Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 23, 2022
Luke 4:14-21 Commentary
Throughout the Gospel of Luke, the Holy Spirit’s presence with Jesus is described in various ways. In verse 14, Jesus has just returned from his post-baptism time of temptation in the desert. Upon his return, Jesus takes up the mantle of teacher, filled with the Spirit for the work of sharing God’s truth in synagogues.
By including verses 14 and 15 but ending this week’s selection before the conflict with the people arises, the lectionary is choosing to focus our attention on what is revealed about Jesus in this passage. Jesus returns home to Nazareth, and continues to do what he had already begun doing by going to the synagogue on the sabbath and teaching.
The original Greek of verse 17 is a bit more ambiguous than our English reads; the verb “found” could mean that Jesus intentionally sought out Isaiah 61 to read, or it could have been complete happenstance that Isaiah 61 was the passage he read. Nonetheless, we know the Spirit of God is in it, because Jesus is described in verse 14 as being filled with the Spirit, and here the prophetic message opens with, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…”
The main activity of the Spirit’s purpose in anointing is “bringing good news to the poor.” The captives, the blind, and the oppressed are all people who are in some sort of poverty, and the anointed one is sent to them by the Spirit of the Lord to not just say good things, but to enact good things for them. The captives are declared released, the oppressed are sent to their freedom, and by the mere use of words, the blind are given their sight back. Everyone hears that it is the moment of the Lord’s favour. In other words, the words of God have power to change things because the Holy Spirit is at work through these words, and Jesus Christ is the manifestation of God’s favour to the world.
Jesus is filled with the powerful Spirit of God and the goodwill of the Trinity’s love. When the world was made through Christ (Col 1.15-20), it was the Spirit who hovered in the words spoken by the Father as the world came to be. When Christ was raised from the dead, it was the power of the Spirit who resurrected him—that same power that shared with and is alive in us! (Rom 8.11-13) So this isn’t just a case of “thoughts and prayers” or well wishes that comes off Jesus’ lips and fills the synagogue with its hollow words; they are filled with God’s promising presence and work begun.
Jesus reads the prophetic words from the holy Scriptures, then sits down in order to teach about them, as was the custom in the synagogue. It seems to me that these words of hope and promise caught the heart and imagination of everyone gathered there. All eyes are fixed on Jesus; the text allows us to sense the anticipation and to feel the need that the people had for good news. We all know this need; we have felt the anticipation and rapt attention, and some of us preachers have sensed the holy silence that accompanies the moments when the presence of God is palpable in the reading of the Word among a people who are desperate for a good word.
In that holy silence of verse 20, verse 21 feels like a giant cliff hanger. “Then he began to say to them” is a way of trying to communicate that what is said in one sentence, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” was not the only thing Jesus preached that day. And yet, it’s all we’re given of his message.
It is all we are given, but in them we are given Jesus the Christ, filled with the Holy Spirit, accomplishing all that is necessary to free people from their poverty. Jesus doesn’t just say good things, he is the deliverer, the Messiah, the fulfillment of goodness and love itself.
Jesus says that he has “fulfilled” this Scripture, using the perfect tense to describe his work. He means that he has accomplished it with lasting effects. It is an act that reverberates. Since it is the only part of the message we are given, it is the heart of what we need to know and trust. It is the summary of all that Jesus will teach or do, invite people to experience, and encourage his disciples to engage and to spread as they (and we) evangelize.
The perfect tense of “fulfilled” means that this Scripture continues to be fulfilled for us by and through the Spirit and Jesus Christ. The fullness of God permeates this passage—from Jesus being filled with the power of the Spirit at the beginning, to Jesus fulfilling the Scriptures here at the end.
But the setting should not be set aside as inconsequential. The gathered community, hearing the scriptures, worshipping God, learning together, is significant to the way that Christ is preached and shares the good news (i.e., evangelism). Jesus embodied the good news of God in all places, inside and outside the “church.” He may have shunned certain rituals and religious observances, but he did not discredit or abolish the gathered community of faith. In fact, the New Testament shows us how the Spirit uses and establishes the “church” as a key place of revelation and as an agent for the fulfilling work of Jesus the Christ. The church is full of people in poverty, gathered and desperate for a good word. It is also full of the Spirit of God, able to proclaim and enact the good values and ways of the liberating Kingdom of God.
Maybe that’s why verse 21 is a bit of a cliff hanger. Because it is the church today that continues to be the fulfillment of Jesus Christ’s proclamation and good news sermon, the reason why Jesus uses the perfect tense to describe himself as the fulfillment of the Scriptures… May we become more faithful in being the good news.
In verse 21, when Jesus “began to say to them,” the aorist verb “began” is paired with a present infinitive “to say.” This makes the definition of “began” carry a small, added layer of interpretation: what Jesus is doing now is different than what he was just doing, or, according to BDAG (the Greek dictionary), his “activity now takes a new turn.” Most scholars don’t want to make too much theological import of this, choosing instead to focus on the literal and immediate turn that Jesus makes from reading scripture to preaching. However, this entire passage is a sort of pivot to Christ’s public ministry—which is made up of both literal and symbolic liberation (the heart of the message he both reads and preaches).
Also of note is where Jesus stops reading from the scroll of Isaiah; he stops immediately before the coming day of vengeance. Citing E. Earle Ellis, John Nolland (Word Biblical Commentary) finds this to be in line with “Luke’s two-stage eschatology for Jesus—salvation now, judgment in the future.”
In the 1890s, sisters (twins, actually) Margaret Dunlop Gibson and Agnes Smith Lewis, went to the St. Catherine’s Monastery at the foot of Mt. Sinai in Egypt to study ancient manuscripts housed in the Greek Orthodox community’s library. One of the books they looked through was a palimpsest, a manuscript that has been “erased” so that a new text can be written on it. The process for “erasing” the vellum (pages made from animal skin) usually involved washing or scraping it, which often left remnants of the original writing faintly evident. This particular palimpsest had the stories of the lives of women saints written around 778 AD on top of the four gospels from the fourth century. In fact, the gospel narratives underneath turned out to be some of the oldest Syriac editions ever discovered. You can read about it in the book Agnes wrote in 1894.
Jan Richardson reflects on this discovery:
“Reading about the palimpsest, I found myself fascinated by the imagery present within its story. The pages of the manuscript, with their layers of text, make visible what happened in the lives of these women of the early church. By their devotion, by their dedication to preserving and proclaiming the gospel message, the desert mothers became living palimpsests, the story of Christ shimmering through the sacred text of their own lives, the Word of God fulfilled in them.”
It is like what Jesus does here with Isaiah 61, layering himself and his ministry on top of the ancient prophetic text, telling its story through his life and liberating good news message and work. As the Word incarnate, Jesus Christ images the invisible God (Col 1.15-20) and is the embodied good news who invites us to be embodied reconcilers and ambassadors of that Good Kingdom. It is an invitation to become a living palimpsest, where God’s message is made manifest (not erased) in the story of our unique lives. Or perhaps, it’s to tell the story of our liberation, of how we have been released from what controlled us, what we are now able to see because we have been given sight, to describe what the Lord’s favour looks and feels and sounds like—both as individuals and as the church.
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