Commentary on Luke 4:16-30
We begin today the reading of Luke’s gospel which will bring us up to the end of the Church year. We have already gone through Matthew and Mark and John’s gospel has been spread through various parts of the year, especially during the Advent, Christmas, Lent and Easter seasons.
The gospel is a companion volume to the book of the Acts and the language and structure of these two books indicate that both were written by the same person. They are addressed to the same individual, Theophilus, and the second volume refers to the first.
Luke presents the works and teachings of Jesus that are especially important for understanding the way of salvation. Its scope is complete from the birth of Christ to his ascension. It appeals to both Jews and Gentiles.
However, we take up Luke’s gospel at the beginning of Jesus’ public life (chap. 4). After his baptism he had returned “in the power of the Spirit to Galilee”, the northern province of Palestine and his home province. Already people were talking about him everywhere.
Now, as our reading opens, we find him in Nazareth, a small town in Galilee and the place where he grew up. From the verses immediately preceding, it does not seem that Jesus actually began his ministry in Nazareth. The event described here may not have taken place until a year later. One suggestion (NIV Bible) is that all that is described in John’s gospel between 1:19 to 4:42 took place between the temptation in the desert and the moving north to Galilee (vv.13 and 14).
But Luke has arranged the structure of his gospel so that Jesus will begin his public life in Nazareth and will gradually proceed southwards towards his goal, Jerusalem, without turning back. In the other Synoptics he moves around Galilee in all directions and John suggests that he made a number of visits to Jerusalem during his public life.
The Jerusalem Bible suggests that our passage today actually combines three distinct parts:
the first, vv.16-22 (Jesus is honoured), occurring at the time indicated by Matt 4:13;
the second, vv.23-24 (Jesus astonishing his audience), the visit of which Matthew and Mark speak;
the third, vv.25-30 (the life of Jesus threatened), not mentioned by Matthew or Mark and to be placed towards the end of the Galilean ministry.
In this way Luke presents an introductory tableau which is a summary and symbol of Christ’s great offer and of its contemptuous rejection by his own people.
As the reading opens we find Jesus in the town synagogue. It is a sabbath day. He gets up to read the scripture and comments on it. The ruler of the synagogue could authorise any adult Jew to read the scripture lesson. The passage he reads is full of significance. It comes from the prophet Isaiah and Jesus’ reading of it amounts to a manifesto or what we might call today a “mission statement”. ‘Books’ in those days were in the form of scrolls and the Scriptures were kept in a special place in the synagogue and given to the reader by an attendant. Jesus may have chosen the passage himself or it may have been assigned for that day.
But it is more than just a mission statement. As he reads it becomes clear that the whole statement is about Jesus himself. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” This has already been confirmed during his baptism in the river Jordan when “the Holy Spirit came down on him in the form of a dove” and a voice was heard to say, “You are my beloved Son; in you I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22).
“Because he has anointed me.” In saying this Jesus is making an unequivocal claim to be the Messiah or the Christ, the long-awaited liberating King of Israel. The word “Messiah”, translated into Greek as Christos (), means someone who is anointed with oil. (We call the oil in baptism and confirmation ‘chrism’.) And a person was made king by having oil poured over his head. (We remember how David was anointed king.) Jesus, of course, was not literally anointed but had been figuratively ‘anointed’ by the coming of the Spirit on him in his baptism. ‘Anointing’ is our equivalent of ‘coronation’, symbolised by the putting of a crown on the new king.
Then comes the mission of this King:
To preach the gospel to the poor,
to heal the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to captives and
recovery of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are hurt
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.
There is nothing here of restoring the glories of Israel, nothing about conquering enemies and laying waste their lands. No, it is about letting the poor of this world hear the Good News of God’s love for them. It is about healing and reconciliation. It is about liberating those who are tied down by any form of enslavement. It is about helping people to see clearly the true meaning of life. It is about restoring wholeness to people’s lives and to societies. It is about the inauguration of the Kingdom by its King.
It is, in short, the whole picture of Jesus that will unfold in the pages of Luke, a gospel which focuses on the poor and vulnerable, a gospel of tenderness and compassion, a gospel of the Spirit and of joy, a gospel of prayer and healing.
It is about “proclaiming a year acceptable to the Lord”. This refers to the Messianic age when salvation would be proclaimed. Isaiah in the original text is alluding to the Year of Jubilee, when every 50 years slaves were set free, debts were cancelled and ancestral lands were returned to the original family. Isaiah was thinking mainly of freedom from Babylonian captivity but Jesus was speaking of liberation across the board of human living.
And, as he finished the reading, Jesus put down the scroll and said that these things were now being fulfilled as they were hearing them.
And the townspeople who thought they knew him so well were overawed by the wisdom with which he spoke. This positive reaction to Jesus is a favourite theme in Luke. “Is not this Joseph’s son?” they asked rhetorically. But they were wrong. He was not Joseph’s son; he was the son of Mary and of the Father, the divine Word sharing our ‘flesh’. (As suggested above, this event may have occurred on a second visit.)
And this in turn leads us to the third section of the reading which provides an unexpected turn of events and is more in harmony with the later part of Jesus’ public life. Jesus’ hearers were surprised at the way he spoke but they were not moved to change. After all, he was just the son of Joseph, and someone they knew so well could have nothing to say to them. At the same time Jesus says they, his own townspeople, must be wondering why he is not doing the things in Nazareth that he was doing in places like Capernaum.
Capernaum, apparently a sizeable town, was where Peter lived and Jesus made his house the centre out of which he did his missionary work in Galilee. A 5th century basilica now stands on the supposed site of the house and there is a 4th century synagogue quite near.
The reason for their non-acceptance is that they do not really accept him for what he is. He reminds them that prophets are seldom accepted in their own place. Familiarity blinds people to their message. “I know who he is and he has nothing to say to me.” Jesus then gives two rather provocative examples:
During a great famine in the time of the prophet Elijah he was sent to help not his fellow Israelites but a poor widow in Sarepta, near Sidon in non-Jewish territory. Sidon was one of the oldest Phoenician cities on the Mediterranean coast and about 33 km north of Tyre. Later, Jesus would heal the daughter of a Gentile woman here.
And in the time of the prophet Elisha, there were many lepers in Israel but he was sent to cure Naaman, a Gentile general from Syria.
God reaching out to Gentiles through his prophets sets the stage for the Gentiles to receive the message of the Prophet Jesus, which is so much a theme of Luke’s writings. But these remarks so angered the people of Nazareth that they dragged Jesus to the brow of a hill with the intention of throwing him down but he just walked through them. Whether he did this miraculously or from the sheer power of his personality is not clear. In any case, his time had not yet come.
Prophetic voices being rejected by their own is a phenomenon only too common in our own day. And it was something Jesus foretold would happen to his followers, simply for being his followers and proclaiming his vision of life. In the meantime, let us make Jesus’ mission statement our own. It is what being a Christian means.