This is the lectionary reading set for next Sunday. It’s from Luke 4:14-21.
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ 22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth…
Jesus is almost lynched after his first sermon, as you can see below. What causes a congregation to go from being “amazed at the gracious words which came from his mouth,” to being filled with rage and seeking to throw him off a cliff? We don’t get to the cliff in this week’s reading, because the scholars who devised the lectionary thought the story so important that they split it into two parts. This week we see the foundations of the scandal.
Luke deliberately crafts Jesus’ first public words to outline his agenda. Jesus begins by saying, “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me…” This is a claim to be the Messiah. The word Messiah, used to describe the longed for hero who would restore Israel’s fortunes, literally means anointed one.
It is no wonder that “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” He’s just claimed to be the Messiah! ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’
Jesus says his spirit given anointing— his reason for being Messiah— is “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” The year of the Lord’s favour is understood to be like the year of Jubilee. Every fifty years the economic and social landscape was meant to be reset and restored. The law of the Jubilee year is set out in Leviticus 25. In summary, it “effected the automatic release or emancipation of a Jew who… had … become enslaved to a fellow Jew, and likewise the automatic release or return to the original owner or family of property…” (Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible Vol2, pp 1001)
In chapter 61 of Isaiah which Jesus read, the prophet ties Jubilee to a time of great prosperity and restoration:
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations…
you shall enjoy the wealth of the nations,
and in their riches you shall glory.
So phrases like “good news to the poor”… “release to the captives,” and letting “the oppressed go free,” all echo the sentiments of the Jubilee, and of Isaiah 61. They were stirring words for a nation which was suffering under a conquering power. Essentially, Jesus was saying, the Year of the Jubilee starts now, in me.
In the beginning, people were delighted to hear this. “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” (Luke 4:22) So what changed?
It’s questionable if the year of the Jubilee was ever more an ideal or hope. Indeed, 2 Chronicles 36:20-21 interprets the 70 year Exile of Israel in Babylon as a measure of the occasions the Jubilee was not observed. And, clearly, those who had done well for themselves in the years previous to a Jubilee year, would not have much interest in things being reset!
But inherent in Isaiah 61, and in the year of Jubilee, is a great levelling of the people. Good news implies something far more than the not-keeping-up-with-inflation wage increases of trickle-down economics. Indeed, the Greek word for good news had connotations of a great victory. Who are the captives, the oppressed and the blind? The shape of the poetry indicates that these terms refer back to the poor of the land. Perhaps Jesus is well received in Nazareth because he is far from the centres of power in Jerusalem who would have much to lose in a Jubilee, just as they would have much to lose today. The poor, and the less well-off people of the regional towns are delighted at the prospect of Jubilee. This is not the reason they were upset.
What grabs their attention, along with Jesus’ claim to be Messiah, is that although Jesus begins to quote from Isaiah 61, Luke actually has him recite a mashup of lines from Isaiah 61, 58 and 42. (See the bottom of this linked article.)
The reader is meant to notice this, and to understand that the congregation in the synagogue in Nazareth have also noticed— they knew their scriptures with a level of detail which is quite foreign to us. They were fascinated to see what conclusion he would draw from his improvisation, or mashup, of the text. Understand that the problem people had with Jesus was not his “fiddling” the text, which is what would offend fundamentalists today. Rather, they didn’t like his conclusion.
What Jesus does is challenge the national mythology. We can easily see a contemporary example of what happens to people who do this. Last Anzac Australian journalist Scott MacIntyre
referred to some Australians marking Anzac Day as “poorly-read, largely white, nationalist drinkers and gamblers” on his officially verified Twitter account on Saturday night.
“Remembering the summary execution, widespread rape and theft committed by these ‘brave’ Anzacs in Egypt, Palestine and Japan,” he wrote to his 30,000 followers.
“Not forgetting that the largest single-day terrorist attacks in history were committed by this nation & their allies in Hiroshima & Nagasaki.”
He was promptly sacked by SBS, and subject to widespread outrage. “Historically speaking then, McIntyre is not all that far off the mark, but he has been sacrificed on the altar of populist outrage,” wrote historian and academic Phillip Dwyer.
It’s this sort of territory into which Jesus launches himself. He challenges the national mythology, which is a place where facts count for relatively little, and self-justification, desire and longing, rule.
Luke is about to teach us that the freedom which Jesus— “full of the Holy Spirit”— brings to Nazareth, is contrary to the national self-understanding of his people. Does he call us to the same conclusion about our people, and our place in history?
See what Jesus leaves out from his quoting of Isaiah 61:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God
This would have sounded to his contemporaries rather like talking about the Anzacs without reference to Gallipoli– you can’t do it! And he made it clear it was no mere oversight:
21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ 22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ 23He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ 24And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. 25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ 28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
Next week: What does this mean?
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.