The Nazareth Manifesto as the Gospel

The Nazareth Manifesto as the Gospel December 13, 2020

One of the best examples of the holistic nature of the gospel is Lk 4:16-30. The Lucan version of Jesus’s visit to Nazareth (see Mk 6:1-6; Mt 13:54-58) is unique in many respects not the least the way that Luke uses it to frame the beginning of Jesus’s Galilean ministry.

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.” (Lk 4:16-21).

The account in Lk 4:16-30 is a programmatic summary of Jesus’ ministry and presages the various themes recurrent across Luke-Acts: Spirit, fulfilment, salvation, mission, christology, Israel’s rejection, and God’s acceptance of outcasts.[1] In this episode, Jesus enters his hometown of Nazareth, on the sabbath in the synagogue he is invited to share a word of exhortation, he reads from Isa 61:1-2, and then utters a nine-word sermon (in both Greek and English): “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus is then blandly snubbed by the audience and he responds by quoting the proverbs of the sick physician and the prophet without honor in his hometown. His prophetic response continues with allusions to the scriptural stories of the widow of Zarephath and Naaman the Syrian to reiterate that when Israel rejects God’s message that God will extend his blessings to those outside the covenant community (1 Kgs 17:1-24; 2 Kgs 5:1-14).  Notable too is that there is also an interesting connection between Isaiah 61, prophetic fulfilment, and messianic salvation shared between Luke and several Qumran scrolls (11QMelch 2.4, 9, 14, 19-20; 4Q521 2.12).

Whether you like it or not, this is the one part of the Bible where you must admit that the liberation theologians are onto something. Jesus does not read from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to bring good news to the affluent middle classes who want enough religion to make them feel secure with God, but nothing too cumbersome that is going to unsettle their consumerist and hyper-individualist way of life.” Jesus speaks of Isaianic salvation in terms of God liberating the poor, the oppressed, the blind, and the captive. The idea taps into the Jewish notion Jubilee from Leviticus 25 with the remission of debts and the freeing of slaves. It is the rescue of such vulnerable people that is the proof that the day of salvation has dawned and that Jesus is the promised Messiah (see Lk 7:22-23; 19:9-10). This would have been very meaningful to Jesus’s own audience who were still waiting for the grand promises of the exilic prophets to fully and finally end the lasting effects of the Babylonian exile. It was also good news in Luke’s day when his many of his own audience lived lives on the margins of society, suffered under various caste systems and systemic injustices, who knew poverty, hunger, alienation, and shame.

This Lucan passage, often called the “Nazareth Manifesto,” shows us that the gospel of the kingdom has a holistic vision of salvation. It centres on the theme of aphesis/aphiēmi, the act of freeing or liberating someone, from sins (Lk 1:77; 3:3; 5:20; 7:48; 11:4; 24:27; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 10:43; 13:38-39; 22:16; 26:18), from illness (Lk 4:39), and from debts (Lk 11:4). That is not to reduce the authentic gospel to the banal social gospel of old liberalism or to secular social justice projects with a light sprinkling of Bible verses. That said, the gospel of Jesus the Nazarene is a justice-bringing, slavery-crushing, illness-healing, debt-remitting, low-status-reversing, sin-cleansing, outsider-including, and truthing-to-power gospel. If the gospel is not good news to the poor in Nairobi slums, to the Maori of New Zealand, to engineering students in Norway, to Wallmart employees in Nashville, to inmates in a prison in Nova Gama, then it ain’t really good news in the biblical sense.

[1] Joel B. Green, Gospel of Luke (NICNT; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 207.

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