Commentary on Luke 4:21-30
On the fourth Sunday after Epiphany, the story of Jesus’ return to his hometown picks up where it left off.
The overlapping verse, the end of last week’s pericope and the beginning of this week’s passage, is 4:21, “Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,’” where “this scripture” refers to Jesus’ words quoting/paraphrasing Isaiah 61:1-2.
But, the promise of fulfillment from Jesus is not just today, in this moment, nor is it temporary and fleeting. Rather, that Isaiah’s words have been fulfilled in our hearing has indeed happened and the effect of that hearing is ongoing (perfect tense in Greek). What difference does this make? It brings us into the never-ending reality of how scripture is being fulfilled and invites us into making God’s reality possible. Our hearing plays a part in the promise of Isaiah’s words.
That is, we are in the midst of, in the presence of, and participating in proclaiming release to the captives, seeing to the recovery of sight to the blind, setting the oppressed free, and witnessing to the moment of the Lord’s favor. This is no small invitation at the end of the season of Epiphany. In part, we are asked to carry Epiphany into the dim, even dark months that are the season of Lent. We are asked to take seriously that we have a part in making the year of God’s favor a reality.
Home is Not Necessarily Where the Heart Is
This story does not give much hope to the seminary student, or even pastor, who returns to her home congregation to preach. It’s hard enough to live up to anticipated expectations. It’s harder still, of course, to meet up with unexpected rejection. There is a very human dimension to this whole story. When the hometown boy makes good, there are usually more than a few who resent the success.
Our text for today is the rest of the story, so to speak, and it doesn’t end well. But before we get to the “cliff-hanger,” there are a few details about Jesus’ words that are important to note, particularly for overall themes in Luke’s Gospel. Working our way backwards, that Jesus references the widow at Zarephath and the leper Naaman, the Syrian, reveals for whom Jesus has come — the widows, the lepers, the outsiders. Jesus’ whole ministry will be for the least of these, over and over again. Moreover, Jesus is for everyone. Both Elijah and Elisha take God into places where God was not thought to be and had no business being. It is these words of inclusion, Jesus’ own interpretation of his ministry, the real reason for God in a manger, that elicit a very quick transition from awe to rage for the hearers of Jesus’ words. Why is that?
The description of Jesus as prophet, along with Jesus’ reference to past prophets in Israel’s history, is a primary category through which Luke presents Jesus. Jesus is a righteous and innocent prophet as will be made clear by Luke’s account of the centurion’s words at the death of Jesus — “surely, this man was innocent” (Luke 23:47). Remembering the role of the Old Testament prophets is important for this passage. Prophecy is not about predicting the future, unless it means saying that the future is secure in God.
Rather, prophets tell the truth about the present and give hope to God’s presence. Jesus’ sermon in Nazareth is a prophetic message. Jesus tells the truth about the realities of our world, where the lowly are looked down upon, where the poor sleep in cardboard boxes under freeways, where the captives remain in their prisons, where the rich live exceedingly full lives. But reading — or hearing — between the lines, Jesus’ announces that God’s favor is upon us, upon all, imperceptibly here and now.
Yet, that Jesus knows no prophet is accepted in his or her hometown does indeed predict the very near future. That’s the culminating promise of Epiphany — that our God is near, is here. That our God is indeed revealing God’s very self even when it appears that everything God is for cannot always be perceived.
Luke’s Jesus is Real Life
As I write this, perhaps serendipitously past the contractual deadline, we are three days after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. It’s worthwhile to consider at this point if anything has changed since this national and yet most personal tragedy. More stringent gun laws? More concern for mental health? We might ask the same question of Christmas. Six weeks later, after God decided to become human and be born in a stable, are we any different? Has our outlook on life changed? Has our faith changed? Have we?
Because really, honestly, what happens when an event rocks our world? Stops us in our tracks? Makes our life out of control? We’d like to think that an immediate transformation takes place, that we have been forever altered, that life will never be the same again, and indeed there are those times when that does happen. Yet, all too often, the desire for normalcy outweighs the need for change. Our demand for constancy and predictability overshadows our correction. Our eschewing of difficulty results in complacency. And perhaps we don’t even recognize the moment for what it is and then choose rejection over the truth.
And so, we bring our dashed hopes, our suspicions, our fears, to the first cliff we can find so that by pushing them off the precipice we might ensure our own security, safety, and salvation. Yet, Jesus pushes through our walls of resistance, our facades of forbearance, and our determined denial toward that which will truly bring us peace, comfort and hope. It is a most fitting transition to the season of Lent.