Commentary on Luke 4:21-30
The Christian season of Epiphany (Greek epiphaneia) focuses on the manifestation of Jesus as the Christ to the world. But what exactly does that mean? How do we distinguish the prophetic unveiling or disclosure of God’s liberating agenda from the social agendas of others? Moreover, what should we expect when we participate in the work of articulating God’s prophetic interventions? The story cycle of Epiphany guides us in the work of disclosure and recognition.
The framing stories in the Epiphany cycle are the visit of the wise men (Matthew 2) and the baptism of Jesus (Luke 3:21-22). The story of Jesus’ first synagogue sermon in Luke 4:16-30 builds on these stories. It extends the meaning of prophetic manifestation and disclosure with a moment that devolves from accord to conflict.
In terms of literary context, this unit occurs immediately after Jesus’ temptation experience (4:1-13). Situated within Luke’s larger section marking off Jesus’s Galilean ministry (4:14–9:50), it is a pronouncement story that depicts Jesus’ interpretive practice. While much of the material in Luke’s version of Jesus’ Galilean ministry parallels other gospels, features of this unit do not. The closest parallels in the Gospels are Jesus’ rejection in his hometown of Nazareth in Mark 6:1–6 and Matthew 15:53–58. But neither Mark nor Matthew report what Jesus taught inside the synagogue.
In today’s version, the writer permits us to shadow the prophetic and messianic figure Jesus closely (Luke 4:14-30). He takes us inside the synagogue. It is the first full episode after Jesus’ temptation moment. For the Gospel of Luke, the showdown between Jesus and the devil necessitates his “return” (hypostrephō, 4:1, 14) and his public pronouncement. Disclosure, in this case, comes on the heels of encounter and confrontation. Jesus discloses his identity and message only after he has wrestled and brawled in the desert place (4:1).
There are at least four interpretive angles for approaching verses 21-30 with a focus on prophetic disclosure, accord, and conflict.
Reading Scripture in Community
Luke 4:14-30 is a signature story in the Gospel of Luke. Jesus publicly announces that the Isaiah prophecy (Isaiah 61:1–2; 58:6) is fulfilled in his deeds, teachings, and ministry. Luke casts Jesus as a prophetic model for how to read and interpret in service to communicating the disclosures of God. In Luke 4:21, Jesus takes the next step beyond simply quoting and reading the Isaiah scroll. Jesus connects what he reads to the current moment of the community. Jesus interprets the meaning and significance of the Isaiah prophesy, pointing them towards where to look and he sits among them to entertain the questions that follow. In short, an important model established in today’s passage is reading and interpreting scripture in community and with community.
Leveraging the Popular Wisdom of the People
As another interpretive possibility, readers can notice what occurs after Jesus interprets the prophecy toward himself. His listeners appear to accord with his reading. They are astonished by it: “All spoke well of him and were amazed (thaumazō) at the gracious words that came from his mouth.” Immediately following this affirmation, however, a question arises: “Is not this Joseph’s son?” In the other Gospel accounts about Jesus’ hometown conflict, the questions continue, and things devolve with the crowd taking offense at Jesus’ deeds and teachings (Mark 6:2-3).
In Luke’s version, Jesus anticipates the devolving situation. He engages in his own kind of preemptive strike and takes an offensive stance. Jesus recites and leverages popular wisdom when he says: “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum’” (Luke 4:23). From his statements, Jesus appears to know the adages and colloquialisms of his community. He is also aware of the gossip already circulating about him. He uses that knowledge rhetorically.
Leveraging the popular wisdom and gossip circles of his people, Jesus counters the impending character attack. The matter here is not what Jesus says, but who Jesus is. As the son of a modest artisan, Jesus should not be teaching with such authority, honor, and influence. This story reflects the problem of the honor-shame code when it meets God’s prophetic disclosures and intentions. The prophetic word and messianic power rise up from below the social caste system rather than trickling down from above.
Countering Anti-Semitic Readings
Unfortunately, it is possible for Christian preachers to potentially engage this passage in a way that is anti-Semitic and ahistorical. So, caution and intention are necessary. On first reading, it appears the Jews in the synagogue turn on Jesus when he cites Elijah’s interactions with the non-Israelite widow at Zarephath (1 Kings 17:8-16) and Elisha’s interaction with the non-Israelite leper, Naaman of Syria. Some might read their fiery response as evidence of a particularly xenophobic and ethnocentric orientation. The synagogue Jews in the story appear to be enraged by the idea that the Isaiah messianic figure carries a positive and inclusive message for non-Jews. But that interpretation is incorrect.
As a scholar in The Jewish Annotated New Testament states, “Such conclusions misread Jewish history. Jews in general had positive relations with Gentiles, as witnessed by the Court of the Gentiles in the Jerusalem Temple, Gentiles as patrons of synagogues (7:1-10), and Gentiles as god-fearers” (Acts 10; also see Zechariah 8:23) (Jewish Annotated New Testament, 107).
So, what was the object of their anger, rejection, and violent response? Before the same synagogue members rejected Jesus’ words, they accepted and affirmed them. After Jesus read and interpreted the prophecy as fulfilled, his listeners approved his message and wanted to understand more about it and him.
What changed between verses 22 and 28, prompting the shift from amazement (thaumazō) to anger (thumos)? Before Jesus cites his two prophetic precedents in the stories of Elijah and Elisha, Jesus shows his hand—he does not plan to offer any of the prophetic and messianic deeds of power and blessings that he does elsewhere, like the five Sabbath healings he performs immediately after this story (4:31, 38; 6:6; 13:10; 14:1).
The offense that sparks rage and violent backlash is Jesus’ refusal to act on his authority and power in his hometown. Preachers should not interpret this story as an incident in Jewish-Christian relations. All in this story are Jewish kinspeople, including Jesus. And they appear to share the expectation of promise and fulfillment expressed in reading Isaiah 61. The issue here is deeds, not belief.
In Luke 4:16-30, the gospel writer leverages the paradigm of the prophet. In addition to teacher and interpreter, Jesus is cast as a prophetic figure who resources the traditions of the prophets. The figure of the prophet is a prominent theme across the Gospel of Luke and Book of Acts (Luke 7:16; 7:39; 13:31-33; 24:19; Acts 3:22; 7:37). The response to prophetic messengers in Luke-Acts is mixed. At times, the messages they carry, particularly as interpreted through Scripture, are welcomed and affirmed. Other times, they meet resistance. Jesus’ prophetic proclamation and embodiment coupled with the shifting responses he receives in this story, epitomizes the pattern of prophetic disclosure unfolding throughout the larger narrative.
Disclosure and recognition in Luke, therefore, involves identifying the continuities and symmetries between what God is doing and what God already accomplished through earlier prophets. Today’s passage is an invitation to follow Jesus’ example and to rehearse the prophets of our cultures and traditions that extend Jesus’ liberating message of freedom, provision, care, and recovery (4:18-19).
Who are the prophets we must remember and name today as points of God’s disclosure? Jesus recognized God’s saving power at work through him and among his townspeople because he knew the words and stories of Isaiah, Elijah, and Elisha to the point he rehearsed it unprovoked. What are the names and stories of your community’s prophets that point you toward the work of God’s Spirit that sees the poor, imprisoned, uninspired, oppressed, and disinherited (Luke 4:18-19)?
I am compelled to remember the work of prophets like Anna Julia Cooper, Ida B. Wells, Octavia Butler, Desmund Tutu, Ella Baker, Richard and Sarah Allen, Howard and Sue Bailey Thurman, and Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King. That’s just the beginning for me, but perhaps that is a point of today’s Epiphany story—namely, to get us to begin…