Luke 4:14-30

 God’s Year of Favour [1]

Announcing the Vision


Identifying the Mission

Luke 4:14-15  -  Jesus Begins his Galilean Ministry

Luke began Jesus’ public ministry by a brief reference to his activity throughout Galilee. He left the nature of the ministry generally unspecified because he wished to preface Jesus’ ministry with the immediate encounter at Nazareth.

14 With the power of the Spirit upon him, Jesus returned to Galilee.  
Report of this spread throughout the whole district.
15 He taught in their synagogues and was praised by all the people.
  • Luke identified Jesus as filled with the power of the Spirit that had descended on him at his prayer after his baptism.
  • He mentioned only the teaching of Jesus, and said nothing about his healings (though they seem to be referred to in his address to the people of Nazareth [4:23]).
  • He noted that Jesus’ initial ministry aroused a response of praise.
  • He referred to the synagogues as their synagogues, an indication perhaps of the Christian mindset that had already distanced itself from Judaism.

Luke 4:16-30  -  Jesus is Rejected at Nazareth

Luke immediately departed from the order of events in the Gospel of Mark. Why?

Ideologically Luke was concerned to make clear from the very beginnings of his narrative his sense of the message and the actions of Jesus. This sense would be further nuanced as the Gospel unfolded.

Why he needed to choose Nazareth as the launching place of his project is less clear. Clearly, at the end of the incident, Jesus was rejected by his own kinsmen, implicitly even by his family. He was cut off from his basic source of social support, even of identity. Perhaps Luke wished to show that Jesus would ask no more of his followers than what he had been prepared to face himself.

16 He came to Nazareth where he had been brought up,
and, as was his custom,
went into the synagogue on the Sabbath.  
He stood up to read,
17 and was given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah.

Jesus obviously could read, and could read Hebrew. He was not illiterate. It was customary for the master of the synagogue to invite special persons to read and to comment. Jesus’ known ministry elsewhere in Galilee would have been sufficient reason for his being asked on this occasion.

He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18The spirit of the Lord is upon me,
and so has anointed me.
He has sent me to announce good news to the poor,
to announce freedom to captives
and sight to the blind,
to send the oppressed away reprieved, 
19 to proclaim the Lord's year of favour.” 

The reading was from Third Isaiah, originally written to give hope and direction to the dispirited Jewish settlers not long returned to Judea from Babylon in the sixth century before Christ.

20 He rolled up the scroll,
gave it back to the attendant,
and sat down.  
All eyes in the synagogue were intently fixed on him.
21 He began to speak to them:
"Today this text is being fulfilled
right now as you are listening.” 

On the occasion of Jesus’ prayer after his baptism, Luke had mentioned how the Spirit of God had descended upon him. Somehow the experience had led Jesus into the heart of God and enabled him to hear the voice of God identifying him as God’s beloved. From that insight into the heart of God flowed his newly voiced concern for the poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed.

In declaring that the scripture was being fulfilled right now as they listened, Jesus was effectively claiming that 

  • he was the one anointed by the Spirit
  • God’s era (year) of favour had begun
  • his sense of God was of a God who cared for the poor and the oppressed 
  • his listening audience were the ones described by Isaiah as the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed (fulfilled right now as they were listening)
22 They all spoke highly of him
and wondered at the gracious words that came from his mouth.
They said: Is this not the son  of Joseph?” 
23 He then said to them:
"Surely you will quote to me this proverbial saying:
'Doctor, heal yourself.
Do here where you were brought up
the things you have done in Capernaum
that we have heard about.’ 
24 Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted where he was brought up." 

The crowd referred to Jesus as Joseph’s son, consistently with what Luke had noted in Jesus’ genealogy (where he had written: He was the son [as was thought] of Joseph son of Heli). According to Luke – and perhaps Elizabeth - only Mary and Joseph knew the facts of Jesus’ conception.

First reactions to Jesus were mixed. That God’s year of favour had begun was indeed good news, as was the sense that God was aware of and about to respond to their ever worsening social situation. Yet they felt slighted that his reported ministry of healing had not included themselves, and indeed had not begun with them. "Do here where you were brought up the things you have done in Capernaum that we have heard about.

Moreover, whatever their actual social situation, to be explicitly called poor, blind, captive and oppressed would have been felt as an offence to their honour. That Jesus should see himself as particularly honoured and called by God would especially have been offensive. In the collective mindset of the culture, honour granted to him was honour taken from them. That he had stepped over the line and had flouted the accepted social ordering was intolerable. He was the one needing to change: Heal yourself! 

More significantly, perhaps, for Luke’s community were the questions: 

  • Who were the poor, the blind, the oppressed and the captives for whom Jesus brought good news?
  • Did Luke’s readers qualify for the “job description”? 
  • Did they see themselves as the ones learning to see? 
  • Was God’s era of favour dawning for them? 
  • And if so, what could liberation have meant for them? 
  • Or did they see themselves as the ones who, from a position of achieved conversion, as it were, were to bring enlightenment, liberation and good news to the Roman world in which they lived?

The readers of Luke’s Gospel at the beginning of the twenty-first century fit both categories. They are the ones being enlightened and set free. At the same time they are the ones entrusted to bring enlightenment and freedom to the world – whatever that might involve.

Jesus continued his address.

25 " ... Honest to God, I tell you
there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah,
when heaven was shut for three years
and there was a severe famine in the whole land. 
26 Elijah was not sent to any of these,
but to a widow in Sarepta in Sidon. 
27 And there were a lot of lepers in Israel
in the time of Elisha the prophet,
but none of these was cleansed
except Naaman the Syrian.” 

Rather than soften, Jesus’ message became even more unpleasant. The provincial small-mindedness of his hearers was symptomatic of a wider and deeper incomprehension. Jesus contended that the graciousness of God extended beyond the boundaries of Israel to other nations as well, perhaps even especially. That Israel had been chosen in particular and loved by God did not mean that Israel was exclusively loved and graced by God.

28 When they heard this,
all of those in the Synagogue were infuriated.
29 They rose to their feet,
threw him out of the town
and led him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built,
with the intention of throwing him over the cliff.
30 But he passed right through the crowd
and continued on his way.

It is difficult for readers of the twenty-first century to comprehend the depth of offended honour in the middle-eastern world at the time of Jesus. Honour was by far a greater value than life. Offended honour provoked deep and primal emotions. That the crowd became enraged and murderous was not surprising. (That they led him to the brow of the hill anticipated the Jerusalem crowd leading him to the hill of Calvary.)

Jesus had burnt his bridges. There was no turning back.

How Jesus managed to pass right through the crowd was of no interest to Luke. He had not set out to give a documentary report of what actually happened. His purpose was otherwise. He had introduced three of his key themes:

  • God is gracious
  • God’s graciousness is inclusive of all
  • Some people resist the call of grace.

For Luke’s community of Gentiles, the message was particularly welcome. 

Justice Issues in the Community of Luke

Mark’s Heritage. Luke believed passionately in the values espoused in Mark’s Gospel. Mark had shown Jesus reacting vigourously against society’s failure to recognise the human dignity of the poor, the religiously unclean, the sick and possessed.

Jesus responded immediately to all victims of injustice. He healed; he exorcised; he forgave sins; he insisted that people recognise their innate dignity as children of God.

He had shown Jesus engaging with the religious power elites, major players in the continuing cultural patterns and social attitudes of the time. In Palestine at that time the religious elites controlled the political and social organisation of society. Even Judea under Roman occupation was for everyday practical purposes under the control of the Jewish Sanhedrin, a body comprised of chief priests, legal experts and members of the aristocracy.

Along with personal conversion, Jesus had called also for structural change. His was not the only voice calling for change. What made Jesus unique was that, rather than withdraw from society (as the Essenes had done), he actively confronted injustice. However (unlike the Zealots), he chose the way of non-violence. His sense of change did not concentrate simply on structural change. Without spiritual conversion structural change would be empty, as would spiritual growth sought other than in a context of action for justice.

Mark had written his Gospel while the Jewish State was still in existence. For him Jesus’ call to personal conversion, and to its practical translation into social life, was still significant, even though his message was one of non-alignment with the major political options of the day.

Historical Changes. By the time Luke wrote his Gospel, the Roman military had wiped out the Jewish State. Jerusalem had been destroyed. The priests had become redundant. Judaism was regrouping in the Jewish communities scattered throughout the Empire. Pharisees were at the forefront of this restructuring, even though the Jesus movement had also hoped to be influential. By the time Luke’s Gospel was written, the Pharisees had largely won the battle for the minds and hearts of the scattered Jewish communities. (Elements of that struggle could be traced in some of the polemics noted in Mark’s Gospel. They would become particularly obvious in the Gospel of Matthew.)

Luke’s Emphases. Luke, however, was writing for a community of Gentile converts. The sharp arguments among the various strands of Judaism mattered little to them. Pharisees were not actual opponents, merely figures from a distant past. In Luke’s Gospel they sometimes appeared in a less negative light than in the Gospels of Mark and Matthew.

However, in the towns and cities of the Empire the question of structural reform was also unrealistic. While sharing the fervent interest of Jesus in the oppressed and marginalised, faithfully recorded in Mark, Luke and the members of his community were in no position to hope for direct structural change of the socio/religious climate of the Empire. Their problem became that of maintaining their commitment to the vision of Jesus within their own community and making the most of their restricted opportunities to influence the world around them.

Luke’s focus became consequently the question of discipleship: how to grow in integrity and to act consistently, conscious always of the needs of the poor and oppressed within and outside the community, but with little opportunity to help them other than through personal contact.

Next >> Luke 4:31-44