Isaiah 61; Luke 4:21-30
There is something intriguing about what the lectionary folks did in separating Jesus first sermon into two weeks of reading and reflecting. Why did they do this? This question has troubled me for the past two weeks.
It would be like me reading the passage, saying “The word of the Lord,” and then we all get up and go home. When we respond with, “the word of the Lord,” to a scripture reading is it like what Jesus said here, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” This word is true and real right now, whenever we read it, because it is God’s word!
Last week, we heard Luke 4:14-21. Really? An odd, but sort of comfortable place to stop! Today we get the rest of the story.
First, we hear that everyone was amazed at his gracious words. People were delighted to hear that God’s grace had finally come to their village. Right here, right now.
But we have to go back to what Jesus read in order to understand better what happened after this. Jesus selected only a brief passage from the 61st chapter of Isaiah. Why did he stop there? And he didn’t quote it exactly. Why not? What did he change or leave out or add? Let me outline the differences for you.
Jesus uses the word, “poor” where Isaiah uses the word “oppressed,” to describe the hearers of good news. These words could be used interchangeably, but in Luke, Jesus repeatedly shows a particular heart for the poor, the literally poor of means. This change may have been Luke’s. But it is also consistent with Jesus’ teachings. Remember that they didn’t have recordings, so those who write down stories are always using their own words. The two words reference the same people. The poor, were indeed the oppressed, because they had no options.
Jesus adds the phrase, “and recovery of sight to the blind.” This phrase is not in the Hebrew Bible. But it is in the Greek version, known as the Septuagint. This Greek translation was completed about 200 years before this Sabbath in Nazareth, so it may have been what Jesus was reading. Or, even more likely, since Luke was Greek in his education and possibly also his birth, Luke might have been more comfortable doing his research in the Septuagint than the Hebrew text. So, when he quoted Isaiah 61, he included that version.
But I am glad we have this phrase – not just for those who are literally blind, but also for those of us who sometimes just don’t see beyond the end of our noses. We tend to be blind to the experience of others in this world. May we recover our sight, our hearing and our heart.
The most striking change is where he stops reading. He stops in the middle of a phrase, and particularly, in the middle of a poetic couplet. Hebrew poetry is based on the structure of phrases, contrasting opposites, or putting synonyms next to each other, or having phrases build on each other, etc. Jesus reads the first half of the couplet: “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,” and omits its contrasting phrase: “and the day of vengeance of our God.”
Was this intentional? With what happens next, this seems likely. Jesus disconnects the perspective that grace for us is connected with vengeance for others. Our blessing and our enemy’s condemnation are no longer connected. Just perhaps, that is at the heart of the good news Jesus announced.
Let’s take a quick look at Isaiah, the book Jesus chose. Isaiah is an interesting book, and subject to much scholarly debate. The latest wisdom is that Isaiah is a compendium of prophecies from the school of disciples of Isaiah, many from the original prophet himself, structured around one great theme: Exile. The first 33 chapters promise judgment for Judah, Jerusalem and the nations (with hints of restoration included). And the last 33 chapters take the perspective that the judgment has happened and that complete restoration is to be expected soon. The book of Isaiah can be read as extended poetic reflection on Israel’s experience of Exile – what led up to it, what it felt like when it happened, and the promise of release and restoration. It is not surprising that Isaiah was one of the most popular works among Jews from the time of the release from exile onward. This high regard for Isaiah was carried into the Christian communities, to the point where Isaiah has often been referred to as the “Fifth Gospel.”
When Jesus began his ministry, Israel was again in a time which felt like exile. They lived in their own land, but were oppressed subjects of the Roman empire, ever since Pompey wrested control of Palestine from Jewish hands in 63 BCE. So the popularity of Isaiah was on the rise again, especially the second half, from which Jesus reads, because it looks hopefully toward restoration.
So a first observation is that Jesus’ selection of text this Sabbath in Nazareth would have been well-received. The people would have been leaning forward in their seats in anticipation of the good news Jesus would proclaim for them. And they were not disappointed. He read one of the most beautiful, hope-filled passages from Isaiah. And then, Heaven-be-praised, he said the promise is fulfilled!
Of course they were amazed and everyone spoke well of him and the grace he pronounced! They were primed to receive him well. They had heard the stories of how much everyone loved his teaching all over Galilee (Luke 4:14-15).
I am thinking that Sabbaths in the synagogue were more interactive than what we have here. We know that Paul had to train his little Jesus synagogues to be orderly and not talk over each other. That seems to be the case here too. Everyone spoke well of him. He was even their own prophet! Son of Joseph!
This pride of ownership seemed to pull the cork out of the bottle for Jesus, and he lets fly some really harsh words for his home crowd. Prophets are not accepted at home. And then a tirade on God’s mercy to non-Jews!
Remember what I said about Jesus breaking up the flow of the poetry by leaving off the last part of the couplet, the part about judging the enemies? This reaction from the hometown-ers is a clue that it was no accident. They were waiting for the rest of the story. The vengeance. But Jesus sat down and refused to read it. He would not pronounce the day of vengeance as a comfort.
You see, from the point where Jesus stops reading, the prophet begins to imply that vengeance on the enemy would comfort God’s people. Isaiah continues to say that Israel’s restoration would include the enslavement of others to serve them. Yes, their fortunes would be restored. That was the promise. But Jesus seems to say: not at the expense of the people of other lands, even those we have come to call enemies.
And, Jesus observes, this is nothing new! In the days of Elijah, God sent his grace upon a widow in Sidon, not a widow of Israel. And in the days of Elisha, it was a Syrian who was cured of leprosy through Elisha, not the many lepers of Israel.
God doesn’t give grace exclusively to insiders. God’s grace is much bigger than you can imagine!, Jesus says. And this is good news!
For the people of Nazareth, this was not good news. They tried to throw Jesus off a cliff!
Here, perhaps is what we need to hear of Jesus’ message in our day and time. As humans, we have a tendency to see ourselves as right. And because I am right, all the others of you are wrong. And if you are wrong, I have the right to exclude you, war against you, or enslave you. I don’t need to value you because I am right, or because I am the chosen one, as Israel would have put it.
The good news is for me; the bad news is for you. When we say this, we only get it half right. The good news is for me, and for those I love, those who are part of my circle, my church. This is true. The good news is for me and it is for you. I love telling you that! God loves you! God’s grace is more than anyone can possibly imagine. And it is for us. God knows we need it! Today, in our hearing the good news is here, the year of the Lord’s favor is upon us! That is just as true when Jesus read it in Nazareth as when we read it this morning!
The trouble is that we want the good news to make us more comfortable, and to make life easier. This is not because we are particularly bad people. The people of Nazareth were not particularly bad people either. They were the poor and oppressed whom Jesus came to release. They were not bad people. They just could not see beyond their own needs. They could not see that others need grace just as much as they did.
But let’s make it a little more specific. The year of the Lord’s favor is upon us. Such amazing news! What does that mean to you? To us? Think about it for a moment. What are the pictures that come to mind as the dawning of the year of the Lord’s favor upon us?…
As a pastor of this particular congregation, I am lured into thinking that it means our congregation is going to prosper, that God will provide all the abundance we want for our ministry here. That our services here will begin to burst at the seams. And if that means that others who have found a home here are pushed out, well, others will be here to take their place. It is the year of the Lord’s favor for Mt. Tabor Presbyterian Church, after all.
This is exactly the thinking which Jesus challenged. He seemed to say that it is not either/or. In fact, the year of the Lord’s favor might just be dawning on our non-religious neighbors. That was the point Jesus was making in pointing out that the Sidonian and the Syrian received God’s blessing rather than the vulnerable ones of Israel.
It is a new day, when our sense of the gospel is: the good news is for me and the good news is for you! I am loved and included. We are loved and included. Those who think differently from us are loved and included. Even those we think of as enemies are loved and included in the grace and mercy of God.
This infuriated the people of Nazareth. They did not believe there was enough to go around. They lived in a world of scarcity. So do we, at least in our attitudes. The gospel is the good news that there is enough for everyone! We can stop building walls to keep our brothers and sisters out. We can stop building barns to store stuff for ourselves. We can stop making rules to exclude.
The good news is that we are privileged. We are loved by God. And, in a way that is the bad news too. Because this privilege extends to every creature on earth. Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. So the privilege turns into equality. There is enough for everyone in God’s realm.
We can choose today, again, to live this gospel. Counter-cultural, yes. But look around. Is what we are doing working? Is the world happy and at peace? Are we? Maybe it is time to say with our lives, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”