, because no one’s complied with it. Not even the rulers, the landowners, nor the usurers wanted to fulfill the Year of Grace. Now’s the time for it to be fulfilled!
Everyone was silent. We were all amazed at how well Jesus, the son of the carpenter, Joseph and the peasant woman, Mary, had expressed himself.
A Neighbor: Those words sound beautiful, Jesus, but they can’t be eaten. “Liberation, liberation…!” But when, tell me. Is it for the other life, after death….?
Jesus: No Esau. That would be too late. The Year of Grace is for this life. The Kingdom begins on this earth.
Another Neighbor: So when? When the rich become compassionate and distribute their accumulated wealth among us?
Jesus: Stones don’t melt from the inside, Simeon. You gotta have a hammer for this.
Susana: So when do we see the fulfillment of the word you’ve just read?
Jesus: Right now, Susana. Right now. We’re going to start today. Of course, this isn’t a one-day struggle. You don’t crush a stone by one stroke of a hammer. Maybe it’s gonna take us another thousand years, like Moses. Or it could even take two more thousand years. But we’ll also cross the Red Sea and be free. We gotta start today!
Jesus was no longer trembling. With his large calloused hands, he firmly supported himself on the edge of the lectern breathing profoundly like someone who was to take a deep plunge…. He was about to say something significant.
Jesus: I’d like to tell you this… I feel, cramming up in my throat, like arrows in the archer’s hand, the voices of all the prophets who spoke before me, from Elijah, that valiant one from Carmel, to the last prophet we’ve seen in our midst: John, the son of Zacariah whom that skunk, Herod, holds as prisoner in Machaerus. Brothers and sisters, God’s patience has come to an end! The Scripture I’ve just read isn’t for tomorrow, but for today. Don’t you see? It’s being fulfilled right before your eyes.
The old Rabbi scratched his head with uneasiness….
Rabbi: What do you mean by, “It’s being fulfilled right before our eyes?” I have before me the Sacred Book of Law, praise the Lord Almighty. And you’re right beside this Book, commenting on what you’ve read in it.
Jesus: I claim those words written in this Book. Pardon me for the way I’ve spoken, brothers and sisters, but….
Jesus paused. He looked at us slowly, as if asking permission to say what he was about to say….
Jesus: When John, the prophet baptized me in the Jordan, I felt God was calling me to proclaim the good news. That’s why, now, I wanna….
A Neighbor: Watch your words, Jesus. Who do you think you are? From the way you talk, you’re putting yourself at par with the prophet Elijah and John the baptizer!
Jesus: I’m not comparing myself to anyone. I’m simply proclaiming liberation for us, the poor!
An old man with a hunched back like a camel burst with laughter:
An Old Man: Hey, Doctor, heal yourself first!
Jesus: What did you mean by that?
Old Man: Because we’re all bad, but you’re worse!…. What misery will you liberate us from, when you’re the most miserable in Nazareth? Look at your mother over there, behind the dividing screen… Hey, Mary, don’t hide yourself, for everybody knows you here. Who is your father, Joseph?… May he rest in peace… a wretched man, like us. And look at your cousins here… For the love of Abraham, how can you free us when you don’t even have a copper in your pocket?
A Woman Neighbor: I think this Moreno has become presumptuous!
Rabbi: Wait, my brothers, let him speak! Let him speak!
Neighbors: Enough of that silly talk! Make a miracle!
Neighbor: That’s it, a miracle!
Neighbor: Tell us what happened in Capernaum! Did you learn some witchcraft to cleanse the lepers and cure the widows with bad fever?
Neighbor: Tell us, Mary, who taught these tricks to your son?
Rabbi: One moment, one moment!.. Jesus, do you hear what they say? They’re right, son. Aren’t you talking of liberation? Well, it must start here in your town; after all, charity begins at home.
Neighbor: You cured the lepers in Capernaum, why don’t you cure the ones who’re here?
Lady Neighbor: C’mon, what are you waitin’ for? Do you know that my legs are full of wounds?
Jesus: Neighbors, history repeats itself. During the time of the prophet Elijah, there were a number of needy widows, but he was instead sent to the city of Zarephath in a foreign land. During Elijah’s time, there were lots of lepers in Israel and the prophet cured Naaman, the Syrian, who was also a foreigner.
Neighbor: Hey, what do ya mean by that?
Jesus: Nothing, but this is what usually happens. No prophet is welcome in his own land. Fine, I’m going back to Capernaum.
The Nazarenes started to kick and whistle at Jesus…
Neighbor: No, you’re not going back to Capernaum: You go to hell! Have you ever seen a charlatan worse than him?
All: You’re a fake!…. a liar!…. Take him away from here!…. Out! Out!
The men with fists in fighting position rushed towards the lectern where Jesus was, while the women were yelling behind the dividing screens. The fight had begun and the old dilapidated synagogue shook with the uproar of the Nazarenes.
It was in Nazareth, where Jesus grew up that he made the first public proclamation of God’s good news for the poor. In this text about the basis of the promise made by the prophet Isaiah seven hundred years before is a summary of what Jesus’ life was to become and what, in essence, is the Gospel: A liberation for the oppressed. This is a fundamental passage and vital to the understanding of the Christian faith.
In present-day Nazareth, there is a small synagogue built on the remains of the one that existed in Jesus’ time. The former must have been a lot smaller than what we see at present, as there were very few residents in the village. Like all synagogues, it was built in such a way that when the people prayed, they tended to look to the direction of the Temple of Jerusalem, the seat of religious worship in the country. In the synagogue the women never mingled with the men. There was a specific place for them, which was separated by dividing screens. Neither could the women read the Scriptures in public, nor give their commentaries.
When people gathered on Saturdays in the synagogue, they always started their prayer by reciting the “Shema” (“Listen, Israel…,” Deut 6:4-9), one of the prayers preferred by the Jewish religious. It was then followed by 18 ritual prayers in anticipation of the reading of the Scriptures. The most sacred place in the synagogue was a nook facing Jerusalem. Here were kept all the scrolls of the Torah (Law), in which were written all the books we still read today in the Old Testament of the Bible. They consisted of rolled scrolls unlike the books that we have today and were kept inside artistically engraved wooden boxes.
Jesus, like all the Israelites of his time, spoke Aramaic, of the same linguistic family as Hebrew, which is still spoken in some towns of Syria. It was spoken in the whole country of Israel as a popular and domestic language about five centuries before the birth of Jesus. Hebrew was exclusively spoken by the learned men of the Law. The Scriptures were also written in Hebrew. The scroll in which Jesus read in the synagogue was written in Hebrew. This explains Jesus’ stammer, who was not at home in an educated language, since he was only a peasant, and therefore not well-read.
It was the custom for any man present in the synagogue to read an excerpt from the Scripture and comment on the same before his countrymen, based on how it inspired him. This was a mission of the laymen, and not exclusive to the Rabbis. The text read and commented on by Jesus is taken from Isaiah 61:1-3. The decision with which Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God, of liberation, bothers his countrymen who neither accept nor believe that a poor, rugged man from their kind could come and liberate them from anything. We usually refuse to accept as “savior” somebody who is near us, who is like us, who is ordinary and simple, as we begin to look for great signs, for saviors coming from outside, who are extraordinary and superior, before whom we render our admiration. But God’s plan is the contrary. God chooses to be revealed in the poorest, in the most humble of creatures.
The Year of Grace was an ancient legal Institution dating back to the time of Moses. It was also referred to as the Year of Jubilee, which was announced by means of an instrument called “yobel” in Hebrew. This Year of Grace was to be fulfilled every fifty years, during which time all debts should be written off, all properties acquired returned to their former owners (in order to avoid excessive accumulation), and all slaves set free. This law was a way of proclaiming that the only master of the land is God. From the social point of view, this law helped maintain unity among families who deserved a dignified life. It was likewise a memorial of equality that originally existed among the children of Israel upon coming to the promised land when nothing belonged to anyone and everything belonged to everyone. (Lev 25:8-18). The Year of the Sabbath existed in the same light, and was celebrated every seven years. These legal institutions were considered as laws of liberation, as Jesus proclaimed. True to the tradition of his country, he referred to the Year of Grace as a starting point to initiate immediate reforms in the country, because of the big gap between the rich and the poor.
In Nazareth, in the synagogue, Jesus manifested maturity of conscience. When he applied the phrase of Isaiah: “The Spirit is upon me” to himself, it was a way of considering himself prophet in the tradition of all the prophets before him. After the resurrection, the primitive Church accumulated various titles for Jesus, in order to describe his mission: “Lord, Son of God, Christ…” History, as gathered from the gospels, shows, however, that the title unanimously acclaimed by the people and his disciples was that of prophet. The prophet is defined in opposition to the institution. We must not consider Jesus as a theologian or professional teacher who was more radical than the rest. Rather, we consider him within the context of the institution. He lacked what the teachers of his time had, theological studies. The training of teachers was rigid, and lasted for many years, starting in infancy. When Jesus was addressed as “rabbi” (teacher, master), he was treated in a familiar and common way during his time, and this title should not be translated as teacher in the theological sense. On the contrary, Jesus was accused of teaching without authority (Mk 6:2). When he spoke in the synagogue, he did not do so as a theologian nor as a teacher, but as a lay prophet.
(Mt 13:53-58; Mk 6:1-6; Lk 4:16-28)