Jesus presents the programme of his mission
in the community of Nazareth
Luke 1,1-4; 4,14-21
1. Opening prayer
Shaddai, God of the mountain,
You who make of our fragile life
the rock of your dwelling place,
lead our mind
to strike the rock of the desert,
so that water may gush to quench our thirst.
May the poverty of our feelings
cover us as with a mantle in the darkness of the night
and may it open our heart to hear the echo of silence
until the dawn,
wrapping us with the light of the new morning,
may bring us,
with the spent embers of the fire of the shepherds of the Absolute
who have kept vigil for us close to the divine Master,
the flavour of the holy memory.
a) The text:
1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, 2 just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, 3 it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 that you may know the truth concerning the things of which you have been informed.
14 And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee, and a report concerning him went out through all the surrounding country. 15 And he taught in their synagogues, being glorified by all.
16 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up; and he went to the synagogue, as his custom was, on the sabbath day. And he stood up to read; 17 and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah. He opened the book and found the place where it was written, 18 "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, 19 to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord." 20 And he closed the book, and gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 And he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."
A brief introductory summary presents Jesus’ activity and his person, and the scene of this Gospel (Lk 4:14-21) takes place in the synagogue in Nazareth on a Saturday. Jesus’ return to the place from where his fame had spread everywhere in the region of Galilee and to which the Spirit led his steps, has a special reason. In concise terms, Luke tries to give a salvific interpretation to the events by shedding light on the salient aspects. The fact of Jesus teaching in the synagogue signifies his Jewish origin and his wish to be part of the cult so as to emphasise the vital role of the law that God had entrusted to his people and to offer himself as fulfilment and hope of Israel.
To the question implied in the narrative: Is Jesus a prophet? the reply becomes clearer according to the criteria of discernment used by Israel to verify whether a prophet was sent by Yahweh or not: is his teaching in accordance with the teachings of the law, do his works correspond with God’s commandments, do his prophecies concerning the future come true. In Nazareth, Jesus presents himself as a prophet – in fact he compares himself to Elijah and Elisha – even though he does not define himself as such in keeping with his custom that avoids any attempt at defining himself.
c) A moment of silence:
Let us allow the voice of the Word to resonate within us.
a) Some questions:
- To research accurately every circumstance: are we always in a hurry during our day? Do we really wish to research accurately that which happens to us?
- He sent me to proclaim the good news to the poor: do I always think of the poor as the others while I belong to the haves and those who know, and that consequently I do not need anyone?
- Today this scripture has been fulfilled: what Scripture do we know so well as to recognise it as incarnation in our day?
b) A key to the reading:
A historical contextualisation
The passage of the synagogue of Nazareth is part of programmed angle that later will form the key to the reading of what follows in Luke’s Gospel. The reference to the prophet Isaiah is basic because therein is revealed the continuity of the human history of God. Jesus’ gestures, placed in parallel, “He stood and opened the scroll” (v.17), “he closed the scroll and sat down” (v.20), give the narrative a liturgical character that is customary yet new.
The newness occurs in the homily that renders the prophecy present. Today, a key word in Luke, expresses the fulfilment in Christ of God’s purpose. The immediate reactions to this today are of surprise and unbelief, of wonder and scandal even to rejection already found in the question that follows Jesus’ proclamation, a question hanging in the air without an answer: “Is not this the son of Joseph?” (v. 22). The contrast with the Word proclaimed of a man who is invested by the spirit of the Lord, consecrated by an anointing, sent on a special mission of messianic flavour: to bring the good news, to forgive, to proclaim…creates a conflict of identity.
A literary contextualisation
This passage does not have precise parallels in the synoptic Gospels. Jesus’ visit to Nazareth in Matthew 13:53-58 and in Mark 6:1-6a is limited to a question concerning Jesus’ origin and his rejection. There is no description of the rite in the synagogue nor is there a record of the words Jesus pronounced and of the interpretation of the present fulfilment of the sacred Word. The only concordance, apart from the diversity of the contexts, is in the rejection of Jesus by the Nazarenes.
Through Jesus’ discourse in Nazareth, Luke wants to introduce and shed light on the whole public mystery of Jesus. Isaiah 61:1-2 contains a synthesis of the great themes that characterise Luke’s Gospel and those most dear to him: the Holy Spirit, the messianic anointing, the eschatological liberation, the messianic joy, the divine intervention in favour of the poor and oppressed, the proclamation of the year of grace. The programme inaugurated in Mark with the proclamation: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe in the gospel” (Mk 1:14-15) and in Matthew in the discourse on the mountain (Mt 5: 1-48), appears in Luke at the centre of the Jewish cult: that which is fulfilled is not the time but the Scripture. The reader is invited to see the necessity of “walking” with Christ and to imitate him on the way of conformity to the will of the Father. Jerusalem, the end of a long journey (Lk 9:51-18,14) that leads Jesus towards the decisive moment of his life, is also the final point of his earthly mission (Lk 24) and the beginning of the life of the newborn Church (Acts 1-2).
In this passage, we can see a slight literary unity. The editorial intervention of Luke that begins from traditional data, follows its own purpose. The unitary design of both parts shows internal clarity and accurate external delimitation. For Luke the two fields of questioning are inseparable: Who is Jesus? and To whom is his work addressed? The relationship between word and action is very strong, dramatic action of a proclamation that takes place in life. This passage wants to introduce the public mystery of Jesus, almost enabling him to act on the confines of his belonging to Israel. The Spirit abundantly given to Jesus: at his birth (1:35), at his baptism (3:22), during the temptations (4:1) at the beginning of his mission (4:14) is the Spirit mentioned in Isaiah (v.18) who makes God’s action explicit. An action without ethnic limits and that does not seek notoriety, but that is in favour of those in need of salvation: the poor, prisoners, the blind, the oppressed, and to begin the time of grace of the Lord. The prophet sent by God is free from all limiting and binding pretence. We pass from a cult of the synagogue that is not capable of welcoming the ancient Word fulfilled in the today, to a cult of following on the roads of the world. Jesus goes off, he follows his way that from Jerusalem will lead him to the ends of the earth through his followers
Detailed analysis of the text
A detailed analysis of the verses of this passage will reveal important peculiarities, which, within a historical framework, give in the scene of the synagogue a synthesis of the Gospel as to content and events.
v.16: It seems that the synagogue was a place frequented by Jesus. It is here that since his early adulthood he has heard the Word of God and has interpreted it according to the living tradition of the people. It is significant that Jesus seeks out the centres of cult. Every adult Jew could read the word, generally the leaders of the synagogue entrusted this task to those who were experts in Scripture. The fact that Jesus gets up to read shows that it was customary for him to do so as it was customary for him to attend the synagogue. The words: “as his custom was” lends great force to the verse almost as though the one who reads and speaks is not just anyone, but a son of Israel expert in the reading and interpretation of the Torah and the Prophets. Christian faith then is born from faithful representatives of the people of Israel whose time of waiting has come to fulfilment. All the main characters in Luke are authentic Israelites: Zachary, Elisabeth and John, Mary, Joseph and Jesus, the apostles and later in Acts, Paul. This is “a custom” that carries with it something new. The synagogue is the place from where the proclamation begins and spreads to the cities of Judah and Galilee, and the whole of Israel even to the ends of the earth.
vv. 17-19: Jesus finds the passage in Isaiah 61:1-2 which probably refers to the consecration of a prophet (cfr 1 Kg 19:16). Luke leaves out from the citation from Isaiah the menacing end because it is of no interest to his purpose: he emphasises that Jesus’ teaching has its roots in Scripture (17-19; 25-27) and makes it present in his own Person. The words of Isaiah on his lips acquire their full meaning and summarise his mission (cfr 4:1), full of the Spirit, anointed by the Lord, sent to proclaim the good news to the poor, freedom to prisoners and those oppressed, sight to the blind and to preach the time of grace of the Lord.
v. 20: The detailed description of the gestures foreshadows what is to come. Jesus speaks while sitting, the typical position of one who teaches. The eyes of the people turned towards him prepare us for the importance of what he is about to say. His is a short but disturbing homily. The movements show the character of this passage from Luke. Jesus came, he went in, he stood up, he sat down, he passed among them, he went away. The Nazarenes too rise but it is to throw him out. The contrast is clear. Jesus stands up to read, the men stand up to send him away. The waiting described in this verse: “The eyes of all in the synagogue were gazing on him” degenerates into a rejection. The problem is not the proclamation, already well known and source of hope for devout Israelites, but the one who proclaims it and makes it his own.
v. 21: Jesus does not pass any comments on the words of Isaiah, but he makes them present. His is a word event - rhêma - (Acts 10:37), a word that is salvation now. The prophecy comes alive and is taking place. Jesus’ interpretation goes beyond every expectation. In the Word, the today is present, the today that is typical of the Evangelist and that is the today of salvation, the today of the fulfilment that comes from listening (cfr Rom 10,17). What is essential for Luke is listening. The realisation of the ancient promises repeated in the whole of Luke’s works (Lk 9:51; Acts 2:1; 19:21) is for those who listen: the anawim, the poor, the oppressed, those favoured of Jhwh (Is 11:4; 29:19) and now those favoured of Jesus (Mt 11:28).
The exegesis made by Jesus himself on Isaiah 61 is an example of actualisation that reveals the messianic present and recourse to passages of Scripture to shed light on the present situation. Christ’s is a creative authority that demands of people to adapt their lives to the message, accepting the Anointed of God and renouncing the presumption of reducing him to their dimension. This pragmatic perspective is the key to actualisation in every age: the today of salvation echoes wherever there is preaching, so also the welcoming and the commitment.
In the synagogue of Nazareth, we find the fundamental answers of human beings who live in expectation of meeting with salvation. Jesus is sent by God and is sustained by the Spirit. The anointing says that his is the Christ. In him Scripture is fulfilled. He is the today of God who fulfils past history now come to maturation in Jesus and will turn into the daily today of tomorrow that is the time of the Church, it too sent as prophetic Word, sustained by the Spirit.
The main message found in this passage of Luke is the Scripture. The Scripture contains the whole of God’s secret who lives in eternity and who becomes one of us
Psalm 2, 6-9
"I myself have installed my king
on Zion, my holy mountain."
I will proclaim the decree of the Lord,
who said to me, "You are my son;
today I am your father.
Only ask it of me,
and I will make your inheritance the nations,
your possession the ends of the earth.
With an iron rod you shall shepherd them,
like a clay pot you will shatter them."
Today: this the key word in my daily life. In this today the Scripture is fulfilled. In this today Christ goes into the synagogue of my convictions to proclaim the good news to the poverty of my thought, to my feelings that are prisoners of that desire built on the ruins of grey days stretched from hour to hour, to my vision obscured by my all too short-sightedness. A year of grace, of conversion, of blessing. Lord, may my today be yours so that not one of your words may fall in vain in my life, but that your words may be fulfilled as grains of wheat in the frozen furrow of the past, capable of budding at the first signs of spring.