Luke 4:14-21 is the opening scene in the ministry of Jesus. It is Jesus’ manifesto for the work ahead.
Luke 4:14-15: Our passage opens with Jesus returning in the power of the Spirit to Galilee from the wilderness (Luke 4:1-13) where he had overcome temptation. When he returns, a report is heard about him throughout the region, and he travels around teaching in the synagogues.
The Holy Spirit in Luke’s opening narratives Jesus’ work is accompanied by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit in Luke leads, fills, and empowers for prophetic work. Such characters as Zechariah (Luke 1:15, 67-79), his wife, Elizabeth (1:41), Simeon (2:25-32), and John (3:16) experience the Spirit and proclaim truth through the filling of the Holy Spirit. Jesus himself is filled with the Holy Spirit (3:22) who then leads him into the wilderness for a time of fasting and testing. So, when we see Jesus being led by the Spirit (4:14), we should not be surprised to encounter guidance, empowerment, and prophetic words.
Luke 4:16-17: In his travels around Galilee, Jesus finally comes to his hometown, Nazareth. It is described as “the place he was brought up.” It is the place where he was provided food and nourishment that allows growing and flourishing. When it is the Sabbath, Jesus does what he usually does, he goes to the synagogue. When he is there he stands up to read, which is the normal practice for reading Scripture in the synagogue,1 and he is handed the scroll of Isaiah. He opens it and chooses the place he wants to read from. Here we see the customs and habits of Jesus. He is one who regularly participates in the religious life of his community; he is a reader who contributes to the reading of Scripture in worship; and he is a teacher (Luke 4:15).
Nazareth Craig Keener writes that Nazareth was an agricultural village that sat on a major trade route and was close to the Galilean capital, Sephoris, which was being rebuilt during the time that Jesus was growing up. Most likely, those who knew Jesus from his time growing up in the town were not surprised by his ability to read Hebrew.
Luke 4:18-19: Jesus chooses to read from Isaiah 61:1-2. Here it is helpful to focus both on the actual quotation from Isaiah and on the surrounding context in which the Isaiah quotations is found. Jesus reads a quotation that refers to the Spirit of God, the same Spirit who brought him to Nazareth. We know that the Holy Spirit in Luke guides and empowers people for prophetic ministry. In this quotation the Spirit of the Lord is resting on the speaker for the purpose of proclaiming good news to the poor — to those who are economically disadvantaged and marginalized. Along with the poor as a broad group, good news is also proclaimed to specific groups of people: prisoners, the blind, and the oppressed. All of whom might also be described as “poor.” What is this good news? It is news that this is the “year of God’s favor.” The year of God’s favor describes the Jubilee year when God will restore Israel.
The poor in Luke This is the first mention of the poor (ptochoi) in Luke. But already we have seen that the powerful and rich are sent away empty, while the hungry are filled with good things (Luke 1:52-53). Those who are at the bottom of society are the Spirit’s chosen recipients of the good news. As the Gospel unfolds the poor will be identified as worthy hearers of the good news, as recipients of God’s kingdom (6:20), as a sign of Jesus’ ministry (7:22), and as invitees to the kingdom feast (14:13). The good news that Jesus proclaims, and thus the good news that Christians proclaim, must be good news to the poor, to the economically disadvantaged, and to the marginalized of our society.
The Jubilee Every 50th year was to be set aside as a time for liberation and restoration when all Israelites would return to their ancestral land (Leviticus 25:10). Those who became poor were not to be taken advantage of nor taken as slaves but rather treated as hired hands and released at the year of Jubilee. Isaiah 61 was interpreted in first century Judaism as a reference to the Jubilee and the restoration it envisioned.
Luke 4: 20-21: When he finished reading, Jesus sat down [the usual posture for a teacher2], and the congregation fixed their eyes on him to hear his teaching. Jesus begins explaining the Scripture by telling them that today when they heard the Scripture read it was fulfilled in their presence. Jesus himself will be the location for the fulfillment of this prophesy. In the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is the one who has been chosen (anointed) to preach and proclaim the good news of God. In the chapters ahead, Jesus will travel from town to town and wherever he goes he will teach and heal living out the good news so that people can see the salvation that God offers.
As we finish, we can imagine a hometown congregation filled with all the characters of the village — rich and poor; seeing and blind; oppressed and oppressor — and wonder what this liberation looked like for them. Did they anticipate the good news would come first to the poor, the prisoner, and the oppressed? Or did they think it would come first for those with inside connections, the rich, and the religious? Jesus offers them good news. Will they hear it and receive it as good news to be shared with all, especially the vulnerable? Or will they hear it and hope that it is a message for them alone? Are they hoping that as Jesus’ hometown they will receive special favor? Exclusive favor? Or does their hope extend to the whole world?
1 Craig Keener. The IVP Bible Background Commentary. Downers Grove: IVPress, 1993, 199.
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are as distinct from the earlier books of Samuel and Kings as the times they narrate are different from the ages that preceded them.1
Part annals, part lists, part autobiography, part narration, set partly in the beginning of the return from exile and partly in later generations, the two books (which in Hebrew manuscripts are actually one) seem compiled around the subject of Jerusalem’s reconstitution under new management, not the kings of Judah, but the absentee landlords of Persia.
The two figures Ezra and Nehemiah are both leaders of the Judean community and representatives of the Persian rulers, who sent them to provide spiritual and political leadership for the struggling Jerusalem community. Ezra and Nehemiah rarely appear together, and there is some speculation that they may have been active at differing times. Nehemiah makes only a cameo appearance in verse 9 here, and the singular verb vayomer (“said”) suggests that both he and the Levites may have been added secondarily to a verse in which originally only Ezra spoke (see also the beginning of verse 10).
Ezra first appears in Ezra 7, when he sets out from Babylon to Jerusalem during the reign of Artaxerxes of Persia. He is described as “the priest Ezra, the scribe, a scholar of the text of the commandments of the LORD” (7:11). He is sent with money from the emperor and others for offerings in the temple. He comes to teach the law of the Judean God and of the king. Beginning in verse 27, the story is told by Ezra himself. In Ezra 9, in a scene reminiscent of some of the darker texts of the Pentateuch, he receives the disturbing news that the people have intermarried with the Canaanites, Hittites, Perizzites, and all the other “ites” in the land. His reaction shows how deeply steeped he is in the ancient story he has come to convey.
Fortunately, however, what follows, while drastic and unsettling, is at least not the mass murder usually associated in the Pentateuch with these prior inhabitants of Canaan. The book of Ezra ends with the returned exiles painfully dismissing their foreign wives and children, revealing the depth of concern in this community for maintaining identity and boundaries.
The story then turns to Nehemiah, and Ezra does not reappear again until this chapter, Nehemiah 8. Here we see him in a new role that looks both innovative and strangely familiar: reading and expounding upon Scripture. The passage emphasizes that this occasion includes not just the priests, Levites, or even just the men, but all the people, men and women. It also asserts that Ezra read at the request of the people themselves.
They gather on the first day of the seventh month, which today is Rosh Hashanah (the fall new year), which is followed by Yom Kippur and the Festival of Sukkot, or Booths. They gather not at the temple but at the Water Gate, where all are admitted. The location of this gate is uncertain, but its name suggests proximity to the Gihon spring, Jerusalem’s only natural water source, on the eastern side of the city (cf. Neh 3:26; 12:37). The Babylonian Talmud (Sukkah 4) would later place the Water Gate on the way to the pool of Siloam, and would associate it with a joyous water-drawing ritual during the week of Sukkot (see verses 14-18).
The narrative does not specify which parts of the Torah Ezra read, nor can we know for sure whether it was already in the form that became canonical. In fact, variation between the pentateuchal prescriptions for the festival that follows (Leviticus 23:33-43; Numbers 29:12-38; Deuteronomy 16:13-15) and the festival as described in Nehemiah 8:14-18 may suggest some differences. But more important than the specifics, perhaps, is the practice that Ezra institutes of reading Scripture to others as authoritative directives from God, and interpreting so all understand. The reading evidently continues throughout the week of the festival (verse 18).
For later followers within this tradition, this early glimpse, within Scripture itself, of the faithful reading Scripture, carries a picture-within-a-picture quality. It’s like finding an ancestral village or grave, a marker of the place from which we came, an early precedent for scriptural interpretation. Jesus’ reading from the prophet Isaiah in this week’s Gospel passage echoes Ezra even as it too provides a glimpse of precedent.
The occasion could have been marked by dismay, as it was for King Josiah, when he first heard the words from the law book found in the temple and tore his clothes in mourning, recognizing the nation’s neglect of divine commands and fearing God’s wrath (2 Kings 22:11-13). Instead, however, when the people begin to weep, Ezra and others tell them instead to rejoice, because “this day is holy to the Lord” (verse 9). Rather than fasting, they are told to feast and share their food, because “the joy of the Lord is your strength” (verse 10).
The grammar of this final assertion is intriguing. Translations and commentators disagree over whether it is more properly rendered, “[your] joy in the Lord is your strength,” or “the Lord’s joy is your strength.” Either way, the point of cheerful trust in God is clear. Psalm 19 likewise reflects this position, as the wonders of God’s two great creations, the sky that wordlessly pours forth God’s glory and the Torah that is sweeter than honey, inspire the psalmist’s own grateful commitment.
One October I was visiting an orthodox Jewish friend in New York City. It happened to be the end of the week of Sukkot. Immediately following this week comes Simchat Torah, the “joy of Torah,” which marks the conclusion of the yearly cycle of weekly Torah readings with Deut 33 and 34. The following Sabbath, the reading would begin again with Genesis 1. On this evening of Simchat Torah, life in the orthodox Jewish neighborhood became a street party, as young people vigorously danced out their holy merriment, holding Torah scrolls high over their heads, since being entrusted with guidance from above inspires joyful gratitude.
1 This commentary originally published on this site Jan. 27, 2013.
We have a gift in Psalm 19. Bach, Beethoven, Handel, and Haydn expressed their delight with this Psalm through now well-known musical settings of its text.
Judaism recites the words of this Psalm at Shabbat and Yom Tov. In his Reflections on the Psalms, C.S. Lewis declared Psalm 19 the treasure trove of the Psalter: “I take this to be the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.”1
Overview of the Psalm
Psalm 19 contains a series of subtle, contrasting, both-and-statements, or dyads. The heavens day after day and night after night (v. 1), yet they do not use words (v.3). YHWH is the cosmic ruler of the glorious heavens (vv. 1, 4), yet relational enough to give individuals precepts for righteous living (vv. 7-14). The heat of the sun covers the whole earth, yet gives life rather than destruction (v. 4-6). The Psalmist is identified as a leader, yet possesses a humble servant’s spirit (vv. 13-14).
The Psalm is comprised of three distinct sections: verses 1-6, verses 7-11, and verses 12-14. Verses 1-6 illustrate YHWH’s sovereignty over the whole creation. Just as the sun stretches over the entire heavens to illuminate the ends of the earth, so does YHWH the Creator rule over the entire world. Verses 7-11 uphold that it is the responsibility of the One who rules to provide wise instruction to humanity. This instruction, however, may be more about the responsibility humanity has to align itself with the ways of God than the revelation God is required to give to humanity. The final three verses of the Psalm (vv. 12-14) confirm there is great reward for those who connect themselves to the greater cosmic reality that is YHWH.
A Psalm of Instruction
While it can be difficult for preachers to resist finding a single, unifying thread that ties this Psalm together, this thread may not be necessary or important. In most instances, reducing Psalm 19 to a single theme will most likely lead to “skewed interpretations” of the entire Psalm. Often, preachers are apt to focus only on themes of natural and special revelation at the expense of other possibilities.2
If this Psalm is to be reduced to any theme, it is an attentiveness to the sovereign YHWH’s instruction. In this respect, Psalm 19 pulls together themes from the opening and closing of the Psalter: Psalm 1 with its emphasis on YHWH’s teaching and Psalm 148 with its emphasis on YHWH’s sovereignty. These two themes are woven throughout the book of Psalms, but they are rarely juxtaposed so closely as we find them in Psalm 19.
While juxtaposing these two themes inevitably alludes to the plausibility that Psalm 19 may have originally been two separate Psalms, this must be held in tension with unifying features found in the full Psalm. For instance, “speech” (vv. 2-3) and “words” (v. 14) appear at the beginning and end of the Psalm, and “perfect” (v. 7) and “blameless” (v. 13) link vv. 11-14 with vv. 7-10. Because of these and other reasons, J. Clinton McCann, Jr. suggests Psalm 19 primarily be read as a single unit intended to teach. Psalm 19’s “instructional intent,” McCann claims, is “emphasized by its placement within a series of Royal Psalms (Psalm 18, 20, 21).” In such a reading, Psalm 19 “describes the orientation to life that faithful kings were supposed to embody and model for the people.”3
Learning from Psalm 19
What might we learn if we examine this Psalm from the pulpit? By examining the three distinct sections and contrasting themes of Psalm 19, we might learn the lesson that we, like most people today, live a life that contradicts the Psalm. We love the beauty of a sunset and the majesty of nature, yet we find the Word of the Lord to be oppressive. However, the wisdom of Psalm 19 declares that the transcendent quality of nature, indeed YHWH’s sovereignty over nature (and the whole creation) to be downright frightening. Yet, the Holy Scriptures are full of grace and promises of new life, not bondage to a higher power that is removed and inaccessible.
By focusing on one theme from Psalm 19, such as that of instruction, we might learn the whole story behind YHWH’s teaching. We might learn once again the lesson that the sovereign YHWH gave us instructions so that we may reclaim the primary purpose of creation which the Gospel now proclaims: love bound in relationship between Creator and created, now made manifest in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Realigning our lives and reclaiming creational purpose are two important lessons of this Psalm, but surely there are more, especially when read through the lens of this week’s Lectionary passages. Whatever this Psalm teaches us this Epiphany week, may our lips join Gregory of Nazianzus (Cappadocia, modern-day Turkey, BCE 325-390) to pray:
Thy grace, O Father, give, That I may serve in fear; Above all boons, I pray, Grant me Thy voice to hear; From sin Thy child in mercy free, And let me dwell in light with Thee.
1 C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms (New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1986), 63.
2 John Goldingay, “Psalm 19,” in Psalms, Volume 1: 1-41, ed. Tremper Longman, III, Baker 297-298.
3 J. Clinton McCann, Jr., “The Book of Psalms,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), 4:751.
We often confuse unity with uniformity, because it is much easier to gather with people who are like ourselves than it is to reach across the divisions which mark our culture.
Thus, few of our churches reflect the ethnic, social, and economic diversity of the neighborhoods around them. Our congregations are often very homogenous, and we are, sadly, comfortable with that.
Paul insists on something richer. Since the church is intended to be a foretaste of the final reconciliation of all things that God promises, Paul calls the church to start acting that way. Thus diversity within the church is not a problem to be avoided, solved, or managed, but a gift of God’s grace and a sign of the Spirit at work. The differing gifts of the Spirit form us in such a way that we do, and indeed must, belong to one another.
Paul’s claims throughout chapter 12 of 1 Corinthians find their foundation in baptism (verses 12-13). In baptism we experience the Spirit of God at work to overcome the divisions which the powers of this world nurture and on which they depend. The Corinthians had been competing with one another according to their culturally-defined values. They were using the gifts of the Holy Spirit, meant for the good of the whole community, as their personal arsenal in the competition for honor at the expense of others. However, by pointing to the church’s common experience of God’s grace in baptism, Paul makes clear that we all share the same water, the same promise, the same Spirit, and thus all are equally part of the same body.
It will be helpful for us to ask what, in our context, corresponds to the culturally-divided pairs mentioned in verse 13. Where do we find the human polarities now overcome in baptism, and brought to surprising and profound unity in Christ? Black or white, Asian or Hispanic or First Nation; straight or gay, single or married; citizen or undocumented; rich or poor; young or old. What about the homeless, or the mentally ill? It is unlikely that fights over spiritual gifts will cause trouble in most of our congregations. However, these ethnic, social, and economic distinctions more frequently do. This is where our own struggle for unity within diversity may be focused. Perhaps even more challenging for us is the accompanying diversity in conviction about how the faith is to be lived out. In such disagreement, though, we find ourselves called to recognize that diversity helps us to keep asking what God’s will actually is, rather than trapping ourselves in the same old assumptions. Holy diversity is an important remedy for our tendency toward complacency.
The image of the body as a communal reality is not unique to Paul (though Paul is the only writer in the New Testament to use it). Other writers in the Roman world (especially politicians and philosophers) used the same image. Most often, it was used to support the social hierarchy (whether of the family, or the city, or the empire as a whole). The point was that every body needs a head, and in society that was provided by the wealthy, the rulers, and the elite. Every body needs hands and feet to do the hard and dirty work, and that was provided in society by just about everyone else. Paul, while drawing on the same image, turns the point in a very different direction. The unity of the body does not, in fact, mean that the less honored members get abused and treated roughly; rather, all the parts belong to one another, and therefore the “weak” parts are treated with special care. The end result of the body metaphor in Paul’s hands is not the same old hierarchy, or even the inverse of that culturally-expected pattern of domination with new people placed on the top, but a deep unity of the whole body, with each part cared for by the others.
Yet there is a kind of inversion happening here around the “weak.” The theme of weakness in 1 Corinthians has basic social and economic dimensions. Paul reminds the Corinthians that God has called mainly the weak of the world (i.e., those without status) rather than the noble-born and the powerful (1 Corinthians 1:26-27). Paul has already insisted that such cultural weakness characterized his own ministry because, in a foundational way, it characterized Jesus’ crucifixion (2:1-5). Contrary to most translations, 1 Corinthians 1:25 does not talk about “the weakness of God,” but “the weak thing of God,” which is the cross itself. Thus, the socially and economically “weak” cannot be despised, rejected, or marginalized in the church (or by the church!), because God’s power is in fact at work in what the world sees as weakness (2 Corinthians 12:9).
In the Corinthian church, the “weak” were in fact being despised and shamed by some of the others (1 Corinthians 11:22). Paul calls the church to a better way of life together. Differences within the church are, astonishingly, something that God has arranged (verse 18). Thus, the diversity within the church community is not something to be tolerated, or regretted, or manipulated for one’s own advantage, but something to be received as the gift that it is. Paul’s argument implies that not only diversity, but unity in that diversity, is a reality without which the church cannot live.
Whatever strengthens the community of the church is to be sought, welcomed, and nurtured as God’s good gift. Yet it may be worth noticing that the gifts which Paul lists as “first, second, third” in verse 28 all deal with the word spoken to the church in one form or another. “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing comes through the word of Christ” (Romans 10:17). A congregation can probably exist and even thrive without healings or speaking in tongues; but it cannot live without the word of Christ spoken and heard. It is the good news, proclaimed and taught, that will form the church into one body in Christ.