Commentary on Luke 4:14-21
Last week’s text narrated Jesus’ first public act in the Gospel of John.
Now back to the Gospel of Luke for the text for the third Sunday after Epiphany: Jesus’ first public act in the Gospel of Luke, which is not an act at all but a sermon.
If you could choose the words that might encapsulate who you are, the only words that would communicate the essence of yourself, your life, your commitments, what would they be? When it comes to Luke, these few would be the choice words for Jesus in Luke. Luke 4:14-21 is essentially Jesus’ life, ministry, and purpose in a nutshell.
As a result, this passage has a critical function located here in the church year. First, as a passage read and heard in the season of Epiphany, it has a major role because of what it reveals about who Jesus is, what Jesus will do, and for whom Jesus has come. We might ask the same question of ourselves, as noted above. What would be the words that could sum you up? How much are you willing to reveal about yourself, to the world, to others, even to yourself? I know it’s Jesus, but still, these are bold words. You want to know who I am and why I am here? Well, here you go, and no euphemistic, metaphorical, or figurative hermeneutical gymnastics allowed. What if Jesus really means what he says because it says who he is?
Second, this early on in the year of Luke, Jesus’ sermon sets forth main themes for the Third Gospel. A preacher might choose to use this Sunday as an “epiphany” of Luke, so to speak, or to suggest that a faith life in the year of Luke will live out, embody, and proclaim these principles. To take Jesus’ proclamation seriously will take some intention and a perhaps a little bit of pastoral care. This may be more of an Epiphany than our parishioners bargained for.
Real Time, Real Talk
What’s fascinating about how Luke tells this story is that it happens in real time. That is, the time it takes to read the story is the total time of the actual event. Try it. Read it out loud. Better yet, have someone, preferably who has a good “God” voice, read it out loud to you and then picture it in your mind. Why does Luke dedicate this amount of narrative space to the pre-story before Jesus’ sermon and even the post-story? What’s the point?
Two possible reasons. One: that the words of Jesus are not just important for what they say but also because of their source. The origin of these words is important and deserves the attention it gets. Jesus isn’t just making this stuff up. Jesus’ situates his ministry in the ongoing promise and commitment of God, to the lowliest of God’s servants, to those who fear God from generation to generation, to the hungry, to God’s people Israel, to Abraham and Sarah. The promise and prophecy of Isaiah provides the theological trajectory that Jesus will articulate and embody in the Gospel of Luke.
Two: real time represents importance. Jesus’ words could have easily, practically, and succinctly been articulated in a summary statement. Yet, Luke gets that a synopsis of the meaning of Jesus is not sufficient. When we are talking about God, an abridged or condensed witness will not work. The whole theological impulse of Luke-Acts explodes any concise, peremptory, or succinct action of God.
Rather, the God of Luke-Acts intentionally and continually invades, initiates, and even invites any and all theological deliberation, exploration, and imagination. Such theological thinking takes time and cannot be straightforwardly encapsulated in convenient statements of theoretical intent. Rather, Jesus’ words are a call to real life, real people, real time. This is God in our present and in our reality.
Maybe Your Mother Really Does Know What’s Best
The language of Jesus’ first sermon should sound familiar. Its tone, topics, and concerns share that in common with his mother, who first gives witness and words to her son’s ministry. That is, Mary’s words foreshadow the ministry of her very own son. If this could be possible, one fruitful direction for preaching on Jesus’ sermon is to allow Mary’s Magnificat to echo and reverberate with her son’s first words.
Mary’s song acknowledges that what God has done, her son will do as well. She connects the dots, between the God that she knows, and has always known, and the God that is orienting her future, through her own son, Jesus. She realizes that God’s favor of her will be that which the world will experience because of her son, Jesus.
I wonder if Jesus learned something from his mother in those early years. After all, Luke is the only Gospel to include the 12-year-old Jesus who sends his mother and father into a parental frenzy when he all but disappears and elicits a frantic search for his location. Luke, why include this story and only you? How does that influence our sense of who you think Jesus is, of who we know Jesus to be?
At the risk of over-psychologizing or perhaps, psychologizing in general because it’s the Bible, what if Jesus first learned what it means to bring good news to the poor from the stories that his mother told him? About Elizabeth, the mother of his cousin John? About Sarah, his ancestor, who experienced the same shame? What if he watched his mother and listened to her and saw her as someone who not only knew the good news proclaimed to her but embodied its presence in her life? If so, this could be a most unique season of Epiphany.