Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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The synagogue that Jesus was a part of likely wouldn't have looked like this. This is more likely true to the look of a synagogue in the late 1880's, when Tissot painted the original. Judaism had adapted and evolved a lot from the time of Jesus' life to the time recorded in this painting. Christians should be careful not to assume that more modern Jewish practices will mirror the practices that Jesus would have lived with.
Luke 4:16-27 The Rejection of Jesus at Nazareth
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 home town 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 home town. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for 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.’
Jesus was born to angelic proclaim, with a mom who had a scandalous pregnancy story and a kind stepfather. Poor, hard-working shepherds were the first witnesses to his birth. Two elderly prophets cry out with joy upon meeting him during the first eight days of his life. He learned with his elders as a boy in the temple. As a man, he was baptized and tempted and called to bring about the Reign of God. Today’s reading is about when he went back home to tell them about his mission.
This moment in his hometown synagogue was not his first public lesson. He’d already been teaching in the countryside. We don’t know the exact content of those first lessons, but we know that it moved people. We do, however, have a sense of how this first lesson in Nazareth went. He was not received as well as one might imagine. Or, maybe you could imagine this, because you know what it’s like to go back home and be told that you’ve gotten too big for your britches.
Scholars remind us that the synagogue was the central institution for everyday Jewish life. The Temple in Jerusalem was the heart of Jewish communal religious identity and all Jewish people would have been expected to visit for certain holidays and rituals. But, beginning during the exile, when the temple was destroyed and people did not have the same freedom of movement, they began to gather in synagogues. They did not have a priest, but they did have faithful lay leaders. The Pharisees, dedicated and knowledgeable, would be grounded in their religious teachings and present for most gatherings. All adult men were invited to read scripture and to comment on it. Scholars tell us that the services were simple: usually reading and teaching, praying, and gathering of offerings for the poor.
Jesus did the thing all adult men were invited to do. He read scripture and commented on it. Looking through the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, he read these words: "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." Then, he offered this commentary, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." And, this is where the people listening started to get annoyed. Well, maybe not annoyed yet. But definitely frightened and amazed. Isn’t this just Joseph’s son? What is he talking about?
Justice and mercy were not new to the Jewish faith. But, Jesus seemed to associate himself so closely with the leader described in Isaiah that people who were paying attention couldn’t help but wonder if he was saying what he was really saying. Is he claiming to be this Anointed One? In her commentary on this text, Dr. Gafney says that he goes so far as to claim the title of Liberator that is usually given to God in Scripture. Not just anyone will claim a title of God’s as their own. Typically, only the very ill, the very corrupt, or dangerously ambitious will even try. And, yet, here’s Jesus, proclaiming this world-changing, oppression-busting mission as his own.
Jesus knew his scripture well. When they brought up Joseph, a move that Dr. Gafney argues could have been an allusion to Jesus’ questionable parentage, he reminds them that Elijah and Elisha, revered prophets in their tradition, spent most of their time preaching outside of Israel. No prophet is accepted in their hometown, remember? The people got so mad when Jesus reminded them of this, that they almost threw him off a cliff.
One scholar I’ve read argues that Jesus was describing his ministry as the beginning of a season of Jubilee. Ruth Anne Reese, in her commentary on this text, reminds us that, according to the book of Leviticus, every 50th year was to be set aside as a time of liberation and restoration. While justice was demanded at all times, the Jubilee was the particular time in which slaves were freed and captives restored to their own communities. She thinks that Jesus reoriented Jubilee so it wasn't just observed every 50 years. It was to be observed on that very day, and every day that followed. Jubilee became his legacy that we as his followers are called to live out every day. Jubilee was being fulfilled. Jubilee is still being fulfilled.
In her commentary, Dr. Gafney points out that Jesus’ assumption of this mission and his comparison of his own mission with that of Elijah and Elisha, he’s telling us something about how God works in this world. Dr. Gafney says, “God will go right on doing her good work no matter what anyone thinks of her messenger, including folks who were not thought worthy.” The people he was raised with had clear expectations for the Messiah. Jesus, this guy they had known his whole life, just didn’t fit those expectations. But, he knew what his mission was. And, he wouldn’t let their rage stop him.
It makes sense that Jesus, whose life started with unexpected, powerless people being given great honors and important missions, could find it within himself to continue a mission that the people he had grown up with didn’t support. This makes particular sense if we understand him to be preaching the Reign of God as Perpetual Jubilee. The Jubilee was rooted in justice and mercy for the oppressed. Of course, God would entrust leadership to the ones who the world considered lowly (Remember Mary? Remember the Shepherds?). Of course, we could see God incarnate in the life of Jesus. God’s reign won’t be about helping the powerful maintain power. Jesus’ mission, which we have inherited as the Body of Christ, is liberation, proclamation, and healing. May we live like we have heard God’s Jubilee and that is being fulfilled, through and with us at this very moment.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Ruth Anne Reese- https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2741
Fred. B. Craddock, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).
Karoline Lewis: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4248
Wil Gafney, "Epiphany VI" in A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2021)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.