Jesus in the synagogue

Fr Adrian Graffy takes a fresh look at Luke 4.16-30. This article was originally published in The Pastoral Review, issue 6 (2010) 12-17.

An inaugural event

The account of the visit of Jesus to the synagogue in Nazareth, as told in the Gospel of Luke, comes at the very start of his ministry of preaching and healing. As such it has a privileged place in the liturgical reading of Luke’s gospel from both the Sunday and weekday lectionary. We hear the text on the third and fourth Sundays of the Year when Luke is read, and every year on Monday of week 22. The first part of the text is also read at the Mass of Chrism on Holy Thursday. While the gospels of Mark and Matthew give shorter versions of the visit later on, in Mark 6 and Matthew 13, Luke gives a more complex account which acts as a curtain-raiser to the whole ministry of Jesus, and indeed as a preparation for his passion and death.

Like Matthew, Luke has considerably expanded the introductory parts of the gospel. Both these evangelists provide ‘infancy narratives’, stories connecting to the birth of Jesus, and, in Luke’s case, to that of John the Baptist too. Matthew and Luke also develop the traditions about the baptism and temptations of Jesus. In particular, Luke stresses that John the Baptist is a prophet. The statement in Luke 3:3 that ‘the word of God came to John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness’ points to John as a new prophet and a successor to all those prophets for whom the same formula is frequently used in the Scriptures. The detailed social preaching of John shows him to be in the tradition of Amos and Isaiah and other prophets with a passion for justice. Luke will present Jesus too as a prophet. While Mark and Matthew introduce the ministry by referring to Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom, Luke says: ‘Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee….. He taught in their synagogues and was praised by all.’ (4:14-15)

And so Jesus comes to Nazareth, and enters the synagogue on the Sabbath. This passage is both a forecast and a summary of the ministry. In the space of fifteen verses Jesus is both acclaimed and almost lynched. The transition from virtual adulation to bitterness and hatred has led many to consider that the passage cannot possibly reflect a real sequence of events. Has Luke added elements from a separate occasion to the basic Nazareth story found in Mark 6 and Matthew 13?

Luke wants to start where Jesus started, in the place where he was brought up. For Luke his origins among this people are important. The reaction to Jesus of the people of Nazareth will epitomise the reaction of his nation. ‘He came to his own and his own did not accept him,’ says the Fourth Gospel (John 1:11). And yet, this is not Luke’s view. For Luke his own people ‘wondered at the words of grace that came from his mouth’ and, only later, were ‘filled with rage’ at his words. Luke underlines for us the positive and negative reactions to Jesus. He is honest about the complex reaction of Judaism to Jesus. He wants us to recall that those who supported Jesus, the disciples, both men and women, were people of his own place and of his own faith.

Honouring the Jewishness of Jesus

Luke honours the Jewish roots and Jewish faith of Jesus by presenting him at the very start of his ministry, and as in no other gospel account, taking part in the synagogue liturgy. Like any Jewish male, Jesus is allowed to read from the Scriptures, in this case the prophetic reading, known as the haftarah, which followed after the reading of the Torah. The story moves gradually to the point of climax where Jesus ‘finds’ the text he will read. He stands, is given the scroll, and unrolls the scroll to Isaiah chapter 61. Afterwards, in a decrescendo, he rolls up the scroll, gives it back and sits down in order to speak. The finding of the text and the quotation of it are an initial climax in our passage.

The text would have been read in Hebrew, as is still the custom in the synagogue. Can we imagine that Jesus would have translated it into Aramaic, the language of the people, much as Ezra ‘gave the sense’ so that the people understood his reading of the law (Nehemiah 8:8)? The text is of course recorded by the evangelist in Greek, and carries with it differences from the Septuagint translation not found in the Hebrew original. Taken from the first two verses of chapter 61 of the Book of Isaiah, these few phrases focus on the messenger and the message he brings, and on the prophet eager to bring good news.

We can speculate about the text chosen by Jesus. Was there some kind of lectionary with an established provision of readings, or did it happen by chance that Jesus read a text so appropriate to his ministry? Or did he deliberately seek out Isaiah 61?

The Greek version of the text is dominated by verbs of proclamation: to bring good news (euaggelisasthai) and to proclaim (keruxai). At the heart of the quotation, however, lie words found only in the Septuagint translation. The prophet comes to bring ‘sight to the blind’. This might sound out of place amid the other items of this call to prophesy, until we recall the deeper sense of seeing the light in Luke’s gospel. Zechariah speaks of ‘a light for those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death’ (1:79). Simeon’s eyes ‘see salvation’, the salvation prepared for all the nations (2:30). The essence of the gospel proclamation is light shining in the darkness.

Despite its place among the poems of the third part of the Book of Isaiah, this text has been compared to the Servant Songs of Second Isaiah. The prophet does not see himself explicitly as a servant, but, as in the second and third Servant Songs, he refers to his calling. Isaiah 49:1 reads: ‘the Lord called me before I was born’ and 50:4 has: ‘the Lord God has given me a disciple’s tongue.’ Our text is one of a series dotted through the books of the prophets in which the prophet speaks of his commitment to his calling, some of them dramatic like the final confession of Jeremiah in chapter 20 of that book.

Our text speaks both of an anointing and of the Spirit, a rare combination. Even though these two features are seen together in the messianic anointing of David by Samuel in 1 Samuel 16, this is not a messianic text. A closer parallel is the mission of Elijah to anoint Elisha as prophet to succeed him (1 Kings 19:16), and Elisha’s reception of a double share of the Spirit in 2 Kings 2. How curious  that Jesus will later refer explicitly to both these early prophets as models for his own ministry!

‘To bring good news to the poor’ is the essence of Jesus’ ministry. It is for this that he was sent. ‘To proclaim freedom to captives’ uses the Greek aphesis, which allows the deeper meaning of forgiveness. At the start of Luke’s gospel John the Baptist proclaims ‘a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’ (3:3), while at the end it is the disciples of Jesus who take up the same theme (24:47). The same word aphesis is found in the phrase ‘to send the downtrodden forth in freedom’, a phrase derived from Isaiah 58:6. Once again a spiritual meaning is possible.  Finally, Jesus is ‘to proclaim the favourable year of the Lord’. This may be an allusion both to the jubilee year and to the sabbatical year. In both, slaves were freed and debts relinquished, but the freedom heralded here goes deeper.

A favourable reaction

Having rolled up the scroll and returned it to the synagogue attendant, Jesus sits down. Luke then adds to the tension by saying that the eyes of everyone in the synagogue were ‘gazing’ at Jesus. The Greek word used here, atenizo, found twice in Luke’s gospel and ten times in Acts, is almost exclusive to Luke-Acts in the New Testament. It very often suggests a deeper seeing, as when the disciples gaze into the heavens at Jesus’ ascension (Acts 1:10). Stephen gazes into heaven and sees the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:55). Cornelius gazes at his angel visitor, and Peter gazes at his vision (Acts 10:4 and 11:6). Are those in the Nazareth synagogue ready to see deeper? Has Jesus brought sight to their blindness?

Another high point is reached as Luke reports with some solemnity the beginning of the teaching career of Jesus. Jesus ‘began to say’: ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled as you listen.’ The ‘todays’ of Luke are well known. They are days of salvation for Zacchaeus (Luke 19) and for the ‘good thief’ (Luke 23). The fulfilment of this Scripture points to the fulfilment of all Scripture as explained by the Risen Jesus in the final chapter of the gospel: ‘Everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled’ (Luke 24:44). The fulfilment happens as they listen, for Jesus is above all a prophet, who brings good news to be heard.

Luke speaks of the warm reaction of all. They talk favourably about him and wonder at the ‘words of grace’ coming from his lips. Words of grace will be carried by the apostles throughout Acts. As he bids farewell to the elders of Ephesus at Miletus Paul will say: ‘I commend you to God and to the word of his grace.’ (Acts 20:32) What Jesus begins on this Sabbath day in Nazareth, the disciples will take forward. The words of grace are implicitly compared to words from God’s own mouth (Deuteronomy 8:3), words of God’s own hesed  or loving kindness.

An abrupt change

There is a sudden change. It seems that the evangelist wishes to place in this initial presentation of the message of Jesus the whole gamut of reactions to him. Or could it be that this volatile crowd succumbed to the murmuring of a few, and that things really got out of hand? The scandal of Jesus’ lowly origins and present pretensions felt by the jealous people of Nazareth in the story told by Mark and Matthew is developed by Luke into physical violence.

The starting point is the same, the recollection that he is one of them, ‘the son of Joseph’. In reply, Jesus quotes his first proverb. Surely they are going to say to him ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ There are many forms of this ancient proverb, including  Euripedes’ intriguing version: ‘Doctor for others, himself full of ulcers.’ Jesus provokes them further by referring to the miracles he has worked for the people of Capernaum, who presumably desired and welcomed them. Are his own people going to admit their own need, so that he can respond here too in word and deed? Luke is not concerned to speak of any healings worked by Jesus, but speaks only of the attitude of the townspeople.

Jesus provokes them further with the second proverb, which quickly follows: ‘No prophet is accepted in his own town.’ This saying is found in all four gospels and is based on another well-known ancient proverb. Dio Chysostom, Hellenistic orator and philosopher born in 40 AD, records a similar version: ‘life is hard for all philosophers in their own country’.

Jesus points to the implications of such rejection. The prophets of Israel have regularly shown God’s mercy towards non-Jews, but instead of speaking of Jonah, who resisted the painful lesson of God’s love for the Assyrians, or of Zechariah, who spoke of Jews being asked by Gentiles the way to God’s dwelling, Jesus points to the earliest prophets, Elijah and Elisha, as if to show that it was ever thus.

Elijah’s whole mission was to Israel. By his very name he proclaimed that ‘the Lord is God.’ But he was also ‘sent’ beyond Israel’s borders, into the land of Lebanon, to attend to the needs of the widow of Zarephath. The mission to Israel was his primary concern, but it did not exclude bringing the mercy of God to others too. The story of Elisha makes the same point in a different way. Elisha is known even in Syria as a powerful prophet. In this case the patient comes to the doctor, and despite his initial proud reluctance to comply with the prophet’s instructions Naaman is healed of his leprosy.

These two examples annoy the crowd in the synagogue even further. Luke reports that, just as they were ‘all’ earlier full of praise and wonder, they are ‘all’ now full of rage. Their reaction will be that of so many crowds to the message of a Christian preacher. Acts 7:58 will tell how the crowd ‘threw Stephen out of the town and stoned him’. But Jesus is first to be ‘thrown down’ as is stipulated in the Jewish tractate Mishnah Sanhedrin (6:4) as a preparation for stoning .

The story ends quite abruptly. It recalls the attempt to stone Jesus in John’s gospel, where ‘Jesus hid himself and left the temple’ (John 8:59). Here he simply ‘walks through the crowd and goes away’. Fathers of the Church such as St Ambrose have explained this text by reference to the johannine concept of the hour of Jesus, which has not yet come.

The pattern of early Christian preaching

Whatever the actual events behind this tradition, the pattern narrated here as happening to Jesus is repeated in the Acts of the Apostles. When Paul and Barnabas reach Antioch in Pisidia in Acts 13, like Jesus, they are welcomed into the synagogue on the Sabbath. After the reading of the Law and the Prophets, like Jesus, they are invited to address the congregation. Paul’s lengthy address makes frequent use of Scripture. The reaction is positive, so much so that they are asked to preach on the same theme the following Sabbath. On this subsequent occasion the atmosphere is quite different. Paul and Barnabas declare that their mission must now be to the nations, and they quote the second Servant Song: ‘I have made you a light for the nations, so that my salvation may reach the ends of the earth.’ (Isaiah 49:6) Paul and Barnabas, like Jesus, are expelled from the city.

Throughout the Acts of the Apostles we see how persecution leads to mission to others. The persecution following the death of Stephen is the trigger for the spreading of the gospel outside Jerusalem (Acts 8:4). Such difficulties are frequently experienced by Paul. In the Letter to the Romans Paul declares that the good news is ‘the power of God for all who have faith, Jews first, but Greeks as well (Romans 1:16). Is it possible that Luke has edited his account of the visit of Jesus to the synagogue at Nazareth not only to foreshadow later events in Jesus’ life, but also as a model for the preaching of the early Church?

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