They chose the book; He chose the verse – Thursday after Epiphany – Luke 4:14-22a
In his early thirties Jesus had left Nazareth and the family workshop to listen to John the Baptist in the desert. Today’s Gospel tells us of Jesus’ dramatic homecoming to the little synagogue in Nazareth in Galilee. Galilee is significant because of its insignificance! Jesus did not grow up in Jerusalem, the centre of Jewish life and religious practice. Instead, he grew up in Galilee, the hinterlands, a place where many Gentiles live; a nowhere place as far as the religious elite are concerned. A major portion of his ministry is conducted in Galilee. Jesus, the familiar young local carpenter, is home again. Little did that village know that they were about to witness a turning-point in world history.
Right at the outset of His Galilean ministry, Jesus announces his mission for the poor and those on the fringes, especially the Gentiles. It is in Nazareth that Jesus declares publicly His pastoral mission. There are six incidences in Luke’s Gospel that has Jesus actively involved on the Sabbath; this is the first of the six and it takes place in the synagogue.
The centre of Jewish worship historically was the temple in Jerusalem. However, during the Babylonian Exile and the Diaspora (the geographical scattering of the Jews), Jews established local synagogues so that they might worship regularly. While the emphasis of temple worship was animal sacrifice, synagogue worship focused on prayer, scripture readings, and teaching. For most Jews, temple worship was something that they experienced, at best, a few times in a lifetime. Still others could only hope to make one Jerusalem pilgrimage in their lifetime. Hence, local synagogues met their need for regular worship. The synagogues placed less emphasis on ritual and more emphasis on teaching spiritual values.
The Sabbath service in the synagogue was not a triennial cycle of readings as we have them in Church today nor was it led by the ‘ministerial priesthood ‘. There were no professional clergy. The president of the synagogue invited someone to comment on the scriptures. Luke 4:23 tells us that the people of Nazareth were aware of the things that Jesus had done in Capernaum and in a way acknowledge Him as a Rabbi and so they honour him by allowing him to read the scriptures and preach to them.
They chose the book but He chose the verse and while they seemed to have no problem with the choice of text, they eventually had a problem with his interpretation of it. Jesus makes clear His manifesto and launches his mission in this synagogue in small time Nazareth. This was not some big-ticket item but then again, he never came to be a big-ticket preacher, even though He was the Messiah. In choosing a text that referred to the Jubilee year held once in fifty years, he announces a time of ‘good news for the poor, release to the captives, sight to the blind and freedom for the oppressed.’
For Jesus the good news is not to the ‘metaphorically poor’ as ‘Israel in need’ but rather for the economically, socially and physically unfortunate. God defends those whom nobody else defends. Jesus was looking at families that struggled to survive, at people dispossessed of their land, at starving children, at prostitutes and beggars. He never said they were good or virtuous, he said only that they were suffering unjustly. God takes their side!
However, even the economically “poor” must also receive the “good news” and not just cash. While charity must be an internal attitude manifested daily in action, the poor also need their souls to be fed. As we read these words from Isaiah, we must remember that poverty, captivity, and blindness have both physical and spiritual dimensions. It is bad to have an empty wallet, but worse to have an empty soul.
Just before this, Jesus withstood the temptation in the wilderness. He is tempted yet again to say the easy thing and do whatever it takes to curry favour with his listeners. As is apparent from the rest of this passage in Luke (verses 22-30) he resists that temptation as well.
The details of this passage also tell us much about the ordinary life of Jesus. Luke establishes Jesus’ deep rootedness in Jewish religious tradition and his faithfulness to the synagogue and Sabbath observance; ‘It was his custom to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath’. He was a faithful Jew, not someone who darkened the doors of the synagogue only at Yom Kippur and Passover. Though he took issue with details of the Law proclaimed there, he chose to join with his community in the worship of God.
Though he wrote nothing (as far as we know), he read, and was chosen to read to the assembly. He read standing, and then sat down – the posture for serious teaching. He read, and was chosen to read to the assembly and the eyes of all were fixed on him. It is a moment of grace and promise, as he brings the good news to his own people.