“The Vision of Luke”
Text: Luke 4: 16-31
When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” 24 And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. 25 But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26 yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27 There were also many lepers[a] in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29 They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30 But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
One of the things that I like to do when I study a text that comes from one of the Gospels, is I like to compare the text with the other places where the same story might be told and compare the stories and look for things that jump out at me. If I discover that two stories are very different then it opens the door for more study, more interpretation and at least for me, a greater depth of understanding about the authors and the context in which they are writing.
So if we look at this text from Luke, we can find a similar story in both of the other synoptic gospels, that is Mark and Matthew. The story does not seem to appear in the Gospel of John in any form. One of the interesting things to remember when we study the text in this way, is that the Gospel of Mark was written first. Most scholars believe that the authors of Luke and Matthew had copies of Mark that they worked from when writing their own gospels. This is very apparent when you read the story of Jesus’ rejection in his hometown in the Gospel of Mark and then read it again in Matthew. The two stories overlap a great deal; the Matthew account isn’t exactly verbatim, but it is pretty close.
But when you read the story in Luke, it is very different. I like to ask the question why? Why would Luke take this story and expand upon it the way he has. The stories in Matthew and Mark are only about 6 verses long in each case. Jesus shows up, he teaches, they take offense and Jesus leaves. There are not many more details than that in the two other stories.
But in Luke’s story, he identifies the text that Jesus taught from, he creates some drama by saying that every eye was fixed on him and then he has Jesus claim to be the one who is fulfilling the prophecy spoken of by the prophet Isaiah.
The story goes on, not only do those who are listening begin to take offense with Jesus, Luke even includes some of the dialogue that took place. There was a bit of a back and forth exchange; it sounds a little like junior high. You remember the “did not, did too,” exchanges or the more sophisticated “I know you are, but what am I?”
There is an underlying theme here, but you have to dig a bit in order to find it. You also have to use your imaginations a bit and fill in some blanks with what might have been the case. No one knows for sure what is going on here, or why Luke expanded this story the way he did. But I think to try to understand we have to back way up to the very beginning.
If you read the opening of Luke you will discover that Luke is writing on behalf of someone named Theophilus. We know of some people in history who had such a name and some of them may have been alive at the same time as Luke, but we don’t know for sure. Scholars don’t agree on who Theophilus was or who he might have been. One theory is that Theophilus was a Roman of some importance in the Roman political system that became interested in Christianity. I like this theory for a number of reasons, but this text in Luke is one of those reasons.
In the comparative texts found in Mark and Matthew, the information about why those leaders in the temple that day took offense with Jesus’ teaching is not given. The texts simply say they were offended without any real explanation. Luke takes the opportunity to put some flesh on those bones and lays it out for us to see, if we look close enough.
For starters, Luke has Jesus read the text from Isaiah. This is a beautiful text and I think it speaks to the very heart of the ministry of Jesus. But it can also be taken several different ways. Let’s look at the text Jesus read from the perspective of the leaders in the synagogue that day.
The first item of business is that Jesus has come to bring good news to the poor.
What this means is that for all this time, all these years and years the synagogue had been in Nazareth, the synagogue has not been good news for the poor. I don’t think the implication here is neutral, if the synagogue has not been good news, then it has been bad news for the poor. History supports this idea. The synagogue and the systems that it supported were very oppressive to the poor and designed to keep the poor poor.
So in a way, Jesus was saying; “look you guys, you have had all this time to minister to the poor and you have not gotten it done. They are in pathetic condition. I have come to finally bring them some good news; something you could have done decades if not centuries ago, but you have not.”
The second item of business for Jesus according to the text in Isaiah is that he is to bring release to the captives. Now I don’t see a lot of separation here from the idea of bringing good news to the poor because certainly the poor were held captive by an oppressive system. But this statement could also include another group of people.
There were certainly those in Nazareth who were not destitute and without any means, they were not poor, necessarily but they were not wealthy either. Sort of a Nazarene middle class. These people, many of them Jews, made the commerce of the city work. They ran businesses and shops and kept the trade moving and were able to maintain from day to day and year to year.
I think Jesus was also speaking about this middle class being held captive by oppressive laws and customs and ritual and ceremony. Often there was so much to do to keep the law, it was difficult to run a business. And the temple demanded a lot of attention, but it also demanded a certain level of financial support as well. The leaders in the temple were getting wealthy while everyone else just sort of got by. Jesus wanted to change this system by bring release to those held captive by the temple laws and customs.
Then there was a third group of people that Jesus wanted to speak to and perhaps enlighten. This was the group gathered in the temple that day. This was the group of leaders, the scribes, the Pharisees, the temple priests and all those associated with the system. Jesus wanted to speak to them in hopes they could see a better way. Perhaps they could see for the first time how lopsided the system was and how it took advantage of the poor and the middle class and how the profits of that system lined the pockets of the temple leaders.
So how did Jesus identify this third group of people? He called them blind. The third deed for Jesus to accomplish in the text from Isaiah is recovery of sight to the blind. Jesus was hoping that some in the temple that day might just see the light.
The fourth task is to let the oppressed go free – which can be just about anyone. The fifth and final task says that Jesus is to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. This is a reference to debt forgiveness, so anyone who owed the temple any money or were behind on their taxes or lease payments for the land they were trying to farm-all of those people should be forgiven their debt as well.
So when we read what Jesus read in the temple that day from a slightly different perspective, it is a little easier to understand why they maybe took offense at what Jesus said.
But here’s the deal. It isn’t what Jesus said, it is what Isaiah had said centuries earlier. In other words, the text in Isaiah is telling the leaders of the temple that this is what should have been going on all along. When the Spirit of the Lord is upon you, as the leaders of the temple claim that it is, then this is what you do. Jesus was just pointing out the astounding level of hypocrisy here; that the leaders in the temple were in essence saying one thing and doing another. No wonder they got upset. So they drove him out of town.
This is the Jesus we follow. Jesus the trouble-maker. Jesus the one who gets those in power so upset they drive him out of town. Jesus the one who eventually made everyone so uneasy that the only response left was to execute him. This is the Jesus we follow.
If we are truly going to follow Jesus down this path, then we must also be prepared to take on the same people in power that Jesus took on. We must be willing to speak the truth to power and live with the consequences. This following Jesus stuff is not for the timid or the shy or the faint of heart. Speaking truth to power is not an easy thing.
And that is food for thought. Amen.