Third Sunday after Epiphany (Year C)

This passage follows upon the heels of the temptation narrative in which Jesus emerges the victor over Satan, at least for the time being.

January 24, 2010

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Commentary on Luke 4:14-21

This passage follows upon the heels of the temptation narrative in which Jesus emerges the victor over Satan, at least for the time being.

He is now ready to begin his public ministry and deliver his inaugural address in his own home town.

Luke writes that Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit. He had actually been strengthened by the experience of his encounter with evil. He went to Galilee, as each Gospel relates, signifying his aim to reach Gentiles. But there were synagogues in Galilee too and in these Jesus was teaching and being glorified by everyone. This sets up the next story of Jesus’ appearance in his home town.

Luke is careful to relate that Jesus went home and that he regularly worshipped in the synagogue. He was a faithful Jew, not someone who darkened the doors of the synagogue only at Yom Kippur and Passover. Jesus rose up to read. Someone gave him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, but Jesus chose the passage. Unfortunately for Luke, there is no single passage with those words in it, but rather it is a compilation of the Servant Song from Isaiah 58:6 and 61:1-2. Perhaps Jesus conflated the two readings himself. In any case, the good news is read.

As the prophetic passage stated, someone had been anointed to proclaim the gospel (good news). The irony is that Jesus is the one anointed at his baptism at which the Spirit descended upon him in bodily form, according to Luke. But only Luke and the reader know that at this point. As with all Epiphany texts, this one holds hidden promise for the future.

The good news in Isaiah refers to the restoration of Israel after the exile. The “poor” receive good news, not cash, because in Isaiah they are the afflicted and the oppressed in general, not merely the penniless. Likewise, captives are not convicted criminals but those unjustly imprisoned. The sightless will see again. All these promises will be fulfilled in the telling of the story of Jesus as he releases people from demon possession and death, spiritual and physical blindness.

All these activities are tied together in the “year of the Lord’s favor.” Does this refer to the Jubilee Year as proclaimed in Leviticus 25:10? If so, it is another ironic utterance. The Jubilee Year was to have occurred every fifty years in Israel when the land was to lay fallow, all debts forgiven, and all slaves freed. However, Jeremiah 34:14 suggests that the Jubilee Year had not been followed and that when King Zedekiah did try to institute the practice, it was circumvented by the people. Confusion abounds as to whether or not the practice was ever truly instituted. Yet, the Jubilee Year has influenced such practices as the statute of limitations in our day.

Such pronouncements of authoritative largesse by kings and rulers had been commonplace among the ancients. The Caesars were often portrayed as grand liberators and generous benefactors. For Jesus to read this message from Isaiah and proclaim its fulfillment is therefore an indictment of all politicians who claim to bring release and freedom. True freedom does not consist in money and possessions or in the ability to do as one pleases.

Americans are used to the idea of freedom as license to do as one wishes. Jesus, however, understands freedom differently. It is a release from captivity to death, the will of others, and the will of the self. Jesus will preach the freedom of slavery to God’s will and service to the neighbor (Luke 22:24-27). Such a definition of freedom can only be grasped from the way Jesus will fulfill the words of Isaiah’s prophecy.

Jesus withstood the temptation in the wilderness. He is tempted yet again to say the easy thing and do whatever it takes to curry favor with his listeners. As is apparent from the rest of this passage in Luke (verses 22-30) he resists that temptation as well. The Revised Common Lectionary has divided the passage in Luke, which robs this first part of its denouement. As a result the preacher must split the message in two and concentrate on Jesus’ positive message in the first part and his antagonism and the congregations’ reaction in the second.

This first part deals with messianic deliverance and the alteration of the status quo. God never leaves people where he finds them. A change in condition always accompanies an encounter with the divine. Radical change is what Jesus proclaims and will perform. Jesus does not merely affirm the condition of his children. He is about the reversal of fortunes that results not just in change in one’s environmental state, but in the person itself.

This is not the change that happens with the turnover in governmental administrations. This is real change in the spirit and life of the person who hears this good news and whose life is never the same afterward. The Jubilee Year may or may not have been practiced in ancient Israel, but Jesus’ announcement does not come simply as an injunction upon imperfect people but as words with power, which affects the change proclaimed.

The change is not a concept or an idea. It is a person. The first person singular pronoun is used three times in verse 18. Jesus is the change. Therefore, any definition of release, sight, gospel, or change must be taken from his actions and his words. But this is only the beginning. The rest of the story will tell us what real change is and means.