Jesus, with the power of the Spirit in him, returned to Galilee; and his reputation spread throughout the countryside. He taught in their synagogues and everyone glorified him. He came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and went into the synagogue on the Sabbath day as he usually did. He stood up to read, and they handed him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Unrolling the scroll he found the place where it is written: The spirit of the Lord is on me, for he has anointed me to bring the good news to the afflicted. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives, sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim a year of favour from the Lord. Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the assistant and sat down. And all eyes in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to speak to them, "This text is being fulfilled today even while you are listening."
With the power of the Spirit, Jesus taught in Galilean synagogues and then came to obscure and tiny Nazareth (see John 1:16) to worship as was his custom. There each Sabbath the community sang a psalm, recited the Shema (Deut. 6:4-5) and the 18 Benedictions, read from the Torah (Law) and then from the Prophets, heard a sermon on the meaning of the readings, received a blessing by the president and concluded with the priestly blessing of Nb 6:24-27.
We are not sure whether there was a cycle of readings in first century Palestine. If there was, then the scroll handed to Jesus would be open at Isaiah 61 with a marker at the verse to be read. If not, then Jesus chose the reading himself, unrolling the scroll almost to the end. He read Isaiah 61:1-2 replacing one phrase and leaving out much of the final verse. Maybe this was the version of the Aramaic Scriptures used in Galilee at the time; if not, then Jesus himself made the changes. And so the text quoted by Jesus (Luke 4:16-18) is woven from Isaiah 61:1-2 and Isaiah 58:6. Jesus omits those elements that might either spiritualize the text ("to heal the broken hearted") or threaten his audience ("to announce a day of vengeance"). He then sharpens the whole by inserting the phrase, "to let the oppressed go free." The text thus becomes clearly focused as glad tidings to the oppressed. Jesus is a sharply focused person.
In all probability "the afflicted", "the captives" and "the blind" refer to the same oppressed group, namely the poorest of the poor who are in prison due to debt. The term "poor" is not to be interpreted metaphorically. The poor are those who are economically and socially oppressed. Prisoners were blinded because underground prisons were bereft of sunlight. The poor are placed at the centre of the gospel because they are the least, the lowliest, the lost.
Jesus announces a "Jubilee", a forgiveness of debt. We recall Luke's version of the Lord's Prayer, "Forgive us our debts for we ourselves forgive each one who is in debt to us." (Luke 11:3). The biblical Jubilee was held each 50 years when fields lay fallow, families returned to their ancestral homelands, debts were cancelled and slaves set free. The Jubilee restored a rough equality between families and clans. The inevitable increase in inequality and injustice over the years must be levelled down each half-century. Faith in a sovereign God should be mirrored in the structures of social and economic life which, in turn, ought to echo the pattern of God's realm. The community could start afresh. Such Jubilee reflections have been uncovered at Qumran, site of a first century Jewish movement. In Qumran the text used by Jesus from Isaiah 61 was linked to the Jubilee texts of Leviticus 25:10-13 and Deuteronomy 15:2.
Jesus slipped in the phrase "let the oppressed go free" from Isaiah 58:6. In Hebrew the oppressed are the "downtrodden", those broken in pieces, the oppressed in spirit. In India today they are known as the Dalits - the "broken ones".
By quoting Isaiah, Jesus claims that he is both a messianic prophet of the sort that Samaria awaited, and a messianic king of the kind that Judea expected, one capable of setting in motion the wondrous events envisioned by Isaiah.
This word of Jesus is proclaimed "in the power of the Spirit". This is Jesus' inaugural sermon when he outlines the programme for his whole life and ministry. This "charter sermon" encapsulates the gospel in miniature. This is what Jesus is about. Here we find the direction and scope of his mission that will find its fulfilment in death and resurrection. This first sermon declares Jesus' preference for the afflicted, the captives, the blind and the oppressed. At the opening of his public ministry Jesus is presented as the one who has a clear, personal preference for a certain group who can place its hope in him because the acceptable time of favour has come for all the forgotten people. This is the key in understanding the rest of the gospel.
The text presents Jesus as a "teacher" (Luke 4:5). This is a pervasive theme in Luke where Jesus is called "teacher" some thirteen times. The teacher's way is normative for his disciples.
Jesus' mission is addressed to all nations (Luke 4:25-27); he shares neither the small-mindedness nor the niggardly vision of his Nazareth congregation. Jesus stands outside their pettiness. He does not share their clannish idea of salvation, their mean image of God or their suspicious view of each other.
Jesus' concern is a universal concern for the underprivileged and the outcast, a statement of commitment to social justice and reform, fostering outreach to all in peace. This is spelt out in more detail in the "Sermon on the Plain" (Luke 6:20-49).
Today this Scripture is being fulfilled (Luke 4:21). "Today" - the fulfilment is already present.
The congregation reacts in a variety of ways: with enthusiasm (Luke 4:15), admiration (Luke 4:22), doubt (Luke 4:23), small-mindedness (Luke 4:23) and, finally, with anger (Luke 4:28).
Personal/group reflection and study
Prayerful reflection in three steps
- Read through the passage slowly. Remain silent for a while until a particular word or phrase stands out. In a group each person is given an opportunity to say aloud the word or phrase that is most striking to the reader. More than one person may have chosen the same phrase.
- Read through the passage slowly again. Remain silent for awhile, and then each person who wishes may briefly mention why that particular word or phrase is striking. No long sermon, just a simple sharing.
- Read through the passage slowly once more. Remain silent for awhile, and then each person who wishes may turn the phrase they have chosen into a short prayer.
Study in context
One or more of the following themes may be shared/studied.
Who are the poorest of the poor, the least, the lowliest, the lost?
Do we listen to them?
How do we acknowledge them, accept them, embrace them, stand at their side?
How do we place the poor at the centre of the gospel of liberty, at the heart of our Christian community life and worship, as the recipients of the Lord's year of favour? Do we see the poor more as objects of our concern or as witnesses of the Lord's Jubilee?
Share information on the slavery of debt today - both those in debt in your neighbourhood and overseas. What have we been doing to free the poor of crippling debt - charity, awareness-building, advocacy, simplifying lifestyle?
Having shared information and activity to date, reread Luke 4:14-21. What new insights do we gain?
You have been handed the scroll of the scriptures. You wish to read a short passage that sums up who you are, what values your life is witness to, what (whom) you live and are ready to die for. You wish to speak simply, sincerely, without any pretensions. What passage do you choose, and why?
What are the honest reactions of the other members of the group?