Commentary on Luke 4:14-30
It is difficult to exaggerate the significance of Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth for Luke’s overarching narrative.
There is a sense in which this passage is the thesis statement for Luke, or even Luke-Acts; so preachers need to explore it in some exegetical detail with their congregations to fund preaching through Luke in the Narrative Lectionary. Even though Jesus gives the shortest, one-sentence sermon ever in this passage (verse 21), contemporary preachers will need a little longer to explore the text’s import.
Evidence of the significance of this passage for Luke’s overarching purposes begin with the fact that in Luke’s narrative, this scene, following on the heels of the temptation story (Luke 4:1-13) is the first explicit public event of Jesus’ ministry. In the other Synoptics, that act is a general summary of Jesus’ proclamation of the reign of God and the call of the fishermen (Mark 1:14-20//Matthew 4:17-22). In the Third Gospel, however, Jesus is presented as launching his ministry from his hometown synagogue.
He does this by reading a passage from Isaiah 61:1-2 (coupled with Isaiah 58:6) and then proclaiming that the scripture is fulfilled at that moment — that is, proclaiming that Jesus himself is the fulfillment of the text. We Christians love Jesus’ use and interpretation/application of this quote. And why wouldn’t we given that it is used an announcement of the year of Jubilee arriving in Jesus, the time in which we will see the feeding of the hungry, the release of the imprisoned, and the healing of the blind, and the lifting up of the oppressed? Jesus’ hometown audience loved the quote and the sermon, too … at first.
Too often we read or preach this text without moving all the way to the end. There is less for us to feel so good about in the second half of the passage. After the crowd praises Jesus, he, in a sense, says, “Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean you. The day of Jubilee isn’t for you.”
For Luke, salvation is understood primarily in social and not individualistic terms. To be more specific, for Luke that salvation is a reversal of the social order. Thus, for example, in Luke’s version of the Beatitudes, Jesus not only pronounces blessing on the poor, the hungry, the weeping, and the hated, he also pronounces woes on the rich, the filled, the laughing, and the respected (Luke 6:20-26). Those on the bottom of society experience this salvation with rejoicing while those on top experience it in the form of God’s judgment and justice.
In the second half of the Nazareth scene, Jesus challenges the hometown crowd’s view about who is on bottom of society and who is on top (verses 23-30). He reminds the crowd that even when there had been great need in Israel, God sent the prophet Elijah to the Gentile widow in Zarephath and the prophet Elisha to the Gentile leper, Naaman. By implication, the prophet Jesus is not sent to the synagogue in Nazareth but is sent from there to Gentiles. Luke is not being anti-Semitic or even anti-Jewish in presenting Jesus as making this announcement. In the late first century, he has a theological problem created by an ecclesiastical reality.
By the time Luke writes his two-volume work, the church is primarily Gentile in membership — this is the ecclesiastical reality. The theological problem that results from this reality is the question of how the Gentile church can be a proper heir to Israel’s traditions and God’s promises to Israel and thus be considered a faithful expression of God’s salvific work in the world. Luke uses stories like this one set in Nazareth to lay the scriptural and theological groundwork for the inclusion of Gentiles in the church to be narrated later in Acts.
The way in which the crowd’s reaction to Jesus changes so rapidly and so radically in the text makes the crowd a compelling focal point for a sermon. A preacher will do well to invite a contemporary congregation to identify with the crowd in the sense of recognizing the church as composed of insiders whom Jesus surprises by announcing that he came for the outsiders.
The church claims Jesus as our own, and for good reason. We profess faith in Jesus as the Christ and strive to follow Christ in our individual and corporate lives. This text, however, offers us a chance to expand our view and push us out of our comfort zone in claiming Jesus’ allegiance to us over against others a little too easily. Preachers need not condemn the church by accusing it of selfishness, unfaithfulness, or the like to offer this expanding view. Remember, Jesus does not accuse the synagogue of such. He does not imply that he turns to the Gentiles because those in Nazareth reject him. They reject him because he turns to the Gentiles.
The contemporary congregation has the opportunity to learn from the ancient crowd in the text and embrace Christ in the turn to those outside the usual boundaries of the sacred community. Indeed, the church can follow Christ into contemporary “Gentile” territory offering aid and acceptance to the widows and lepers of the world. In other words, as this text defines Luke’s understanding of Jesus’ mission, it can also serve as a thesis statement defining the mission of the church in the twenty-first century.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
God of the nations,
Show us how to love all the people of the earth, of all colors and kinds: those with technology and without; those who make due with very little and who use many resources; those with formal education and without; those who call upon your name and who do not; so that all your children may be glorified in the name of the One who brought glory and liberty, Jesus Christ our salvation. Amen.
He comes to us as one unknown, Paul Nicholson