Yr C ~ Epiphany 3 ~ Luke 4:14-21
Let me set the stage for you. A couple of weeks ago we looked at Jesus’ baptism in Luke 3. Right after that Luke 4 begins with the Holy Spirit leading Jesus into the wilderness for a 40 day spiritual retreat during which he’s tempted to stray from his path and give in to lesser ideals and values. He goes into the desert filled with the Spirit and emerges from it even more filled and committed.
And today we learn that the first thing he did after the desert was to start an itinerant preaching ministry where he would go around the province of Galilee sharing God’s word. We learn that he was making something of a name for himself, and we pick the story up at his first visit back to his hometown since he’s gotten somewhat famous.
Luke 4:14-16 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.
So Jesus has gone back to his hometown where he grew up.
I love that it says in verse 16 that he went into the synagogue on the Sabbath “as was his custom.”
Apparently even someone as advanced in spirituality as Jesus was clearly thought regular church attendance was pretty important!
Jesus wasn’t setting out to start a new religion. He was being a faithful Jew, practicing his tradition.
It would be fair to call him a reformer, but he certainly was not trying to undermine Judaism and start something new.
He was trying to remind them of their roots!
So when he’s asked to read scripture and offer a reflection he doesn’t come up with something brand new and innovative. He reaches deep into the tradition and comes up with something old, and revolutionary. It turns out the most revolutionary things aren’t new – they’re just following through with what the foundational concepts were but over time the people let them slide. (Why that happens is another sermon!)
The scroll (or book) of the prophet Isaiah is quite long, so that Jesus chose this particular section of Isaiah is significant. In Luke’s gospel this is the very first thing Jesus says in his public ministry. That gives these words a special weight and importance. We look to the first official words of a leader to give an indication of what they’re going to be all about. Here’s what Jesus chose:
We call it Luke 4:18-19, but he’s quoting Isaiah 61:1-2
“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 favour.”
Jesus declares that his ministry will be bringing good news and proclaiming God’s love and care for the poor, those held captive, the blind, and the oppressed. In most ways that doesn’t describe anyone here today. Does that mean Jesus has nothing to say to us?
Who are the poor, captive, blind, and oppressed today?
What does it mean to release them, or free them, or relieve their blindness?
On a literal level we can imagine poor, captive, blind, and oppressed people and support helping them in their challenges. But maybe if we go deeper than literal we can see that perhaps in some ways we too are poor, captive to the ways of the world, spiritually blind, oppressed by our own choices and foolishness and desires. So maybe Jesus does have something to say to us too!
The quotation from Isaiah closes with the very cryptic “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”
Now, if you don’t know what that is referring to then you are proving my earlier point – that the really revolutionary things are already part of our foundation but we’ve tended to forget them – or worse, ignore them! But don’t feel bad, Jesus was scolding his own contemporaries too.
What does it mean to you that Jesus “was sent to proclaim the year of God’s favour”?
Well, it’s nothing less than an agenda of utterly upending the world order. “The year of the Lord’s favour” refers to the year of Jubilee.
You can read all about the Jubilee year in Leviticus 25.
The basic concept is that every 50 years a giant “reset” button gets pushed and everyone starts from scratch again. It had to do with things like every 7 years the fields should lie fallow, and every “week” of 7 years – in other words 7 times 7 years, or 49 years something major needed to happen. The year following those 7 weeks of 7 years – the 50th year – was to be a year of Jubilee. All debts would be forgiven. All captives would be released. Those in slavery (usually because of debt) would be set free. And most importantly, people were able to return to their ancestral lands because land belonged to God not people!
Can you imagine?! Can you imagine it happening today?
On the one hand we might like the idea of our debts being forgiven, but if you play this all out we have some real challenges with land ownership.
And if you don’t believe me I only have to say one word – pipeline. Whose land is it?
You live in a house. Whose land is it? Yours, because you paid for it, right?
But in the year of Jubilee all that stuff is wiped out and everyone goes back to square one.
Obviously, such a concept today would cause unimaginable chaos.
Well, the truth is t’was ever thus and as far as I know there’s no indication that the year of Jubilee ever actually happened.
But there it is in Leviticus 25. (I wonder if the biblical literalists ever argue so passionately for that one to happen!)
Remember, Leviticus is a giant book of rules to help the recently freed people of Israel figure out how to live now that they are no longer under the thumb of the Egyptian Pharaoh. That’s significant.
In Egypt they were slaves. They were oppressed. They were captives.
The last thing Moses wanted was for them to get out from under all that and then fall right back into the same problems on their own.
But, over time, that’s exactly what happened. Instead of political oppression there came economic oppression and debt and slavery. In many ways we’re still under it today!
So Jubilee suggests utterly upending the world order and hitting that giant reset button. It makes total sense.
And it is totally unworkable in practice, right?
Another one of those high-minded but impossible spiritual concepts, right?
I don’t know. Jesus didn’t seem to think so.
Why would he have chosen something impossible for his inaugural speech?
Why would he associate himself with a forgotten and seemingly naïve economic and political concept – unless he thought that’s what the kingdom of God looked like?
And we haven’t even got to the most controversial part yet!
Luke 4:20-21 – 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.”
Fulfilled? What exactly is fulfilled?
Jubilee didn’t happen, and this was the inauguration of his ministry – so what is he claiming?
Does he mean it’s fulfilled in him?
Does he mean it’s going to be fulfilled through him?
It’s a really hot theological debate.
If this is his purpose statement, his agenda, and he says it’s fulfilled, but we look around and know that it never really was, that Jubilee never happened, then what are we to make of all this? Was Jesus a spectacular failure, or is there perhaps another way to interpret this?
As usual, I’m going to ask us to look deeper at the language, because I think we assume something that makes us misinterpret this verse, and that has huge consequences.
“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus specifically does NOT say that it has been fulfilled “in me.” But that’s how I think we read it.
In fact, what he says is that is has been fulfilled “in your hearing.” Does that mean as you’re hearing it? I don’t think so.
The word for fulfill means to carry out, to bring to realization.
What is being realized? What is being fulfilled?
The “preaching” of the good news of God’s love.
The “preaching” of the year of the Lord’s favour, of Jubilee.
He doesn’t say he’s going to accomplish them, or that he has accomplished them.
He’s saying that these fundamental and foundational concepts are the values that he is building his ministry on.
These somewhat embarrassing or forgotten concepts like debt forgiveness, enslavement, and stewardship of the land, this blistering indictment of the exploitive capitalist system, this world upending set of values – this is what he’s going to be about.
And more than that – this is what we’re supposed to be about too.
Because again he doesn’t say it is accomplished in him, he says it’s accomplished in your hearing.
Literally that means in your ears.
Figuratively it means in your perception, your understanding.
Jubilee values will happen when we truly perceive them – when they’re really in our ears!
And here’s the thing. Jesus won’t let us forget them.
His whole ministry is based on these values. And those values are now in our ears.
We can’t un-hear them.
It’s just like toothpaste.
Once the toothpaste is out of the tube you can’t put it back in.
You basically have 2 choices; throw it out or find a way to start brushing.
If we say that we are followers of the Way of Jesus then we’d better understand that this is his Way!
Jubilee values of upending the usual world order are what he’s all about.
That’s his toothpaste – and he’s squeezed it out all over the place. It’s on us to get brushing!
And the hardest spiritual thing for us to do is to pick up the toothbrush, because to do so means we are also agreeing to live by those Jubilee values in our own lives, and that is very, very hard to do.
I mean, this stuff may all sound well and good but how do we find the courage to live it out and make it happen?
How do we find the strength to tilt against the powers that be and proclaim and live values that threaten the ways of the world that frankly make us around here pretty comfortable in life?
Again, the answer is right there in the scripture passage. Twice!
Luke 4:14 – Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee.
Luke 4:18 – Jesus began reading saying, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me!”
On our own, we’re sunk.
There’s no way we have the willpower and the wherewithal to embody and proclaim Jubilee values.
But with the power of the Holy Spirit – the power that animated Jesus too – we can start to imagine trying.
If you really want to follow Jesus, to live his ministry of care, and compassion, and love to the poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed, then the key ingredient is to let down your guard and open yourself to the power he needed to do it too. The power of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus has begun to lay out his world upending Way.
The toothpaste has been squeezed.
Filled with the power of the Holy Spirit…let’s brush!