The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany
January 30, 2022
Almighty and everlasting God, who dost govern all things in heaven and earth: Mercifully hear the supplications of thy people, and in our time grant us thy peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
1 Corinthians 14:12b-20
The Gospel lessons from this week and last together form a single unit. Indeed, that is why the compilers of our lectionary begin this week’s passage with a summary of the previous week’s followed by its final phrase: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Together they reveal Luke’s principal understanding of Jesus’ identity.
Last week we met Jesus after his baptism and temptation. He had returned to Galilee, teaching in the “synagogues, being glorified by all.” While in the region, he returned to “Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the sabbath day, “as his custom was,” he went “to the synagogue” there. During the service “he stood up to read; and there was given to him the book of the prophet Isaiah.” He reads the passage from the prophets, from late in Isaiah (61:1,2; 58:6):
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.
Making reference to the songs of the suffering servant, Isaiah offers encouragement to an exiled people to believe that they shall be redeemed and set free. Those listening to Jesus read that day, first-century Judean Jews living under Roman rule, most likely would themselves have found hope in Isaiah ’s words, identified with those to whom Isaiah preached, and, I reckon, they are still words of comfort and promise to each and every one of us here.
As Jesus “closed the book” – or rolled up the scroll – “the eyes of all in the synagogue ... fixed on him, and he [said] to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’” Those are certainly not the usual concluding words of the lesson from the prophets. They are, in fact, audacious words. Jesus is identifying himself as a prophet, one who has been anointed (ἔχρισέν), selected by God and made a messianic figure, a Christos, who preaches good news (Εὐαγγελίσασθαι), evangelises the poor, conceived not simply as the “economically impoverished, but all those on the margins of society.”(1) He proclaims that the blind shall be healed and captives and prisoners released and liberated, implying by his carefully chosen words that this release encompasses the forgiveness of sins and debts, both metaphorical and literal.
And this is where the text abruptly ended last week, with Jesus sitting down having made the extraordinary claim that Isaiah ’s prophesy had come to pass in that moment, in that Nazarine synagogue. We were left in silence, cliff-hanger-style, with all kinds of questions. What kind of claim is this? Is Jesus really speaking about himself? What will happen next? How will the people respond?
Today we pick up exactly where we were, with that pregnant statement, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” And we immediately learn of the assembly’s reaction. As had people throughout Galilee, “all spoke well of him, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth; and they said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’” The men, assuming that they were those poor and oppressed to whom Isaiah were referring, were pleased to think that Jesus had come bearing news of Israel ’s redemption, pleased even that Jesus was identifying himself as the prophetic messiah, the Christos who brings the Gospel, the good news, to Israel.
Jesus, however, knows that when they learn what his words really mean, learn the whole lesson, come to understand what God has in store for all the world, that they will not be so happy. That is why Jesus says what he does about expecting them to quote to him “this proverb, ‘Physician, heal yourself; what we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here also in your own country,’” and declaring that “no prophet is acceptable in his own country.” Knowing they need further explanation, he tells them,
there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, when there came a great famine over all the land; and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha; and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.
Immediately upon hearing these words, the “all in the synagogue were filled with wrath.” But why? Although Jesus has set it up with his pre-emptively hostile tone, in many ways this reaction comes out of the blue, that it is capriccios or arbitrary. To grasp this problem, we have to remember that the prophetic missions of both Elijah and Elisha to which Jesus referred were expressly to the gentiles and not to Israel. The men of the synagogue, they are told, are not the primary recipients of that good news. While we, as readers, already know from Simeon ’s prophesy earlier in Luke ’s narrative that Jesus shall be “a light to the gentiles,” “this is the first time that any of the Jewish characters in the narrative have heard of it.”(2) They do not like it one bit and the townspeople rise up, manhandling Jesus straight of town, almost murdering him in the process. Jesus, however, is not particularly surprised or upset, and to make clear his point, he heads right for Capernaum, a city of the Gentiles.
The Jew’s rejection – or at least the rejection by some Jews – of Jesus is at the heart of the matter. Simeon’s prophesy and Jesus’ proclamation in that particular synagogue at the inauguration of his ministry make plain that Jesus’ life and work extends beyond Israel. We are unequivocally shown that this good news is not at first understood in the same way by the people of the Nazareth synagogue. They believe and hope that when the messiah, the anointed one, comes that God’s salvation shall encompass only Israel. The salvation brought by Jesus, however, is meant for all, and these Jews, and others whom we encounter later in Luke and in Acts, base their rejection of Jesus in large measure from this not simply inclusive, but actively expansive view of the scope of what Jesus brings. This is not the messiah they were expecting or wanted. By rising up against Jesus, the people fulfill Jesus’ words about how prophets are treated in their own country, as well as completes the paradigm of a prophet’s rejection.
Luke casts Jesus as a true prophet, a messianic prophet, who will inaugurate a new age in which the whole world is enfolded in the works of the God of Israel. In particular, all who suffer, who are in prison, who are oppressed and downtrodden will be relieved from their present condition and be reconciled with God. This prophetic ministry, fulfilled in that place and time, proclaims that these outsiders, these marginalised people, rejected not only by the Jewish establishment, but by all in power in the Roman Empire will participate in the life of the kingdom of God.
Not only, then, do we gain a better understanding of what Jesus was doing in that moment and why the people of his own home town rejected him, but we also come to see clearly how resonant the prophetic messiah is for us still today. Do we still worry about who is included in the Kingdom of God? I think many people still do. We see it in our world all the time in the marginalisation of people who fall outside our own little group, outside our view of what is “normal” or “ususal.” No matter what so-called conservative pundits say, Christians are no longer widely persecuted. Today Jesus speaks to us and we are the ones who are his people, those who share with him in his baptism and are united with his very body in the Sacrament. We are now the ones who are comforted by Jesus’ words, not fully understanding how radically inclusive he intends his message to be, and we ask ourselves how do we hear Jesus’ announcement of his prophetic ministry, his revelation as the prophetic messiah? Are we going to run him out of town, or the mental or spiritual equivalent, because we are discomfited by what Jesus really means? Or are we among those who hear what he says and take it seriously, who are open to the radically inclusive message Jesus pronounces.
We are all, in fact, called to take seriously God’s expansive message of salvation, even if it makes us uncomfortable. We are to understand that at his core Jesus is both the messiah who will suffer and die and bring us resurrection life, as Mark and Matthew tell us, and, at the same time, the one who as the prophetic messiah proclaims to us God’s plan for salvation at the heart of which is the liberation and healing of the poor, the blind, the captives, and the oppressed. We are called to understand that the reconciliation of the world in and through God in Christ, a reality that is at once our past, present, and future, belongs to everyone, is available to everyone. This Epiphany, in which I have suggested we take seriously the outward looking nature of the season begun with the Magi’s gifts, let us never lose sight of Jesus’ expansive preaching of the good news that God has begun a new thing and is working out the liberation of each and every one of us.
Andrew Charles Blume✠
New York City
Feria, 29 January 2022
1. Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke., Sacra Pagina Series, 3 (Collegeville, MN, The Liturgical Press, 1991), 80.
2. Johnson, 1991, 82.
© 2022 Andrew Charles Blume