Luke 4:21-30: Preliminary Thoughts

Sunday’s Gospel is Luke 4:21-30. I’ve been doing some thinking about the passage this afternoon, and here are my thoughts.

This week’s reading follows hard on the heels of last week’s, and in fact the division between them is highly artificial, created by lectionary creators who maybe thought that 14-30 was too long, and that there was enough to meditate on in 14-21 by itself. But 21-30 makes no sense at all without 14-20, so we’ll consider the passage in context.

      14 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. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”.

This passage comes immediately after the account of the temptation in the wilderness, and Luke, as he usually does, emphasizes the role of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit descended on Jesus at his baptism, where God spoke to him to assure him that “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased”. (3:22). The same Spirit then led Jesus out into the desert for a forty-day fast where he had a direct encounter with the power of evil, reminding us that the gift of the Holy Spirit does not only mean joy, sweetness and light, but also struggle, temptation, and knowledge of ourselves, our strengths and our weaknesses. So Jesus was tempted by the Devil to go off on a completely different tangent in his ministry, one that would involve meeting his own needs rather than meeting the needs of others (4:2-4), gaining the kingdoms of the world by the easy route of devil worship rather than the hard route of the cross (4:5-8), and self-display rather than obedience to the Father (4:9-13).

So as today’s passage begins Jesus is returning from the desert:

14 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.

The desert encounter has had the opposite effect to the one that the temper wanted; rather than bring deflected from his mission, Jesus has been strengthened. He emerges from the desert, not as a defeated failure, but as a Spirit-filled teacher and preacher who is even more determined than he was to concentrate on God’s mission for him. In these two verses we learn:

  • Jesus ‘returned to Galilee’. His baptism took place in Judea, at the Jordan, and his temptations presumably happened in the wilderness south of Judea, but his mission will start in his home province of Galilee, where he has been known since he was a child. This will present him with some challenges, as we will see.
  • Jesus returned to Galilee, ‘filled with the power of the Spirit’. We remember again that Jesus was not Superman, able to do supernatural things because he came from somewhere else; the incarnation was real, he ‘emptied himself’ (Philippians 2:5-11), and so was entirely dependant on the power of the Holy Spirit to enable him to do the things God was calling him to do. In this, therefore, he is a good role model for us; we also need the Holy Spirit – we need to be ‘filled with the power of the Spirit’ – in order to be able to do what God wants. The Christian life is not difficult: the Christian life is impossible unless the Holy Spirit fills us, grows his fruit in us (Galatians 5:22-23), and equips us with his gifts (see 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, 27-31, Romans 12:3-8).
  • Nazareth was not the first stop on Jesus’ itinerary: ‘a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone’. The report would not have spread unless Jesus had already begun his mission, and in fact this is assumed later in the text, where Jesus says, “And you will say, ‘Do also here in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum’” (4:23). So to talk about the so-called ‘Nazareth Manifesto’ (18-19) as if it was the first sermon Jesus ever preached, and one in which he intentionally set out his goals for his ministry, is going beyond what the text actually says. Isaiah 61 ‘just happened’ to be the text for the day, and Jesus did not in fact preach on it or appeal to it as a template for his ministry. More about this below; suffice it to say that Jesus’ ministry had already begun (apparently in Capernaum), and the word about him had already spread widely before he came to Nazareth. Presumably this ‘report’ included not just his fame as a teacher, but also the miracles he performed (‘Do also here in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum’).

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. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”.

Luke is consistent with his own story, which sees Jesus as having been born in Bethlehem but brought up in Nazareth. Jesus is an observant Jew who goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath day to join in the worship of the people (‘as was his custom’). The synagogue service would have consisted mainly of readings from the Torah and of prayers. The elders of the synagogue were responsible for ensuring that there was someone to teach the people from the scriptures; presumably Jesus had already gained a reputation as a good teacher, so they invited him to read and teach. The custom was for the reader to stand to read the scriptures and then to sit down to teach, a good distinction between the authority of the scripture and the lesser authority of the speaker, perhaps!

Jesus does not select his own text; he is given the Isaiah scroll to read from. This is one of the passages about the servant of the Lord from the second part of Isaiah. The original context was the situation of Judea after the return from the Babylonian captivity; we know from Ezra and Nehemiah that there was much poverty in the land, that rich people were exploiting the poor and throwing them into prison, and no doubt many were being ‘oppressed’. The original text is highly social and political: the Lord Yahweh has anointed his prophet with the Holy Spirit to proclaim good news to his people: the good news that the poor are going to be raised up, the captives set free, the blind given their sight, and the oppressed delivered, and that ‘the year of Yahweh’s favour’ is at hand. This may have meant the Jubilee year, the 50th year when all debts were to be forgiven and all slaves set free.

Jesus reads the text (he may well have read far more than is quoted here; Luke has just given us the main verses), and then sits down. The sermon he preaches is lost to us; Luke doesn’t tell us what he said beyond the one sentence of fulfillment: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”. We know that there was more to the sermon than that, both because of the formula Luke uses (‘Then he began to say to them…’), and also from the following verse (‘All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth’). It is obvious that the sermon did not immediately offend them; they were mightily impressed.

To us, however, it seems strange that Jesus would say that his ministry had fulfilled this text. Jesus did not start an economic revolution to tax the rich and help the poor; he didn’t raise up an army to attack the prisons and set the oppressed free, and he had no executive authority to enforce the year of Jubilee. Almost the only things he did that are obviously connected to this text are to proclaim good news to the poor and to give sight to the blind. But the good news he proclaimed to the poor was not ‘your poverty is over’ but ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God’ (Luke 6:20) (along with ‘Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation’ – 6:24). Granted, he set up a community in which distinctions between rich and poor, powerful and oppressed, were meant to be erased. But a person listening to Jesus in the synagogue that day might have been forgiven for expecting something much more like the Davidic and Maccabean model of messiah (‘the anointed one’).

To us today the power in this manifesto is its refusal to accept a purely spiritual Gospel. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is both ‘spiritual’ and ‘material’. Jesus proclaims release to those who are unjustly imprisoned as well as release to those who are imprisoned by fear and guilt. He heals the blind and also brings spiritual sight to those who cannot see spiritual reality (see John 9). And he not only announces a Jubilee in which God forgives the debt we owe to him, but also clearly expects us to forgive one another as well (see Matthew 6:9-15).

It is tempting to speculate about what the rest of the sermon may have been about. One thing we should not assume is that it would have been easy to understand! Jesus’ recorded sermons often left people scratching their heads in confusion; this one may well have been the same.

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.

The sermon started well, but it didn’t end well. At first the people were impressed by what they heard: ‘All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth’. Perhaps they felt a bit of pride: ‘This is a local boy, and he’s made good; he’s one of us!’ But things quickly changed.

First, they were offended by the way he put himself at the centre of the scripture passage. This was not the way the scriptures were to be interpreted. He said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (v.21). Their response was, in effect, “Who do you think you are?” ‘They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ (v. 22). Mark 6:1-6 gives us a slightly different slant on the story, omitting the scripture and the sermon entirely, but going into more detail about the negative reaction of the crowd:

He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him. 2On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! 3Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him. 4Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ 5And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. 6And he was amazed at their unbelief.

So they took offence at Jesus because he was getting ideas about himself above his station. He wasn’t even a real rabbi; he hadn’t been trained in the recognized rabbinical process. He was a carpenter, a construction worker, and they all knew his family. Mark stresses that it was the fact of his teaching that offended them, whereas Luke adds the complimentary detail that they were especially incensed by the way he put himself at the centre of the prophet’s message: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”.

I note that today Christianity will continue to give offence precisely at this point. Judaism has expounded this passage for millennia without bringing Jesus into it. Christianity teaches that Jesus was the point of the whole story from day one. God always had a plan to heal the world, and Jesus was the goal the plan was moving toward. The world around us is much happier with a Jesus who is peripheral to God’s plan, so that we can be more ‘inclusive’ of other religious leaders and teachers. But New Testament Christianity has always proclaimed that Jesus Christ is Lord of all (Acts 10:36). It is often said that Jesus put the kingdom of God at the centre of his message, but the church later changed it and put the person of Jesus at the centre. This is a false misreading of Jesus’ preaching: true, he did put the Kingdom of God at the centre of his message, but he also clearly saw himself as the anointed king who was the centre of that Kingdom. This caused offence then and it will cause offence now.

Secondly, they were offended because he refused to show favouritism. Verses 23-30 seem to assume that there has been some criticism of the fact that they haven’t yet seen a miracle. “Come on, Jesus – you did some amazing things in Capernaum! Why can’t you show us the same signs and wonders? After all, we’re your own people! You should give us a better show than you did over there in Capernaum!” (Interestingly, in his version of the story Mark adds the crucial detail that it was their own lack of faith that made it impossible for Jesus to do miracles in Nazareth, beyond a few healings. Deep down inside, they didn’t think he was anyone special, and so they found it hard to see him as a channel of the power of God into their lives).

But Jesus takes the issue further: he makes it an illustration of the fact that God isn’t just concerned for ‘people like us’, but wants to reach beyond the boundaries to our neighbours and even to our enemies. He reminds the congregation of two incidents in Jewish history.

The first takes place in 1 Kings 17. Elijah the prophet lived at the time of the evil King Ahab and his Sidonian queen, Jezebel, who led the people astray into the worship of Baal. In response, God proclaimed through Elijah that there would be a drought, and it lasted for three years. In this story, Jezebel is clearly the enemy, the tempter of Israel, and Ahab is her accomplice. But Jesus points out that this does not mean that God does not have mercy on the Sidonians. Elijah, in fact, went to live with a widow of Zarephath in Sidon, and while he was with her, God supernaturally provided them with food. Jesus makes the point that Elijah could have hidden with any one of a thousand Israelite widows, but God took him to an outsider instead.

The second story is the story of the healing of Naaman the leper in 2 Kings 5. This is an even more striking story, because Naaman is a Syrian general, the commander of an army which has often made war on Israel and oppressed its people. And yet, through the prophet Elisha, God chooses to reach out and bless this enemy of Israel and heal him from his leprosy.

We can see a cumulative effect here: first of all they were offended by the fact that he was so egocentric in the way he approached their most sacred texts (‘This passage is really all about me, you know!’). But they were even more enraged when he refused to confirm their hatred for the outsider, the Gentile, the oppressor of Israel. They needed a Messiah who would lead them in battle against the Romans, not a Messiah who would be soft on the enemy.

I note that this continues to be a challenge to Christians today. People want a chaplain who will pray for the troops as they go into battle, give them communion on the battlefield, and tell them that in fighting the enemy they are doing God’s work, because their cause is just and the enemy’s is not. They do not want a Jesus who is telling them to love their enemies, to turn the other cheek, and to imitate their heavenly Father who sends his rain and sun on good and bad alike. In this, now as then, the real biblical Jesus continues to offend his people.

They are so offended, in fact, that they become a lynch mob:

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.

This was obviously intended to be a stoning. At a stoning, the crowd took the victim, threw him off a cliff, and then hurled rocks down at his broken body to make sure he was dead. But something happened here; Luke obviously intends us to see it as something supernatural: ‘But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way’. Somehow God protected him, because, as John would have said, his hour had not yet come.

That’s it for now; time to check my favourite commentaries.

About Tim Chesterton

Family man, pastor, storyteller, musician, songwriter. E-mail me at timchesterton at outlook dot com
This entry was posted in Bible, Gospel, Sermon preparation. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Luke 4:21-30: Preliminary Thoughts

  1. Keith Emerson says:

    Thanks for your thoughts and insights. As I read your blog I thought about the contrast (or perhaps lack of contrast) between this gathering and the one Paul addresses in I Corinthians 13. Far from being a text on marriage, Paul provides a code of conduct for a conflicted faith community. Keith Emerson

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