Jubilee! SALT’s Lectionary Commentary for Epiphany Week Three

 
Lectionary Commentary Epiphany Week 3

Epiphany 3 (Year C): Luke 4:14-21

Big Picture:

1) As you know, this year we’re walking through the Gospel of Luke (with occasional cameos by John and Matthew), and this week’s reading is the first of six chronologically sequenced passages from Luke, spanning chapters 4 - 9.  It’s the first part of a two-part story (Part Two is next week!), and like the passage from John last week, it’s an account of how Jesus’ public ministry begins.

2) As Luke tells it, it’s been quite an up-and-down ride already.  Newly baptized, Jesus is singled out by the Holy Spirit appearing as a dove, and a heavenly voice calls Jesus “my child, the beloved” (things are looking up!).  The Holy Spirit then promptly leads Jesus into the desert for 40 days of fasting and temptation by the devil (whoops - not looking so good!). Jesus successfully wards off the devil’s ploys, has some breakfast, and then begins a teaching tour in synagogues all over greater Galilee, to rave reviews (whew - looking better again!).  And now, returning to his hometown of Nazareth, he’s about to be warmly received - and then violently rejected (tune in next week!). This turbulent back-and-forth is central to Luke’s vision of the Gospel: it’s received as good news by many (especially supposed outsiders), and as bad news, even infuriating news, by others (especially supposed insiders).

3) The idea of scripture being “fulfilled” in and through contemporary events was a powerful, widespread notion in Jesus’ day.  It wasn’t merely that ancient scriptures were understood to foreshadow the future; it was also that the meaning of present events was understood to be illuminated by how they embodied paradigmatic events described in scripture.  In this way, the present and the past elucidated each other. The underlying premise of this way of thinking is that God typically works through signature poetic patterns; if that’s true, our ancestors reasoned, then scripture and salvation history will rhyme.  Ancient motifs will resonate in current events, and important current events will “fulfill” or “fill out” ancient motifs. The prophets of old - such as Isaiah, who we hear from in this week’s passage - thought and spoke and acted in terms of these signature forms, and likewise, so did Jesus.  Think of the temptation in the desert, for example, the story immediately preceding this one in Luke: the dialogue between Jesus and the devil is largely carried out (on both sides!) through words and ideas from ancient scripture (“For it is written…”). Did the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering in the desert in some sense foreshadow Jesus’ 40 days in the desert?  Perhaps, but Luke’s emphasis is on the opposite dynamic: Jesus’ 40 days echo the Israelites’ 40 years, and accordingly, in his debate with the devil, Jesus repeatedly evokes that older story (Luke 4:4,12).  And not only evokes it - Jesus embodies its essential ideas and energies.  He reprises them, crystallizes them, incarnates them, “fulfills” them.  Jesus fills them out, like an arm sliding into a perfectly tailored sleeve, and this notion of “fulfillment” is crucial to this week’s passage.

Scripture:

1) Jesus is launching his public ministry.  After teaching in several synagogues around Galilee, he arrives in Nazareth, “where he had been brought up” (Luke 4:16).  As Luke tells the story, this is the first place we hear Jesus’ teaching - and so the scene functions as a kind of manifesto, an inaugural address at the outset of his work.  Indeed, apart from what he says to his parents as a twelve-year-old earlier in the story (Luke 2:49), these are the very first teachings we hear from Jesus in Luke’s Gospel.  And this makes it all the more striking that Luke chooses to begin with this episode - as opposed to, say, a scene in one of the earlier synagogues, where Jesus “was praised by everyone” (Luke 4:15).  As we’ll see next week, in the end, the hometown crowd rejects him with indignant rage.

2) Given the scroll of Isaiah, Jesus unrolls it to the place he has in mind, and reads a combination of Isaiah 61:1-2 and 58:6 - ending with the potent phrase, “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” a notion reminiscent of the Jubilee Year, a legendary time of restoration and liberty for all (Leviticus 25:8-12).

3) Then Jesus sits, the traditional posture of a teacher.  The passage he’s just read, he explains, shouldn’t be heard only as the words of Isaiah long ago and far away.  They should also be heard as Jesus’ own words here and now, applying to him directly, right before their eyes.  The Spirit of God is upon me, sitting here with you now; God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed.  For that Great Jubilee you’ve heard about, that long-awaited year of the Lord’s favor, has begun! Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing! (Luke 4:21).

Takeaways:

1) Like last week’s passage from the Gospel of John, this story is an opening answer to the question, What is Jesus’ mission all about? In short, for Luke, it’s about proclaiming the dawn of the Great Jubilee, a new era of liberation, restoration, and return.  Accordingly, this good news comes first of all not to the rich but to the poor, to the disadvantaged and downtrodden. In this “inaugural address” of his ministry, Jesus is crystal clear that the Gospel is above all about God “lifting up the lowly” - words we’ve heard ring out in song just three chapters ago in Luke’s story, and thus a theme Jesus no doubt first learned from his mother (Luke 1:46-55).

2) But the Jubilee ideal, please note, isn’t only for the benefit of the poor - it’s also for the health and wellbeing of society as a whole.  Everyone benefits when liberty and vision extend across the neighborhood; that’s the heart of “Jubilee.” And so following Jesus, as it turns out, isn’t about chasing down our own salvation; it’s about participating in God’s restoration of the most vulnerable, proclaiming good news to the poor, and helping to build a world worthy of that proclamation.  For Luke, this is how Jesus begins his public teaching - with a call to serve those who need it most. And how does he end it? “The greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:26-27).

3) Speaking of the end, just how easily Jesus’ message can be misunderstood by the crowds - even to the point of murderous fury! - will be our focus next week, as the rest of this inaugural story in Luke unfolds…

4) Finally, it’s not only Jesus who can participate in the “fulfillment” of scripture; as members of the Body of Christ, we, too, can “rhyme” with its paradigmatic forms and stories. It’s a powerful lens for looking at the world: how can our lives embody these ancient patterns, participating in God’s signature moves unfolding all around us? After all, “scripture” can also be understood as “script” in the dramatic sense of the term: written words on the page, waiting to be brought to life in our lives and work.