Nehemiah 8.1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19; 1 Corinthians 12.12-31a; Luke 4.14-21
Almighty God, whose Son revealed in signs and miracles the wonder of your saving presence: renew your people with your heavenly grace, and in all our weakness sustain us by your mighty power; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
THE Gospel readings for the next two Sundays form two parts of a single episode. That is not unusual in itself: what is noteworthy is the dramatic swerve in direction in a narrative that appears to be turning out very positively. More of that swerve next week.
For the present, we are concerned with the setting that Luke chooses for the public launch of Jesus’s ministry. The day he went to the synagogue in Nazareth was not the first time he had taught in a synagogue (Luke 4.15). But it was the sabbath, and an observant Jew would have made a point of being present in the assembly.
After this, things become less clear. The ruler of the synagogue appointed readers from among the educated men present, and guests were often invited to read. Since Luke emphasises that Jesus had been brought up in Nazareth (Luke 4.16), it would have been odd for him to be treated as a guest. Later on, his fellow worshippers remark that he is Joseph’s son (Luke 4.22).
Synagogue worship included readings from the Law and the Prophets, probably according to a lectionary. Either the passage that Jesus read was the one appointed, or he asked particularly for the scroll of Isaiah, and found the verses he wanted the people to hear (see C. F. Evans, Saint Luke, SCM, 1990).
Luke does not say whether Jesus expounded the text. He appears to have done something more arresting: rolling up the scroll, giving it back to the assistant and sitting down, as if the very reading of Isaiah’s words in his voice was an explanation in itself. Then, conscious that every eye was fixed expectantly on him, he spoke (Luke 4.20).
This is a very different description of public reading and exposition of the scriptures from the scene recorded in Nehemiah 8. There, the returning exiles assemble in Jerusalem to hear the law being read and interpreted (Nehemiah 8.8). It is a holy day, and, for that reason, the people are to rejoice, and not to weep, when they learn what the law means for them.
Jesus announces the fulfilment of prophecy, and the inauguration of a new way of living (Luke 4.21). He points beyond this sabbath to the Sabbath of Sabbaths, the Jubilee year (Leviticus 25.10-13).
Commentators observe that Isaiah’s vision of healing and liberation, sharpened in emphasis because Luke quotes from the Septuagint, and not from the Hebrew, has obviously not been fulfilled, making Jesus’s declaration baffling to his hearers. At the same time, Luke could have had no interest in undermining Jesus as a reliable speaker. There must be other clues to indicate his purpose.
Twice in the first part of chapter 4, we are told that Jesus was “full of the Holy Spirit” (Luke 4.1, 14), which was the gift of his baptism (Luke 3.21-22). He has also recently refused the worldly glories offered by the devil in exchange for acknowledgement and worship (Luke 4.5-11). In choosing the true worship of God, he allows God, in the Spirit, to speak through him, just as, later on, characters in Acts would speak under the Spirit’s influence (e.g. Acts 2.1-4, 14-36; 6.8-7.60; 8.29-30; 13.52). What further interpretation is needed?
And yet Jesus is not exactly like these examples. He is creating a new community of interpretation in this decisive moment in his home town. The challenges of the passage he has put to the members of the synagogue are before their time, and the understandable reaction that will form next Sunday’s Gospel reading makes this evident.
Luke is addressing another emerging community of interpretation: the earliest believers, who had seen the poor rejoice, the blind recover their sight, and release come to those imprisoned and oppressed by sin. They needed to make sense of these things, and of Jesus’s place as their author, in the light of what had been foretold by the prophets.
It is left to Paul to set out the way in which such communities share in the work of God as the body of Christ, of which teaching, prophecy, miracles, and the interpretation of tongues are important parts (1 Corinthians 27-30). But this is not the end of the work. There is a “still more excellent way”. That, too, belongs to next week.