Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’ ”
And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”
When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.
The story which Luke tells, of Jesus returning to his home town and reading from a scroll in the synagogue, is a story which is found also in the gospels according to Matthew and Mark. In all three gospels, Jesus’ return home ends badly; he is rejected by his own people.
This story comes at an early point in Luke’s account of the ministry of Jesus. Luke moves it to this early point in his story, to highlight some key things about Jesus: that he comes to fulfil the promises offered in scripture; that he comes to remind the people of Israel of stories from their past; that he comes with a message of grace and hope for the people of his day. These are all themes that will be developed as the story of Jesus develops in the following chapters. So this is a central story, strategically located.
Luke writes with purpose, as he has already indicated in introducing his work (Luke 1:1-4). He wants to portray Jesus, in the line of the prophets, as one who came to remind the people of God of their vocation (who they are called to be) and to refresh their commitment to God (calling them to renew their covenant relationship). So, for Luke, the story of Jesus is at the centre of his work, which he describes as “an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us”.
Only Luke names the scroll from which Jesus was reading. It’s only in Luke that Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah at some length to make his point. Jesus quotes key words from the prophet, drawing them from centuries before his time, and addressing them to his own people in his own time. These words set out the vocation of Israel as the people of God: they are to offer good news, to free the captive, to enlighten the blind, to implement the Jubilee time of God’s favour.
The invitation of Jesus comes to them, to renew their covenant. The people are called to live faithfully in accord with the grace and hope that is at the heart of this covenant. He reminds them of two stories from their shared tradition.
The first is the story of the Israelite prophet, Elijah and the foreign widow, from Phoenicia, in the area we today call Lebanon, whose name we do not know. The second is the story of the Israelite prophet Elisha, and the foreign soldier, whose name we do know, Naaman of Syria. The people of Israel would know these stories, from their sacred traditions, from the reading of scriptures in their sabbath worship. They are part of their history.
The stories demonstrate that God’s covenant with Israel calls them to reach out to the outsider, to share their abundance with those who are in need, and to be willing to hear and see how God is at work in the outsider, the non-Israelite—the Lebanese widow, the Syrian soldier.
How do we understand our vocation, in the light of this story that Luke highlights? How are we called to offer good news, to free the captive, and to enlighten the blind, in our own time? How are we called to implement the Jubilee time of God’s favour, in our own society? That is one challenge from this story.
The words quoted from Isaiah, and the stories then told by Jesus, stand to remind us of the importance of working, today, to ensure that the good news is alive and well in our times. The words of the prophet of old and the stories of the man from Nazareth put the lie to that 20th century heresy, that “politics and religion do not mix”. Jesus, and Isaiah, demonstrate that religion is thoroughly political—in that, if politics is about how we organise ourselves as people, in communities, then religion is at the heart of that enterprise. Living our faith means implementing justice and seeking righteousness in all that we do, in all the policies that our society implements.
A second challenge to us, from this story, is for us to renew our covenant with God, by living faithfully in accord with the grace and hope that is at the heart of this covenant. Today, we are called to this task or renewal and faithful commitment. As the people of Nazareth heard two stories from their shared tradition, so we need to be reminded of our heritage and tradition, and hear stories from our past which lead us to recommit to living in ways that are consistent with our covenant relationship with God. How do we show the abundant grace and liberating hope that this covenant offers us?
In our immediate context, the story that Luke offers us places provocations and challenges before us. What is the vocation, the calling, that we have, as faithful followers of Jesus? How are we being challenged to renew the covenant that we each have, and that together as a community of faith, we have with God? I hope that, as this year goes on, we might discover those things that are at the heart of this vocation, this calling, that we all share, as faithful followers of Jesus.
Here is a beautiful prayer to use with this scripture story, written by Sarah Agnew, poet, storyteller, and minister: http://praythestory.blogspot.com/2019/01/in-our-midst.html
For my introduction to the Gospel according to Luke, and the Acts of the Apostles, see https://johntsquires.wordpress.com/2019/01/31/an-orderly-account-a-quick-guide-to-luke-and-acts/