We are studying Luke 4:14-22, Jesus’s Torah commentary in the synagogue in Nazareth, for Sunday, January 3. Our designated verses stop short of Luke’s record of the controversy Jesus’s appearance in Nazareth generates; if we want to look at that, too, we’ll need to read through the end of the chapter. [Some questions on the text are here.] Here are a few notes on this text:
BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We have moved out of Matthew’s gospel, where we’ve been for the past four weeks, and into Luke’s gospel. Luke seems to address himself to a different first century audience from Matthew, an audience mainly made up of Gentiles, and to place special emphasis on the activity of the Holy Spirit. Both of these characteristic features show up in this week’s text.
The text deals with some of the earliest material in Jesus’s public ministry. Narratively, it follows Luke’s introductory section (the background in chapter one on the conception and birth of John the Baptist, and the annunciation to Mary, and the stories of Jesus’s nativity, infancy and youth in chapter two), and his account of the ministry of John the Baptist, of Jesus’s baptism, and of Jesus’s trials in the wilderness immediately thereafter. This makes it part of the earliest picture we get of the adult Jesus, though not our very first impression of him.
As yet, Jesus has no disciples that we know of. He will call Simon, James and John in the next chapter, after his first acts of healing in this one.
Everything else – the rest of Jesus’s ministry, his journey to Jerusalem, his tragic death, and his astonishing resurrection, follows. At this point in Luke’s “orderly account” all of that is yet to come, although Luke addresses his reader, “Theophilus,” as someone who already knows this story.
The setting is the synagogue in Nazareth. Synagogues in Jesus’s time (first century CE) would have been different from those in our day in some ways, but similar in others. Chad Spigel has a brief article on first century synagogues at Bible Odyssey that suggests they would have been as much community centers as places of worship. From the description of the text, it sounds like Jesus would have been reading the haftarah – a reading from the prophets that followed readings from the Torah – which other sources suggest was already an established synagogue practice by Jesus’s time. In those days, it seems, the selection of the specific text was up to the reader, unlike today, when the haftarah readings are on a fixed schedule.
This text is the lectionary’s gospel reading for the Third Sunday after Epiphany, with the rest of the chapter the gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany, every third year, so churchgoers will probably have heard it read and preached on more than once.
CLOSER READING: Jesus returns to Galilee, empowered by the Holy Spirit. His preaching tour of Galilee is a solo affair at this point. Nazareth seems not to be his first stop.
The Greek word translated “report” in verse 14 is related to our word “fame,” while the word “praised” is more literally “glorified.” – an extravagant response.
In verse 15, Jesus teaches in “their” synagogues, implying that Luke’s readers are not them. That could simply mean that Luke’s readers are not Galileans. More likely it means they’re not Jewish.
The description of the actions that take place in the synagogue is very detailed, which draws out the episode, increases the suspense, and may give us the sense that Jesus is participating in a practiced ritual.
The text of Luke 4:18-19 is not quite identical to any text we know of Isaiah 61:1-2 – that is, neither “the Hebrew text” we suppose might have been in use in a first century synagogue, nor the Septuagint’s Greek text, and it incorporates a phrase from Isaiah 58:6 (“to let the oppressed go free” – literally, “to send out the crushed in freedom”). This non-identity has been the subject of a good deal of discussion, from various hermeneutical angles. The clearest notes I found on it were here. The point made there about the repetition of the verb “send” seems vital to me: in this text, Jesus is sent, and then the oppressed are to be sent out, in freedom. That word for “send” is the word that gives us our word “apostle,” someone who is “sent.”
I am not one of those readers who frets much about whether Luke is actually, accurately, quoting Jesus here, as if someone had been taping that sermon in Nazareth. I am instead one of those readers who thinks Luke is trying to tell the truth by making literature. That means I get to appreciate the things that Luke, the author, is doing by using these specific lines from Isaiah here: re-contextualizing Old Testament prophecy to explain Jesus’s mission, to establish Jesus’s messianic credentials, and to display the phenomenon of apostle-ship as profoundly traditional, and as an extension of Jesus’s own mission.
Luke is making a statement here, a significant one. The statement will serve as an organizing theme of the whole work of Luke-Acts: Jesus was sent by God in the power of the Spirit to free his people, and sends His church into the world in the power of the Spirit to complete that work.
Making finely-crafted, theologically meaningful statements like that seems to me to be what we mean by “inspiration.”
There may be some play on the contrasting senses of sight and hearing in the next verses. When Jesus sits down, all eyes in the synagogue are on him; but he tells the audience that the scripture has been fulfilled in their hearing, and his message hinges on proclamation, on what people need to hear, rather than on what people need or want to see.
As it is, Jesus will not show them anything – except that they could use some recovery of sight themselves, since he will “pass through the midst” of the crowd that’s trying to throw him off the edge of a cliff as if they are blind, and go on his way.
Why they are so angry with him in the first place is something to wonder about. Maybe it is because he points out that prophets don’t necessarily do miracles for their homies; maybe it’s because he points out that prophets – and by implication, God – actually rescue foreigners. Maybe they think “Joseph’s son” has gotten a little too big for his britches. Maybe it’s a combination of all of that. Whatever the reason, we get an early glimpse here of what it means for Jesus to be a sign that will be opposed (see Luke 2:34).