Commentary on Luke 4:14-30
Last Sunday we saw John, the one sent to announce that “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:6), preparing the way by proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the release (aphesis) of sins.
This Sunday Jesus begins his public ministry by proclaiming release (aphesis) to captives and the oppressed. He announces that today — in his hearers’ presence — the prophecy of Isaiah has been fulfilled, and the year of the Lord’s favor has come.
Luke has already set the stage for Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth. The baptism, genealogy, and temptation all highlight Jesus’ identity: Jesus is Son of God by divine declaration, by his human descent from Adam the first son of God, and because even when tempted by Satan, he remains obedient to his Father. The Holy Spirit has descended on him and filled him. Now, in the power of the Spirit, Jesus begins his work.
The sermon at his hometown synagogue encapsulates the message that he has been teaching in synagogues throughout Galilee. Although the people of Nazareth marvel when they hear him, they misperceive who he is: to them he is merely Joseph’s son. Blinded by familiarity, they do not recognize that before them stands the Son of God.
The opening words of Jesus’ sermon text recall his baptism: The Spirit of the Lord has anointed (echrise) him. He is not only Son of God, but also Christ. And he has been anointed for a purpose. What he preaches today will be the theme of his whole ministry. He has come to bring good news to those who are so poor that they have nothing, good news to those whose lives are little but bad news, good news to those at the very bottom of the heap.
His text from Isaiah combines the prophet’s declaration of the year of Jubilee (Isaiah 61:1–2a) with “to let the oppressed go free,” a single line from Isaiah’s description of an acceptable fast (58:6). In God’s eyes, what is an acceptable year? What is an acceptable fast? Good news for the poor. Release for captives. Sight for the blind. Release for the oppressed. Jesus preaches more than forgiveness. He preaches freedom and transformation.
By reading from Isaiah 61 and declaring the acceptable year of the Lord, Jesus recalls the year of Jubilee. According to Leviticus 25, the year of Jubilee is a year of release. Every 50 years, God’s people are to observe a Sabbath of Sabbaths: “you shall proclaim liberty (aphesis, LXX) throughout the land to all its inhabitants.” The law of Jubilee is designed to transform society and undo the damage that human greed has caused: it frees people who have been enslaved because of debt, and it returns land to its original owners so that every member of God’s people has a way of earning a living. During the year of Jubilee all the people return to their property and their families. Both land and people rest, and the people live off what the land produces by itself.
When Jesus proclaims good news to the poor, it isn’t just a metaphor. “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill” (James 2:16) is not good news to those who have no food or clothes. Jesus’ concern for those who suffer the crushing effects of poverty rings throughout Luke’s Gospel.
To give just a few examples, Jesus blesses the poor and pronounces woe on the rich (6:20–26); he tells a young ruler to sell all he has and give it to the poor (18:18–26); the salvation that comes to Zacchaeus’ house “today” includes giving half of his possessions to the poor and paying back four times as much as he took from people through fraud (19:1–10); and when John the Baptist sends messengers to inquire whether Jesus is really the one who is to come, Jesus says, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk….the poor have good news brought to them” (7:18–23).
Jesus does not separate economics from spirituality. The salvation that Jesus brings embraces spirit, soul, and body. It brings release from sin and from debt (compare Luke 6:4: “forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us”).
Today, Jesus says, Isaiah’s prophecy of release is fulfilled. This sounds like good news to his hearers in Nazareth, at least if all that healing and release is meant for them. But when Jesus reminds them that God’s love extends beyond their borders, that Elijah helped a woman from Sidon and Elisha healed a hated Syrian, they conclude that his message is really bad news. In order to accept his teaching, they would have to change their attitudes toward outsiders. They would have to include people they routinely exclude. They would have to believe that God’s salvation is really for all flesh, and not just for them.
That is more transformation than Jesus’ hometown hearers can handle. In their angry desire to make God’s salvation serve their own purposes, they try to kill Jesus. But Jesus mysteriously slips out of their grasp and goes on his way.
The episodes immediately after the scene in Nazareth show Jesus beginning to practice what he preaches. He frees a man from the demons (Luke 4:31–37), heals Simon’s mother-in-law (4:38–39), and reaches out to touch, heal, and free everyone who comes to him for help (4:40–41). The rest of the Gospel of Luke will show Jesus healing the broken and welcoming even the most crushed and downtrodden people: tax collectors, hemorrhaging women, prostitutes, the beggars and the homeless.
He forgives them and frees them, welcomes them and changes them. He has been anointed to bring freedom from sin and freedom from sinful structures. He has been anointed to create a new community that breaks down the barriers between insider and outsider, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor. In him, all flesh shall see God’s salvation.