The lectionary reading for Epiphany 4 in Year C is Luke 4.14–21. As is often the case with the lectionary, the reading is rather displaced and truncated; the previous episode is the temptation in the wilderness, which we will read at the beginning of Lent, and the following week we revert back to Luke 2 as we celebrate the presentation of Jesus in the temple. More serious, though, is the ending of the passage at verse 21, when the whole episode runs to verse 28, and we should take the lectionary here as ‘advisory’ and read through to the end of the story as Luke presents it to us.
The section linking the temptations in the desert with the Nazareth incident is brief but interesting. Luke’s mention of both the Spirit and ‘power’ is characteristic, and adds an extra dimension to the importance of Jesus having the Spirit come upon him (as I have explored elsewhere). Although Luke does relate the ‘power of the Spirit’ to Jesus’ miracles and healings elsewhere, he also regularly links this to Jesus’ teaching ministry, as he does here very clearly. The phrase ‘their synagogues’ is striking, suggestion (as Luke makes clear in other places) that he is writing to a gentile audience who are removed from the geographical area (note that Matthew talks of ‘their synagogue’ in Matt 13.54, but this is a specific rather than general reference).
The comparison with what appear to be parallel passages in Matt 13.54–58 and Mark 6.1–6 is instructive for two reasons. First, in Matthew and Mark the episode comes some way into Jesus’ ministry, and some of Luke’s account (such as Luke 4.23 which anticipates the taunt at the cross in all three Synoptics) confirms that this was later, rather than initial, teaching. This suggests that Luke has put the episode here because of its programmatic nature; it introduces this major Galilean section of the gospel up to Luke 9.51, when Jesus ‘sets his face to Jerusalem, and many of the following examples of Jesus’ ministry are examples of just the sorts of things mention in his reading from the scroll. But the connections continue into Acts, suggesting that Luke sees this teaching of Jesus as programmatic for his follower as well, and this is hinted at in the substitution of the well known gospel term kerusso ‘proclaim’ in Luke 4.18 where the LXX that this is quoted from uses a different term.
The other notable difference between Luke and the other two gospels is that most of the material here is unique to Luke, including the content of Jesus’ reading and teaching, the anticipation of the proverb, and the examples (omitted in the lectionary reading) of the grace of God coming to the gentiles in the prophetic ministries of Elijah and Elisha. Despite this, there are also interesting details which are faithful to what little we do know about first century synagogue practice. It is unclear whether there would first have been a reading of the Torah prior to the reading of the haftarah and whether there was a set reading or Jesus himself chose what to read from. Luke uses the word for ‘unrolling’ rather than the more general term ‘open’, reflecting how you actually handled a scroll. Luke mentions the ‘attendant’ to whom Jesus gives back the scroll, an official in the synagogue, and when he ‘sits down’ this does not mean that he joins the congregation, but that he takes his seat as a teacher ready to give a sermon from a central place, which allows ‘the eyes of everyone’ to be on him. It is worth noting that here Luke is presenting Jesus as a good, observant Jew, just as he has presented earlier characters in a similar way, and he includes positive notes of the acceptance of Jesus teaching in this episode, as well as the rejected; Luke continues to be a ‘both/and’ rather than an ‘either/or’ gospel.
Luke is clearly summarising both the reading and Jesus’ teaching (as of course he does elsewhere), and though he records Jesus teaching in synagogues, this is the only time he offers a glimpse into the content of what he says. The reading actually combines verses from two or three different places, and not just from Is 61:
The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favour and the day of vengeance of our God… (Is 61.1–2a)
Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? (Is 58.6)
Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you; each of you is to return to your family property and to your own clan. (Lev 25.10)
The link here between Is 61 and Is 58 is created by the repetition of the language of ‘release’ in relation both to the prisoners and the oppressed in Luke 4.18. Although this is commonly read as something ‘social’ rather than ‘spiritual’, it marks Jesus ministry in a number of ways in Luke’s gospel, and is used as often in relation to the ‘release’ from (that is, forgiveness of) sin as it is in other ways, including in one of the other ‘programmatic’ statements, the Benedictus (Luke 1.77). (There is a long list of other uses of the noun aphesis and the cognate verb aphiemi in both Luke and Acts in Joel Green’s NIC Acts commentary, p 211).
Reading Scripture aloud in a synagogue service was a common practice, and a person did not necessarily need to hold a special office to offer leadership in worship and instruction (compare Acts 13:13-15). The biblical text cited in Luke 4:17-19 is not a single passage from Isaiah but a combination of Isaiah 61:1-2a and part of Isaiah 58:6. These two passages are probably combined here in Luke because in the Greek translation of the Old Testament the same word is found in both places. This word is aphesis, which appears when Jesus says he is “to proclaim release to the captives” and also “to let the oppressed go free.” Combining the two passages from Isaiah emphasizes this theme of “release” that characterizes Jesus’ ministry. The same word appears elsewhere in Luke to describe people’s release (usually translated “forgiveness”) from sins. The word also appears frequently in Leviticus 25:8-55, which discusses the jubilee year, a “year of release” meant to preserve justice in Israel through the fair and regular distribution of wealth and personal freedoms. Jesus’ sermon, therefore, implies that his ministry is one that liberates people from social and economic oppression, just as other pronouncements indicate that Jesus also frees people from sin’s oppression. (Enter The Bible)
The connection with the Jubilee year in Leviticus clearly comes through its mention in Is 61, but together with Jesus’ claim that ‘Today this is fulfilled in your hearing’ suggests several things in relation to Jesus’ own ministry. First, it is prophetic, in line with Isaiah, so the subsequent comment about Elijah and Elisha completes this strong link with OT prophetic ministry. Secondly, it suggests Jubilee, and the offering of the rest for the people of God as they live in obedience to God’s commands and instructions. Thirdly, here is the final fulfilment of the eschatological hope that God will come and liberate his people. So we have the intertwining of prophetic ministry, Jubilee and eschatology.
Philip Long helpfully observes:
Did Jews think they were still in an exile and in need of restoration? A key text is Daniel 9, where Daniel reads the prophet Jeremiah and determines that the 70 year exile ought to be over. In response to his prayer for restoration and the end of the exile, God reveals to him that the exile will be extended for “70 Sevens,” presumably 490 years. Only after that period is over will God finally end the exile.
Another text found among the Dead Sea Scrolls has a similar view that the end of the exile will be like a Jubilee. 11Q13 Melichzedek indicates that at least some Jews prior to the time of Jesus thought of themselves as living in the exile. While this text is fragmentary it appears to be a collection of texts from Isaiah describing the end of the age as a new Jubilee. Melchizedek appears as a messiah-like figure who was predicted by “the anointed of the spir[it] as Dan[iel]”in Dan 9:25. He will be a “the messenger of good who announ[ces salvation].” All this sounds very much like Jesus’ words in Luke 4.
In fact, if the community at Qumran is associated with scrolls like this one, then their location in the desert, near the place where Israel ended their 40 years exile in the wilderness and finally entered the Land is remarkable. They are enacting the prophecy of Isaiah 40 to go “into the wilderness and make straight the paths of the Lord.”
The final major question here relates to the common observation that Jesus fails to cite the final line of the quotation from Is 61.1–2. It is often thought to set Jesus apart from either Isaiah or John, as represented in these two online comments:
Mike, whatever actually was said at the time, I would find this scripture much more difficult if the line about vengeance had been included. At the heart of Jesus’ proclamation was the radical idea that instead of seeking vengeance upon our enemies, we are to bless them and pray for them and to care for their needs as if they were our own. Two thousand years later we are only beginning to get a handle on this outrageous concept. Turn on your TV and check out the latest from the Middle East or watch the sentencing of an American murderer when those concerned are given freedom to address the murderer. Think back a couple of years to the tanker load of vitriol thrown at Rob Bell for daring to suggest that love wins.
And in relation to John:
I think it might be something of a contrast between Jesus and John the Baptist. The Baptist was preparing the way for Christ by preaching repentance; in chapter 3, he’s just told the people that the Messiah would baptize the impenitent “with fire” – according to the next verse, the fires of judgment. But since the Baptist had prepared the way with the Law, Luke has Christ come with the Gospel. Perhaps it’s not a question of why Jesus Himself stopped where He did, but why Luke arranged the stories in their particular order.
Taking these in reverse order, I have already argued that John and Jesus are not so far apart as we might think. And a number of commentators note that Jesus does indeed complete the reading from Isaiah, but does so near the end of his ministry as he approaches Jerusalem for the final time:
When you see Jerusalem being surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, let those in the city get out, and let those in the country not enter the city. For this is the time of vengeance in fulfilment of all that has been written. (Luke 21.20–22)
Jesus, it appears, has not done away with the justice of God. But in his ministry a window of grace has opened up, inviting all who receive his good news of release from sin and sickness to know the restoration of God before the time of reckoning, when we must all give an account to God.
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