Epiphany 3: 24 January Luke 4:14-21
These are the opening verses of Luke’s account of Jesus’ ministry. Gospel writers gave careful thought to how they began their accounts. Mark begins with the summary proclamation of the nearness of the kingdom, followed by the exorcism in the synagogue and people’s astonishment at Jesus’ new authority (1:14-15,21-28). Matthew begins with a massive rearrangement of Mark’s and Q’s material to produce two panels: the sermon on the mount in chapters 5-7 and the sample of Jesus’ deeds in Matthew 8-9, framed on either side by 4:23 and 9:35. Luke reaches down into Mark’s order and finds Mark 6:1-6, Jesus’ visit to his home synagogue. He transfers it up to make it the opening scene, expanding it with other traditions and extending it beyond our passage to 4:30. The result is remarkable. This week we look at only the beginning.
Notice that Luke also begins with a summary statement, 4:14-15, before he gives us the first story. References to the Spirit are coming thick and fast (already 3:22; 4:1 (twice)). We are about to have another, in the citation from Isaiah 61:1 in 4:18. The Spirit centredness of Jesus’ ministry prefigures the Spirit centredness of the early Church in Acts. 4:15 might lead us to expect continuing popularity, but 4:16-21 will tell us otherwise.
Jesus is doing a very normal and appropriate thing for a Jew of his time: gathering with others on the sabbath. People with sufficient education to read (wish we knew more about it!) could be asked to do so. Jesus takes the Isaiah scroll and reads from Isaiah 61. This is also fairly normal. But at this point the drama begins. Luke suggests that Jesus deliberately sought out the Isaiah passage. Jesus is portrayed as reading it in application to himself. 4:21 confirms this.
The citation from Isaiah 61:1-2 is a little unusual. It includes a snippet from Isaiah 58:6, ‘to let the oppressed go free.’ Somewhere in telling the story, possibly in Luke’s telling it, but more probably in an earlier citation of the Isaiah 61 passage, someone has run the two texts together because of their related themes. We have no evidence that a version of Isaiah containing such a mixture ever existed. This means we need to focus on how the citation is functioning in the story rather than imagining we have a strictly historical report here.
The citation also stops half way through Isaiah 61:2 and so does not include; ‘the day of vengeance of our God’, nor ‘to comfort all who mourn’. Was Luke seeking to portray only the positive side and so avoiding ‘vengeance’ - or leaving that to John the Baptist? Perhaps. ‘To comfort all who mourn’ reminds us of ‘Blessed are those who mourn’, the form that Matthew’s version of the beatitudes takes. But already ‘to announce good news to the poor’ recalls the beatitude: ‘Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God’, which Luke brings in 6:20.
Isaiah 61:1 is a very important text which Jesus may well have used to interpret his ministry. Certainly it became established very early as a favourite source of interpreting him and his ministry. It is closely related to another: Isaiah 52:7, ‘How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who proclaims the message of peace, who proclaims good news of salvation, saying to Zion, "Your God reigns".’ Isaiah 61:1 uses similar terms: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.’ These texts, already linked in Jewish expectations, as reflected in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls, may have been the inspiration for the almost technical use of ‘proclaim/preach good news’ in early Christianity which gives us the word, ‘gospel, good news’, ‘euangelion’. From Isaiah 52:7 we also see a link between ‘the kingdom of God’, God’s reign, and the good news. In addition Isaiah 61:1 has the Spirit, the anointing and ‘the poor’. These are all key pieces which belong at the heart of the gospel message.
Luke draws on these traditions in portraying Jesus as the bringer of good news, gospel. He shows Jesus bringing it to ‘the poor’, who are described in the rest of citation in ways that define further who they are: they are captive, downtrodden, oppressed, blind. When John the Baptist checks whether Jesus really was the one whom he predicted, Jesus replies using similar language in Luke 7:22. There we find a wider range of allusions to Isaiah: ‘the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, dead are raised to life, poor have good news announced to them’ (29:18; 35:5,6; 42:18 and the final segment alludes again to 61:1). As already noted, ‘the poor’ are promised the blessing of the coming reign of God in 6:20, along with those who weep and are hungry.
Luke is not introducing these ideas here for the first time. As we have seen in the infancy narratives, Luke begins his gospel with the freedom songs and sighs of God’s faithful people. They are oppressed by the ‘world system’ and look for liberation and true peace. They are the poor, the lowly, the hungry who wait to be lifted up. They are more than economically poor. They await the coming of the promised anointed one, the messiah. In 4:16-21 Luke is depicting Jesus as announcing that he is the one to bring such liberation (just as the angels had announced to the shepherds). Liberation is here. This is the work of the Spirit. This is the meaning of Jesus’ messiahship. He has been anointed (echrisen) by the Spirit - Luke told us at his baptism. He will go on to proclaim the coming of God’s reign, the gospel of the kingdom.
What were originally were the words of a prophet announcing Israel’s liberation from exile in Babylon in the late 6th century become a self description of Jesus’ role and calling, and, by extension a role description, a ‘mission statement’, for the Church. Notice how that connects us both to Jesus and to Israel.
The connection is not easy. Luke begins within the world of the Jewish poor in Palestine. He knows that that is the true setting of Jesus’ ministry. It should not be spiritualised away, because that not only betrays history, it also betrays the lasting relevance of Jesus’ good news by detaching it from being real good news for the real poor in every age. Luke also knows that this good news and these aspirations are bigger than Israel. The next 10 verses will already underscore that.
Luke is about to tell a story about liberation which knows no ethnic bounds. He is handling more than he can imagine. His version of the expansion entails journeys only half way across south eastern Europe. He bequeaths us only sample stories of Jesus’ deeds in Galilee and Judea. But at least he sets us off on the right foot. The agenda is set; the model is established; the energy source is identified. Now we need to change Jesus’ (and Isaiah 61’s) ‘me’ to ‘us’. We need expand ‘poor’ to include all who are oppressed. Luke necessarily turns the focus here to individuals who need freedom and salvation because such was the focus of many anecdotes about Jesus and this remains valid and real for all of us, but the broader vision is not lost, including Israel’s restoration (see Acts 1:5). Such good news, such peace, such liberating work of the Spirit, remains the core activity of the Christ (anointed) community.