This week I read from the assigned passages in Luke, beginning with Jesus’ visit to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. These segments of Luke represents a shift from his source in Mark in a variety of ways, two of which are significant for my purposes. First, I read the passage as a whole, then I will return and focus specifically on the content of the passage from which Jesus reads.
The assigned passage (4:14-30) opens as Luke reports that to this point Jesus’ efforts in Galilee had been met with great success, indeed he “was praised by everyone” (v.15). Initially, Jesus meets the same response in Nazareth, that is, his own townspeople likewise are “amazed at his gracious words” (v.22a), indicating that they had not expected such quality from “Joseph’s son” (v.22b). (This differs from Mark [6:1-3] and Matthew [13:54-57], both of which report Jesus’ humble origins as the main locus of scandal.)
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, 17 and 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 favor.”
20 And 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. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”
The mood of the crowd changes abruptly, however, between v. 22 and v. 28, when the people of Nazareth attempt to kill Jesus. What causes the townspeople’s shift? This is an example of a narrative technique used by Luke in which the prophetic words of Jesus find immediate fulfillment in the narrative that follows. Thus, Jesus first notes that the good people of Nazareth know what he has done for Capernaum, and that they will demand he do likewise for them:
23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.
However, Jesus understands his mission differently than do his erstwhile friends. Like the activities of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, the gifts of God that Jesus brings to the world will also be available to the Gentiles. (Both Simeon (2:32) and John the Baptist (3:6) indicated that Jesus’ mission would extend beyond Israel, as well.) However, this will not be acceptable to those who thought themselves the sole focus of God’s beneficent attention:
25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”
The realization that Jesus’s gracious words and actions were intended by God for all is, according to Luke, the idea that turns the citizens of Nazareth against Jesus:
28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They 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. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way. (Luk 4:14-30 NRS)
Returning now to the specific details of the passage from the Hebrew Bible which Jesus reads:
“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 favor.” (Luk 4:18-19 NRS)
This passage is an amalgamation of LXX Isa 61:1, 58:6 and 61:2. Readers may note that the phrase “to heal the brokenhearted” (v.18c KJV) is not found in modern translations. It was probably introduced into the manuscript tradition behind the KJV by scribes who wished to more closely harmonize Luke’s rendering of Jesus’ proclamation of his mission with the precise reading of LXX Is 61:1. I will be speaking sternly to somebody about this at some point once I hunt down the responsible scribe, but until then it is sufficient to note the difference when speaking with others who know and enjoy the biblical text. Deliberate scribal alterations were not inevitably deletions.
While Luke’s whole story of Jesus in Nazareth differs from that of Matthew and Mark, it is this citation from LXX Isaiah that really distinguishes Luke’s presentation. It is, perhaps, easier to see if rendered to point up the series of infinitives:
[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
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor
The repetition of the idea that Jesus enjoys God’s Spirit links this passage to his baptism and implies the reason for the descent of the Spirit: these infinitives are Luke’s idea of what it means for Jesus to be the Son of God. While both Matthew and Mark make the announcement of the kingdom of God/heaven and the concomitant need for repentance the paradigm for Jesus’ Galilean ministry, Luke uses these verses in that function. References to repentance and the kingdom God in Luke follow from 4:14-32.
Now we might turn our attention to any of the six questions that might apply:
What is wrong with human life? This comes from the deconstruction of Jesus’ proclamation in 4:18-19. Somewhat later on John will send a message inquiring about Jesus’ identity, to which Jesus will respond by pointing out his how his activities have improved the lives of those he encountered:
So John summoned two of his disciples 19 and sent them to the Lord to ask, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 20 When the men had come to him, they said, “John the Baptist has sent us to you to ask, ‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?'” 21 Jesus had just then cured many people of diseases, plagues, and evil spirits, and had given sight to many who were blind. 22 And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them. 23 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (Luk 7:18-23 NRS).
Notice how well the activities of Jesus cataloged here correspond to the infinitives of 4:18-19. Note also that Jesus is aware that he does not meet the traditional messianic expectations, going so far as to pronounce a blessing upon those who are not scandalized by the unexpected contours of his mission.
What does God intend to do about it? Through Jesus, God announces “the year of [his] favor” (v.19) – that is, the arrival and consummation of Jesus’ ministry. Here the interesting thing is the “time” of salvation: “Today” is something of a leitmotif in Luke. In this case, the word appears on the lips of Jesus “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Likewise, the angelic announcement to the shepherds proclaims that “today” a savior has been born, salvation comes to the house of Zacchaeus “today,” and the penitent thief is told that “today” he will be with Jesus in paradise. All these act to assure the reader that God is present now, although still partially hidden as the consummation of salvation is not yet.
Who is Jesus that he can bring God’s plans to fruition? This is the identification of Jesus as the Son of God who has been anointed by the Spirit for his mission. Luke is careful to ensure that readers know that this same Spirit is also given to the disciples who will lead the extension of Jesus’ mission after his death. Hence, the story of the Day of Pentecost in Acts, which gives far greater prominence to the disciple’s receipt of the Spirit than do the other Gospels.
What sort of a community is gathered around Jesus? This is the first story in Luke to really point up what Simeon alluded to, that there is (will be) a “division” in Israel. Jesus himself will describe it:
Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three; 53 they will be divided: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law” (Luk 12:51-53 NRS).
This is the pattern Luke uses in order to explain to his readers how it is that the gospel has passed to the Gentiles, the Jews having mostly rejected it. Jesus appeared with a recognizably gracious offer of salvation but the response of the Jews was mixed; now the offer will go to the Gentiles—as was God’s plan all along.
What sort of behaviors are expected of this community? Repentance is the single most significant imperative in Luke’s Gospel, but the word has not yet been proclaimed by Jesus. (It happens in 4:43.) What is clear is that a reversal is now in progress: the blind will see, the captives be free, etc., etc. From humans, this will eventually require a radical re-thinking of what it means to be righteous – an explanation of which will come most completely with the Sermon on the Plain.
And until next time…