I. THE PROLOGUE
1Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events that have been fulfilled among us,2just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning and ministers of the word have handed them down to us,3I too have decided, after investigating everything accurately anew, to write it down in an orderly sequence for you, most excellent Theophilus,4so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings you have received.
IV. THE MINISTRY IN GALILEE
The Beginning of the Galilean Ministry
14 Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit, and news of him spread throughout the whole region.15He taught in their synagogues and was praised by all.
The Rejection at Nazareth
16He came to Nazareth, where he had grown up, and went according to his custom into the synagogue on the sabbath day. He stood up to read17and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written:
18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.”
20Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him.21He said to them, “Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”
Nehemiah 8:2-4a, 5-6, 8-10, 1 Corinthians 12:12-30
This week the Gospel is sourced from two different chapters in Luke. First is the prologue, where we learn about the intention of our author, St. Luke, to write an orderly account of the life of Jesus. He informs his readers that he has “carefully investigated” the life of Jesus and has access to eyewitnesses who provide unique insight into events in the life of the Lord that were not included in the Gospels according to Matthew and Mark, which both predate Luke.
The readings now take the reader to Nazareth, a village situated high atop a ridge overlooking the Jezreel valley. This village is the boyhood home of Jesus. Jesus had been living in Nazareth for at least twenty years, together with Mary his mother and his adoptive father Joseph, and would have been well known in the village. He has been away for a while. Now he returns to Nazareth and attends the local synagogue, as was his weekly custom. He is recognized by the synagogue official and is invited to read and comment on a passage of his choice from the prophet Isaiah. This invitation to read and comment is an honor and reveals that Jesus is held in high regard among the villagers.
The scene is set for a drama to unfold. The prophecy of Isaiah fills a large scroll. The copy of the book of Isaiah that was discovered among the scrolls kept by the Essene community who lived along the shores of the Dead Sea, measures thirty-six feet! The entire Bible in the time of Jesus was written on similar scrolls that were reverently stored in the synagogue tabernacle. When the attendant presents the scroll of Isaiah to Jesus, he honors the sacred text by standing to read.
The people wait as Jesus takes the time needed to unroll the scroll to nearly the end to find the portion he wants to read. When he finishes reading he carefully rolls up three dozen feet of parchment before handing it back to the attendant. Then he sits down. Teachers in the Middle East sit when they teach. Students stand in as close in proximity to the teacher as possible. They lean in to make sure they will hear every word of what Jesus has to say. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue are fixed on him. Why? What has he done to elicit this intensity among those who know him so well? We have to wait until next week to find out the rest of the story!
The books of the Hebrew Bible are now read systematically in weekly synagogue gatherings. In the time of Jesus, the reader was free to choose any particular passage, a high honor. Jesus chooses a passage from Isaiah 61 that would have been familiar to those in attendance that day. Jesus reads the first four verses of a longer poetic prophecy. When you read the first verses of a passage, the intention is to evoke the message of the entire text in the memory of your listeners. We do this in our own culture when we hear a phrase like, “fourscore and seven years ago.” We know it as the opening line of the Gettysburg Address and thus know that the context of the quotation will relate to President Lincoln’s speech. Jesus uses the same technique. Jesus reads these four verses, likely with a particular vocal emphasis that he is the one anointed by God who is sent “proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free …” (NRSV).
Imagine yourself in the synagogue that day. You know Jesus and his family. You and your relatives and friends have for the past two decades gathered on Saturdays to pray. You grew up with Jesus. This day he is accorded the honor of reading from the sacred text and he seems to be insinuating that he is God’s chosen agent, God’s anointed, the Messiah of Israel! How can this be? Can he be serious?
Imagine Jesus reading the text with this self-referential emphasis. Where is this going to go? What will Jesus have to say about this reading? Watch as the scroll is slowly rolled up and returned to the attendant. Jesus sits in preparation to teach. Your eyes are fixed on Jesus as he says: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” That’s right. That’s what you heard. Jesus, friend and neighbor to everyone in Nazareth, has returned to Galilee and he thinks he is the Messiah. The fireworks are ready to begin.
Jesus chooses to read a passage from Isaiah. The message of the text is that when Messiah comes, he will bring recovery of sight to the blind.
Lord, send your Spirit upon me this week. Open my eyes so that I can see what you see this week. Give me the insight I need to be and act as your servant.
Luke tells us that it was Jesus’s custom to attend synagogue services every week. We have the same opportunity. Christians gather on Sunday to remember and celebrate the day of the Resurrection. Just like our Jewish ancestors in faith, Christians gather each week to hear the Word of God proclaimed and preached. This is what happens in the synagogue in Nazareth and continues in synagogues to this day.
God wants to speak to you this week. One of the best places this can happen is in church. When we show up and make attendance at church our custom, we allow the Holy Spirit the opportunity to speak to us anew. Our church experience, like the synagogue experience in New Testament times, is a place where we reconnect with God.
When Jesus finishes reading the portion from the prophet Isaiah all the eyes of the synagogue are fixed on him. There is a palpable sense of excitement and expectation. Pray for your pastor this week in anticipation of hearing the Word of God read and explained in your church. Ask the Holy Spirit to build a heightened sense of expectation and excitement for you and your community of faith.