Commentary on Nehemiah 8:2-6,8-10; 1 Corinthians 12:12-30; Luke 1:1-4; 4:14-21
IN THIS THIRD YEAR of the Sunday Scripture cycle we begin today to read the Gospel according to Luke. During the Ordinary Sundays of this year it is Luke’s story about Christ that we will be following.
Today’s Gospel passage is in two distinct parts. It begins with the opening paragraph of Luke’s account. It is addressed to a friend, Theophilus [, ‘beloved of God’]. Luke implies that Theophilus has already been instructed orally in the message of Jesus but Luke will now present him with an accurate and orderly account of Jesus’ life and teaching.
Luke clearly acknowledges that he himself never saw Jesus. His gospel was written at least 50 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Yet he wants to assure his friend that what he writes is accurate and is based on the experiences of people who did know Jesus personally.
At the same time, it is important to remember that Luke, like the other evangelists who have differing versions of the same events, is not writing a biography. His first purpose – as we see in the second part of today’s passage – is to tell us the meaning of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection for our personal lives and why we should accept and follow Jesus as our King and Lord.
A preparation for his work
The second part of today’s passage involves a jump in the text. We leapfrog from the opening paragraph of Luke’s gospel to Jesus’ first public appearance in his hometown of Nazareth. In between are the story of the Annunciation, Zachary and Elizabeth, the births of John the Baptist and of Jesus, the baptism of Jesus and the temptations in the desert. We have, in other words, jumped from chapter 1 to chapter 4 in our text.
All that has been described before is really a preparation for today’s scene. For what we are seeing here is the solemn inauguration of Jesus’ public life and mission.
Immediately before this he had been down at the River Jordan with his cousin, John the Baptist, and, following his baptism, he had his strange experience in the desert [to be discussed on the First Sunday of Lent]. So the Gospel says that Jesus “with the power of the Spirit in him” (arising from his Baptism and his triumph over the Evil One) “returned to Galilee”. Galilee is the northern province of Israel to which Jesus belonged. And he went back to Nazareth “where he had been brought up”.
A purposeful journey
Luke very deliberately has Jesus start his work here. His public life will be a single, direct journey from Nazareth to Jerusalem, the focal point of the story told by Luke in his gospel and in the Acts. Unlike the other accounts, there will be no going back and forth between Galilee and Jerusalem. And it is in Jerusalem, the city of peace, that Jesus will suffer and die. It is here that he will rise to life and become our Lord and Saviour. And it is from here too that his disciples will go forth to every corner of the world with the Good News.
So it is that on this first day he goes into the synagogue “as he usually did” on the Sabbath day. (Jesus was an observant Jew. His attacks were never on the Law as such but on its interpretation and abuses. He came, as he said, not to destroy, or replace, the Law but to fulfil it.)
There were no priests in the synagogue, which was simply a prayer hall. The priests were in the Temple, the only place where sacrifice was held. Every male Jew had a right to read the Scriptures and to speak to the assembly.
As Jesus stood up to read, a passage from the prophet Isaiah was given to him. It was a passage about the coming Messiah. What happens now, of course, is that Jesus is announcing that he himself is that Messiah. He applies the words of the prophet to himself. “The spirit of the Lord has been given to me [at his baptism], for he has anointed me.”
“He has anointed me.” That is a way of saying “I am a king”. A king was proclaimed by anointing. We remember the prophet Samuel anointing David as king. The Greek for Messiah is “Christos” () and it means “the anointed one”. Saviour King, Messiah, Christ – they here all mean the same thing. Jesus Christ means Jesus King. “Christ” is an explanatory title; it is not a name.
And what kind of king is Jesus going to be? There immediately follows a proclamation, a programme or manifesto of what we can expect from him. Today we might call it a ‘mission statement’. The words are to be taken both literally and symbolically.
Good news for the disadvantaged
They are addressed directly to the materially poor, those in prison, the physically blind, the oppressed and exploited of the world. While Matthew speaks of “the poor in spirit”, Luke addresses the beatitude directly to “you who are poor, weep, are hungry and oppressed”. The message for them is one of hope, of healing and of liberation. This will come about not by some miracle but by the transformation of those who, aligning themselves with Jesus, can put an end to these things.
But the message is surely to be understood symbolically as well, so as to include all of us. It is the Brazilian Paolo Freire in ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ who emphasises that where there are rich and poor, powerful and weak, oppressors and oppressed, all are equally in need of liberation.
So, in addition to the materially poor, there are those who are emotionally underdeveloped, those who are lonely or rejected, those who are crushed by their need to be surrounded by material plenty… all are poor, really poor. And they include all of us at some time.
In addition to those held in captivity, especially those who are unjustly in prison but also those who, guilty of some crime, need conversion and reconciliation, there are many, many who are far from free. Very few people indeed are truly free and many actually fear true freedom and the responsibility that goes with it. True freedom is something for all of us to pray for.
“Give sight to the blind.” There is a kind of instinct that makes people in some cultures consult the blind as sources of a special insight. Physical blindness is far less disabling than the blindness that comes from prejudice, ignorance, jealousy and other emotional blocks.
Most people, said a writer, “lead lives of quiet desperation”. Societies which often boast of their freedom create sometimes unbearable pressures on people. Chinese dissidents who fled to the United States now hanker after a lifestyle that is not so materialistic and competitive. We need to become aware, here in our own society, to what extent we are living under pressures we could well do without.
A shared life
How do Jesus’ words reach us today? The answer, I believe, is in today’s Second Reading. The problem with our Christian living is that it is so individualistic. We try to manage things on our own. And that is even true of the way we try to live our Christian lives. But it is not the picture that Paul describes here. He sees the multiplicity of Christians as living members of one Body. Each member interacts in a constant giving and receiving. And each member gets the same respect. In fact, it is the “weakest” and “least honourable” parts which receive greater attention. That is how the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel become living realities. For it is in mutual giving and receiving as one Body that we enable each other to experience the enrichment (overcoming our poverty), the vision (banishing our blindness), and the freedom (removing the oppressions and addictions) which Jesus wishes us to have.
Finally, we cannot help noticing the contrast between the proclamation of the Law in the First Reading and that of Jesus in the Gospel. The Law was essential for dignity, human rights and freedom but there is a new ingredient in what Jesus gives – compassion. That’s what makes the difference.