Commentary on Luke 4:14-21
The Holy Spirit is a major actor in Luke’s Gospel and in its sequel, the Acts of the Apostles. From the very beginning of the narrative, the Holy Spirit fills and speaks through the story’s characters, such as Mary (Luke 1:35, 46-55), Elizabeth (1:41-45), Zechariah (1:67-79), Simeon (2:25-32), and John (3:1-18), giving us important clues about how to interpret the events narrated.
Jesus, the one about whom all the previous characters have spoken, is likewise filled with, and guided by, the Spirit. The Holy Spirit descends upon Jesus at his baptism (3:22) then leads him into the wilderness where he is tempted by the devil for 40 days and nights (4:1-2). Filled with the power of the Spirit, Jesus returns to his home country of Galilee and begins his public ministry (4:14). “He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone” (4:15).
The story zooms in closer and the tempo slows when Jesus comes to his home synagogue in Nazareth, the village in which he was raised. Here everyone watched him grow up and knows his family well. As an honored guest who is already gathering a reputation as a great teacher, Jesus is invited to read the Scriptures and to offer an interpretation.
The words Jesus speaks in Nazareth are especially important because they are the first words we hear of his public ministry in Luke’s Gospel. This is an inaugural address of sorts. What Jesus says here represents the heart of his message and mission. Of course, his message and mission do not come out of the blue, but from the Scriptures. He reads from the prophet Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (a conflation of Isaiah 61:1-2a and 58:6). Then Jesus gives a one-sentence interpretation: “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Right here, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus tells us clearly what his mission is about. He boldly claims to fulfill the words of Isaiah, who speaks of the Spirit anointing him, sending him, compelling him to bring good news to every one of God’s children who is bound up, pressed down, broken in spirit, impoverished, imprisoned, and desperately hungry for good news.
The word translated “poor” (ptochoi in Greek) has to do with economic status as well as other factors that lowered one’s status in the first-century world—factors such as gender, genealogy, education, occupation, sickness, disability, and degree of religious purity. Jesus’ mission is directed to the poor in the holistic sense of those who for various reasons are relegated to the margins of society. Jesus refuses to recognize these socially determined boundaries, insisting that these very “outsiders” are the special objects of God’s grace and mercy.1
The “year of the Lord’s favor” that Jesus proclaims is probably a reference to the year of Jubilee commanded in Leviticus 25, a year in which indentured servants (even resident aliens) were to be released, debts were to be forgiven, and land and property returned to families who had leased or sold them. It was to be a year of radical restoration, but there is little evidence that it was ever practiced in Israel. It was instead projected into the future as an eschatological hope.
Our gospel reading ends at verse 21, where Jesus proclaims, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In the second part of this story (4:21-30) which is next week’s Gospel reading, the reaction of the hometown crowd will turn from amazement and approval (4:22) to rage and even murderous intent (4:28-29). Knowing what is coming, it is difficult to preach on only the first half of the story.
Yet perhaps what Jesus has already said will provoke a strong response among many who hear these words today. Good news to the poor and the “year of the Lord’s favor” sound great until we get into the nitty-gritty of what that means. The idea of a radical redistribution of property and wealth, for example, will not sound like good news to many of us who live comfortable lives and do not want to give up what we have. The idea of welcoming certain groups of people into our communities will be unsettling for some. Still Jesus proclaims that today this scripture is fulfilled in him. Projecting this vision into a distant future is no longer possible.
Jesus will demonstrate this fulfillment concretely in his acts of healing, liberation, and welcome for all kinds of outsiders—the demon-possessed, the sick and paralyzed, lepers, hemorrhaging women, tax collectors and sinners. Mary has already announced that God is up to some serious table-turning (Luke 1:46-55), and Jesus will have much more to say in Luke’s Gospel about wealth and status and the reversals God’s reign brings about (see also Luke 6:20-26; 7:18-23; 12:13-21; 14:12-14; 16:1-12, 19-31; 18:18-26; 19:1-10).
It is important for preachers to resist the temptation to spiritualize this message. The spiritual aspect of salvation in Luke cannot be separated from economic, social, and political realities. Jesus’ mission is to free people from captivity to sin and from captivity to the sinful structures and systems that diminish and destroy lives.
Will hearers today receive this message as good news, or will they respond like the hometown crowd in Nazareth, fearing the loss of privileged position? Simeon, guided by the Spirit, said of the infant Jesus: “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35). The truth of Simeon’s prophecy is laid bare at Nazareth. Perhaps it will be in the places where Jesus’ mission is proclaimed this Sunday as well.
Preachers, of course, cannot control how people will respond to this message any more than Jesus himself could. We can only announce the good news and trust the Holy Spirit to be at work.
- Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 210-211.