Thought for the day
One of the encouraging signs in today’s church is the growing popularity of lectio divina, praying the Scriptures. This is best done with other people because it is so enriching as we benefit from the observations and questions of fellow pilgrims. It comes alive when I can say “today, this scripture has been fulfilled in my hearing.”
Lord, inspire me to read your Scriptures and to meditate upon them day and night. I beg you to give me real understanding of what I need, that I in turn may put its precepts into practice. Yet, I know that understanding and good intentions are worthless, unless rooted in your graceful love. So I ask that the words of Scripture may also be not just signs on a page, but channels of grace into my heart. Amen. (Origen, 184-253 ad)
Dedication to Theophilus
Luke 1:1 Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, 3 I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.
The Beginning of the Galilean Ministry
Luke 4:14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
The Rejection of Jesus at Nazareth
Luke 4:16 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.”
Luke 4:20 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.”
The reading of the Gospel according to Luke, the Gospel of this liturgical year, begins formally today. To signal this start, the lectionary combines two distinct passages, the formal introduction to the Gospel in chapter 1 and the scene in Nazareth in chapter 4. The first of these gives us the motivation and approach of the writer. The second gives us the first part only of the scene in Nazareth 4:14-30 and the second part, vv. (21)22-30, is read the following week. The reason behind this somewhat cumbersome division may have been brevity – to keep the Gospel reading to a reasonable length. Unfortunately, the division of the scene in Nazareth into two Sundays makes it difficult to make sense of the tableau as a whole. It will be, accordingly, important to keep that whole scene in mind (vv. 14-30) when reading only the first part of it (14-21). Finally, this is one of the most inspirational passages in the New Testament, underlining, as it does, the gift of the Spirit and the anointing of Jesus as prophet and Messiah.
Kind of writing
(a) 1:1-4. This is a standard introduction to a typical biography of the period. Such a preface is unique among the Gospels, having its only parallel in Acts 1:1-2. There is another, resumptive introduction in Lk 3:1-2.
(b) 4:14-30. The opening scene in Nazareth expands the same scene from Mark 6 (see below), turning it into a synthesis of the whole mission of Jesus, including his death and resurrection. The elements are as follows:
- Jesus fulfilled the Scriptures, as the Servant of the Lord.
- Initially, he was well received by God’s first chosen people.
- The opening to the Gentiles (Elijah and Naaman the Syrian and Elisha the widow of Zarephath) led to conflict and eventually to rejection.
- Eventually Jesus will indeed be taken “outside their town” and be put to death, actually in Jerusalem.
- But, in the resurrection, he would mysteriously pass “through the midst of them” and go “on his way.”
Old Testament background
The OT citation is from two places in Isaiah. It is interesting to note what has been added, changed (underlined) and omitted by Luke (italics).
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn. (Is 61:1–2)
Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? (Is 58:6)
New Testament foreground
Mark the basis for Luke’s re-working.
Jesus left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him. On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offence at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honour, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief. (Mark 6:1–6)
As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain. For he says, “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation! (2 Cor 6:1–3)
Verse 1 Luke admits he is not the first. Scholars understand that Luke used both Mark and Q, a Sayings Source of some 252 verses, shared with Matthew. He has also his own source, L, as well as a capacity to create and /or radically “adjust” material.
We do not really know who the writer was. A composite picture can be gleaned from Luke-Acts: Well-educated; well-travelled; writes good and varied Greek; someone at home in the upper middle class of the Hellenistic world; for convenience “Luke”, but really unknown. The oldest manuscript of Luke is P75, dating from c. 175-225 and now in the Vatican Library. It preserves Lk 3:18-24:53.
Verse 2 He also acknowledges he is not an eyewitness “from the beginning”. Handed down is a technical term for tradition, so we are to think of second and third generation traditions.
Verse 3 Theophilus (lit. “loved by God”) may be an individual of some status (cf. Acts 23:36) or any intended reader, as a “friend of God.” The evangelist offers an “orderly account” by which he does not mean a historical sequence as we would intend it. He is motived by faith and his literary choices are dictated by theology. A good example would be his location of this scene at Nazareth at the start of Jesus’ ministry.
Verse 4 The motive behind the Gospel is to ground the faith of the believers.
Verse 14 The ministry is Jesus is powered by the Spirit—very important in Luke and in Acts. Already in Luke 1-4, everything is the initiative of the Spirit Luke 1:15, 17, 35, 41, 47, 67, 80; 2:25–27; 3:16, 22; 4:1.
Verse 15 Notice their synagogues, indicating a time after the parting of the ways between synagogue and church. The synagogue dates to the time of the Exile, when the exiles needed a gathering place (without priest or sacrifice).
Verse 16 From Luke 1-2, we learn Jesus was brought up at Nazareth (Luke 1:26; 2:4, 39, 51; 4:16). He is known as Jesus of Nazareth (4:34; 18:37; 24:19).
Verse 17 The telling slows down to create suspense.
Verse 18 In Isaiah, it is not the prophet who is speaking but the Servant, predicted by the prophet. The citation is abbreviated and a threatening tone eliminated. In this Gospel, Jesus is portrayed as a prophet-martyr, whose death can be understood in the light of persecution of the prophets of old (see, for example, Luke 11:47, 49–50; 13:28, 33–34; 20:6; 24:19, 25, 27, 44). The term anointed in Greek gives us our word Christ (Messiah).
Verse 19 The whole gospel proclamation is under the banner of the Jubilee Year, a symbol of liberation.
Verse 20 Again, the story telling slows down to augment our anticipation.
Verses 21 The single sentence is emblematic of Jesus as the fulfilment of the Scriptures, an important theme in Luke-Acts (Luke 1:1, 20, 45; 4:21; 21:22, 24; 22:16, 37; 24:44). “Today”, the now of salvation, is also a vital component of the proclamation of Luke: cf. Zacchaeus and the Good Thief. In Luke, nothing is accidental: Jesus’ very first word in this Gospel is “today.” I.e. a new time has started, a new era of salvation, under the banner of the Year of Jubilee.
Pointers for prayer
1. Jesus was filled with the Spirit and sent. He came bursting with a message to communicate. When have you had the experience of being enthused by something in that way? Who have been the people you met who had that kind of enthusiasm?
2. The message Jesus had was one of liberation and he told his listeners that it was being fulfilled even as they listened. When have you had a NOW moment of liberation? When has bible reading been an experience of liberation for you?
3. His message was addressed to those who were poor, oppressed, blind, or captives. Who are these today? In what ways have I been, or am I, among these? How has the message of Jesus been good news for you, freed you, given you new sight, or revealed God’s favour to you?
Lord, God, whose compassion embraces all peoples, whose law is wisdom, freedom, and joy for the poor, fulfil in our midst your promise of favour, that we may receive the gospel of salvation with faith and, anointed by the Spirit, freely proclaim it.
We ask this through Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, in the splendour of eternal light, God for ever and ever. Amen.