By Ched Myers, on Luke 4:14-21, for the 3rd Sunday of Epiphany (originally posted Jan 24, 2016)
Note: This post was part of a series of Ched’s occasional comments on the Lukan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during year C, 2016.
The setting of this famous story is significant. The obscure village of Nazareth has already been well established in Luke’s narrative as the home place of Jesus’ childhood, from Gabriel’s annunciation (1:26) to the Holy Family’s comings and goings (2:4; 39; 51), to the phrase in this week’s lection “where Jesus had been brought up…” (4:16a).
Nazareth is not mentioned outside the New Testament; its political significance lay in its proximity to Sepphoris, the largest and most strategic polis in Galilee (also called Zippori), located about three miles to the northeast. Built in the first century BCE according to Greek city planning template, it was the capital of Lower Galilee, where Herod the Great built fortifications and a royal palace. But after an attack on the city by Judean nationalist rebels after Herod’s death in 4 BCE, Varus, the Roman legate of Syria, destroyed Sepphoris. Such traumatic events right at his doorstep would have made an impression on Jesus. Moreover, since both Jesus and his father labored as carpenters/construction workers (tekton) in Nazareth, a one hour walk away, it is likely they would have gotten work rebuilding Sepphoris, a project initiated by Herod Antipas, who called his new administrative center Diocaesarea. After all, oppressed people still today are often forced economically to build the infrastructure of their colonizers.
Michael Prior has written an entire book about this Sunday’s text, so rich is it (see Jesus the Liberator: Nazareth Liberation Theology, Luke 4:16-30; Sheffield, 1995). He points out that 4:16-20 is constructed as a chiasm:
A And he came to Nazareth…and went to the synagogue
B He stood up to read;
C there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah
D He opened the book and found the place…
E The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me
F to proclaim good news to the poor
G God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
H and recovery of sight to the blind
G’ to set at liberty those who are oppressed (from Is 58:6)
F’ to proclaim
E’ the acceptable year of the Lord (follows closely LXX)
D’ He closed the book,
C’ and gave it back to the attendant,
B’ and sat down;
A’ And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.
The dramatics of the scene are similarly chiastic:
A Jesus stands to read
B The scroll “of Prophet Isaiah” is given to him
C Jesus opens and finds the text
C’ Jesus closes the scroll
B’ gives it back
A’ and sits down.
All of this careful, deliberate and gestural choreography means to communicate high drama, in order to get the reader to pay close attention.
Jesus, a child of his culture, attends the gathering “as was his custom” (4:16b), and Luke gives a realistic depiction of a synagogue service. Was the Isaiah text the designated haftorah of the week’s lectionary, or was it Jesus’ choice? Either implication is possible. In any case, it is significant that Jesus’ drash focuses on this prophetic text, not Torah. After a pregnant pause, his ensuing sermon is surely history’s shortest! Yet it represents an archetypal example of the vocation of homiletics: choose a text, interpret it, and recontextualize its meaning!
It is worth noting Luke’s focus on the three senses of perception, each of which figure prominently in the rest of the gospel narrative:
- 4:18-20: “all eyes (Gk ophthalmos) were fixed on him.” Recovery of sight to the blind stands at the center of the chiasm above (though that phrase is not in the Hebrew of Isaiah 61). Eyes are mentioned in 2:30; 6:20, 41f; 10:23; 11:34; 16:23; 18:13; 19:42; and 24:16, 31, not to mention the multiple stories about perception and the blind seeing.
- 4:21: “Today scripture is fulfilled in your ears” (Gk ōsin humōn). See 1:44; 8:8; 9:44; 12:3; 14:35; and 22:50.
- 4:22: astonished at the words of grace from his mouth (Gk stoma; see Dt 8:3, alluded to in Lk 4:4: “One lives by every word that comes from the mouth of YHWH”). See also 1:64,70; 6:45; 11:54 (Gk apostomatizein); 19:22; 22:71; and 21:15.
As Jesus summarized in 10:23f: “Many prophets and kings desired to see what you are looking at, and did not see it; to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.”
Isaiah is cited some 590 times in New Testament, far more than any other Hebrew Bible text, and from 63 of the 66 chapters. The prophet appears 78 times in Luke alone. Clearly, this prophetic tradition was important for both Jesus and the early Christians. Luke’s citation follows the Septuagint text of Isaiah 61:1 closely, with the following exceptions: it omits the phrase “soothe the broken-hearted”; as noted, “sight to the blind” is not in Hebrew; “freeing the oppressed” is patched in from Isaiah 58:6; and most importantly, as is often noted, Third Isaiah’s invocation of the “day of vengeance” and theology of fortune reversal is left off of Jesus’ reading.
Originally Isaiah 61 offered comfort and vindication for returning exiles; in Jesus’ day, it was a popular text usually understood to refer to God’s blessing on Israel alone. There has been much debate about whether “acceptable year” refers to the Levitical Jubilee in Isaiah, a reading popularized by Andre Trocme and John Howard Yoder. Based upon how important wealth redistribution and social equity is in the rest of his narrative, Luke certainly seems to understand Jesus here as commending the Jubilee as an ethic and promise not only for Israel, but for all who embrace it, including the nation’s enemies (as Jesus’ “appendix” to the sermon will argue, as we’ll see next week).
Finally, the phrase “Today this scripture has been fulfilled” (Gk sēmeron, Lk 4:21) introduces an existential notion that recurs throughout Luke’s story (see 2:11; 5:26; 13:32f; 19:5,9; 23:43; and 24:21). In short, Jesus is here practicing the most dangerous hermeneutic of all: announcing his intent to embody the text in his own context, thus resuscitating the radical tradition. Such an approach will prove to be controversial in Luke’s story, and remains so today. Let every preacher or teacher of scripture take careful note!