Understanding the Text: Luke 4:14-30

Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the spirit. Word about him went out throughout the whole district. He taught in their synagogues, and gained a great reputation all around.
He came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. On the Sabbath, as was his regular practice, he went into the synagogue and stood up to read. They gave him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
The spirit of the Lord is upon me
because he has anointed me
to tell the poor the good news.
He has sent me to announce release to the prisoners
and sight to the blind,
to set the wounded victims free,
to announce the year of God’s special favor.
He rolled up the scroll, gave it to the attendant, and sat down. All eyes in the synagogue were fixed on him.
‘Today,’ he began, ‘this scripture is fulfilled in your own hearing.’
Everyone remarked at him; they were astonished at the words coming out of his mouth—words of sheer grace.
‘Isn’t this Joseph’s son?’ they said.
‘I know what you’re going to say,’ Jesus said. ‘You’re going to tell me the old riddle: “Heal yourself, doctor!” “We heard of great happenings in Capernaum; do things like that here, in your own country!”
‘Let me tell you the truth,’ he went on. ‘Prophets never get accepted in their own country. This is the solemn truth: there were plenty of widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a great famine over all the land. Elijah was sent to none of them, only to a widow in the Sidonian town of Zarephath.
‘And there were plenty of people with virulent skin diseases in Israel in the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was healed—only Naaman, the Syrian.’
When they heard this, everyone in the synagogue flew into a rage. They got up and threw him out of town. They took him to the top of the mountain on which the town was built, meaning to fling him off. But he slipped through the middle of them and went away.

The commentators were ecstatic after the game. ‘He played like a man inspired,’ they said. What images does that conjure up for you?

A sports star, perhaps, running rings round the opposition and scoring a brilliant goal.

Or, from a different world, a musician: eyes closed, fingers flying to and fro on an instrument, filling the air with wonderful jazz.

‘Inspiration’: we use the word loosely. We imply that ‘it just came over them’, that they suddenly became someone different. Of course we know that it didn’t happen like that. The brilliant athlete has been training and practicing, hour after hour and week after week. The musician has been playing exercises, perfecting technique for long hours out of the public eye. Then, when the moment comes, a surge of adrenaline produces a performance which we call ‘inspired’—but which is actually the fruit of long, patient hard work.

When Jesus said ‘the spirit of the Lord is upon me’, Luke has already let us into the secret. His years of silent preparation. His life of prayer leading up to his baptism. The confirmation of his vocation—and then its testing in the wilderness. Then, at last, going public with early deeds in Capernaum (as the exchange in the Nazareth synagogue makes clear, people had already heard of what he’d done elsewhere). Now, with years of prayer, thought and the study of scripture behind him, he stands before his own town. He knew everybody there and they knew him. He preached like a man inspired; indeed, in his sermon that’s what he claimed. But what he said was the opposite of what they were expecting. If this was inspiration, they didn’t want it.
What was so wrong with what he said? What made them kick him out of the synagogue, hustle him out of the town, and take him off to the cliff edge to throw him over?

The crucial part comes in Jesus’ comments to his hearers. He senses that they aren’t following him; they are ready to taunt him with proverbs, to challenge him to do some mighty deeds for the sake of show. ‘Heal yourself, doctor!’—the challenge is not too far removed from the taunt, ‘He saved others, but he can’t save himself’ (23:35). But why? What was so wrong with what he was saying?

By way of defense and explanation for the line he had been taking, Jesus points out what happened in the days of the great prophets Elijah and Elisha, and in doing so identifies himself with the prophets. Elijah was sent to help a widow—but not a Jewish one. Elisha healed one solitary leper—and the leper was the commander of the enemy army. That’s what did it. That’s what drove them to fury. Israel’s God was rescuing the wrong people.

The earlier part of Jesus’ address must have been hammering home the same point. His hearers were, after all, waiting for God to liberate Israel from pagan enemies. In several Jewish texts of the time, we find a longing that God would condemn the wicked nations, would pour out wrath and destruction on them. Instead, Jesus is pointing out that when the great prophets were active, it wasn’t Israel who benefited, but the pagans. That’s like someone in Britain or France during the Second World War speaking of God’s healing and restoration for Adolf Hitler. It’s not what people wanted to hear.

What, then, was the earlier part of his address about?

Luke says that the people ‘were astonished at the words of sheer grace that were coming out of his mouth’. Sometimes people have understood this simply to mean, ‘they were astonished at what a good speaker he was’. But it seems more likely that he means ‘they were astonished that he was speaking about God’s grace—grace for everybody, including the nations—instead of grace for Israel and fierce judgment for everyone else’. That fits perfectly with what followed.

Why then did Jesus begin his address with the long quotation from Isaiah (61:1–2)?
The passage he quotes is about the Messiah. Throughout Isaiah there are pictures of a strange ‘anointed’ figure who will perform the Lord’s will and execute God’s justice. But, though this text goes on to speak of vengeance on evildoers, Jesus doesn’t quote that bit. Instead, he seems to have drawn on the larger picture in Isaiah and elsewhere which speaks of Israel being called to be the light of the nations, a theme which Luke has already highlighted in chapter 2. The servant-Messiah has not come to inflict punishment on the nations, but to bring God’s love and mercy to them. And that will be the fulfilment of a central theme in Israel’s own scriptures.

This message was, and remains, shocking. Jesus’ claim to be reaching out with healing to all people, though itself a vital Jewish idea, was not what most first-century Jews wanted or expected. As we shall see, Jesus coupled it with severe warnings to his own countrymen. Unless they could see that this was the time for their God to be gracious, unless they abandoned their futile dreams of a military victory over their national enemies, they would suffer defeat themselves at every level—military, political and theological.

Here, as at the climax of the gospel story, Jesus’ challenge and warning brings about a violent reaction. The gospel still does this today, when it challenges all interests and agendas, all forms of injustice and oppression, with the news of God’s surprising grace.

written by Tom Wright

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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