Principle Lesson: Luke 4:14-21 (The Reading of the Isaiah Scroll)
This is the first scene in Luke’s Gospel after the wilderness retreat and following the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan by John. It’s a somewhat mundane scene, telling of a rather typical event in 1st century Palestinian Judaism – the Sabbath prayers in the local synagogue. On any number of Sabbaths past and still to come, a member of the synagogue would be chosen or step forward or somehow be identified to read from the ancient text. They would unroll the scroll, perhaps to the place they had left off the last week or maybe to a place of their own choosing, and tell the story of God’s relationship with the chosen people. Then they would comment on the text, maybe retelling again the wisdom they learned in Sabbath school as children or maybe trying to place the story in the context of their day.
Jesus had just returned to Galilee from his sojourn in the wilderness. He had been baptized by John, and then had gone on a sort of retreat. He was tempted in the wilderness but had now returned to Galilee, ready for what awaited him. As Luke tells it, “He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone” (Luke 4:15). And so, by the time he arrived in the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth his fame had spread. But this was Jesus’ time to read, so Jesus unrolled the scroll of the prophet Isaiah to a rather obscure section, and read:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,Luke 4:18-19
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.”
Then, after he had read from the scroll, “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him” (Luke 4:20b). Jesus’ fame had spread and those gathered in the synagogue on that Sabbath wanted to hear Jesus. It was Jesus’ turn to teach. What would Jesus say? They knew Jesus! He was the son of Joseph, the carpenter. They knew the family and had certainly known Jesus as a child. Why did he read from Isaiah? What will he say?
A REMINDER OF THE PAST OR A COMMENT ON THE FUTURE
Jesus could have reminded them of their history. He might have reminded those in Nazareth of the past, of how God had covenanted with Moses, promising the land of milk and honey, and of how the vision of that covenant was to be lived out in justice, freedom, and healing. He might have reminded them of their captivity in Babylon, brought on by their infidelity, and also of their return from Babylon, brought on by God’s faithfulness. He might have reminded them of how the people wept when they heard the word of the Lord proclaimed again “in the square before the Water Gate” (Nehemiah 8L:1) – the poor hearing good news, the captives released, and the blind seeing. Yes, Jesus might have talked to them of yesterday.
Jesus might also have commented on the future. Jesus could have taken the bold step by addressing Roman occupation, the oppression of the Empire, and the future of Israel. He might have given a vision for a world yet to come, Israel awaiting the fulfillment of the glorious promise. He might have spoken of the messiah yet to come, who would one day lift up the poor, set the captives free, and give sight to the blind! Yes, Jesus might have talked about the future Jubilee, the tomorrow still to come.
But Jesus neither spoke about yesterday nor tomorrow; but, instead, Jesus proclaimed, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21b). “Today…!!!” For the hearers of this message, this is an undoubtedly shocking and radical claim.
Those in the synagogue on that Sabbath would have been shocked because the claim of fulfillment most assuredly did not appear to be true. They must have been thinking to themselves (if not outright shouting): “The Spirit of the Lord is HERE now? …today? The poor hear good news, the captives are released, the blind recover sight and the oppressed are set free? Seriously, this is the year of Lord’s favor?” The people gathered there simply had to point to their reality – foreign occupation, inequality, unjust imprisonment, violence, and fear! How could today possibly be the year of the Lord’s favor?
IT’S ABOUT TODAY
But this is what Jesus says to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Not yesterday and not tomorrow, it is today.
Again, this is a shocking claim but it is more than shocking – it is a truly radical claim. It is a truly radical claim because it is a declaration of who Jesus is, namely: Messiah. The astute reader of Luke’s Gospel will, of course, already be aware of the unique character of Jesus for Luke is not shy about announcing it. Here, in the narrative flow, Jesus accepts that role for himself.
In addition to showing Jesus accepting the role, the passage also addresses what kind of Messiah Jesus will be. And, for Luke, the answer is unequivocal: Jesus will be a prophetic Messiah. This is made certain by the citation from Isaiah (a mixed citation from Isaiah 61:1; 58:6; 6:12) in which the herald of good news is “anointed with the Spirit,” just as later at Pentecost, the spirit of prophecy would be “poured out” on Jesus’ followers (Acts 2:33). What was said by the prophet Isaiah about the “servant of the Lord,” Jesus declares to be “fulfilled” that day in him. Jesus essentially tells his neighbors and family-friends that the Spirit of God is at work (the same Spirit that had descended upon at the baptism), right here, right now, today.
Recall the “I AM WHO I AM” who told Moses at the burning bush, “Here I am,” and promised to relieve the people of their misery and bring them from their captivity in Egypt (Exodus 3). Jesus is now doing the same as the servant who will “proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (Luke 4:19). This is a sign of, the fulfillment of, and the reality of God’s covenant. The ever active, ever-loving, ever liberating, always present God is here with us. Now. Today.
God’s Spirit came crashing down on Jesus at his baptism, and Jesus was empowered to mission: to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind; to let all the oppressed go free; and, to announce the sweet year of Jubilee. Yes, on that memorable Sabbath morning in Nazareth, Jesus announces who he is as Messiah, and he claims those ancient prophetic words as a statement of his mission. In the rest of his narrative, Luke will show the messianic mission carried out in specific stories: acts of healing, exorcism, feeding, and giving, but most radically of all in offering acceptance and welcome to those who were outcasts and on the margins.
Jesus takes all this as his mission, and he is not content to leave it as only a string of high-sounding words. And he keeps doing these things every chance he gets until finally it kills him. Some people welcome what Jesus does. But others do not! Jesus’ mission upsets the status quo, questions complacency, and insists on fidelity to the habitually unfaithful. They find their discomfort increasingly intolerable and think that his judicial murder will bring an end to the matter.
They are wrong, of course. Jesus rises from the dead. Amen!! Jesus lives and his mission announced on that Sabbath day in Nazareth continues. It continues because the same “Spirit of the Lord” announced by Isaiah came upon the disciples in Jerusalem. The mission continues through the Church, the Body of Christ.
Faith communities can often be consumed with memories of the past and hopes for the future. To be sure, both past and future are important as healthy and life-giving practices of honoring our ancestors and embracing a hopeful future. But both past and future, yesterday and tomorrow, can have their shadow sides when they become the primary location of faith. Overemphasizing either can result in a faith steeped in grief, fear, and anxiety. And, as a result, today is lost as a stage upon which we mourn the loss of the past and fear what we cannot imagine.
Jesus says that “today” is the day. And today is a deeply radical reality that insists that we lay aside both memories and dreams to embrace fully the moment. Embracing “today” places us in the midst of the sacred drama, reminding us that we are actors and agents in God’s desire for the world. “Today” is the most radical thing Jesus ever said.
JESUS’ MISSION CONTINUES
Jesus’ mission continues today through each of us and all who are baptized into his mystical body. Jesus strives still to live out the mission: bringing good news to those who don’t have any, setting free those chained in captivity, opening blind eyes, helping the oppressed find life, and announcing the year of God’s favor.
Jesus still does these things because the church does them. The poor gain hope, whether they are starved in body or in soul. The captives experience freedom, whether captives are in jail, held prisoner by chemical dependence, or gripped by mental illness. The blind receive sight, whether it be medical help for cataracts or glaucoma, eyeglasses for the student struggling to read because she cannot see, or the scales of prejudice falling off the eyes of a racist. The oppressed are set free, whether oppressed by a political regime or a drug cartel, held down by a misogynistic system, or treated unfairly because of sexuality or gender identity. When Jesus reads that passage in the Nazareth synagogue, he announces a mission for himself and for his mystical body, the church.
Jesus read the old words from Isaiah and claimed them for his own. We can do the same.
The Spirit of the Lord is upon us.
The Spirit of the Lord has anointed us to bring good news to the poor.
The Spirit of the Lord has sent us to proclaim release to the captives.
The Spirit of the Lord has sent us to help the blind recover their sight.
The Spirit of the Lord has sent us to free the oppressed.
The Spirit of the Lord has sent us to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in our hearing. Amen.