14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.
16 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, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18‘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,
19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
20And 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. 21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’
Translation: And Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee and fame about him went out through all the surrounding region. And he was teaching in their synagogues, being glorified by all. And he came into Nazareth, where he was brought up, and he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, according to his custom, and he arose to read. And there was given upon him a book of the prophet Isaiah, and opening the book, he found the place where it was written:
"The Spirit of the Lord (is) upon me, who anointed me, to bring good news to the poor, (the Spirit) has sent me:
to proclaim release to the prisoners of war and recovery of sight to the blind, to send the broken ones release, to proclaim a year of the Lord's favor."
And he closed the book, gave to the attendant, (and) he sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were gazing intently on him. And he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your ears."
Background and situation: The lection is preceded by Luke's Christmas narrative (1-2), the message and imprisonment of John the Baptist (3:1-20), the baptism of Jesus (3:21-22), Luke's geneaology of Jesus (3:23-38), and the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness (4:1-13). Our lection contains the first public words of Jesus in Luke's gospel.
In the power of the Spirit: Luke tells us that Jesus is "in the power of the Spirit"--en te dunamei tou pneumatos. Luke likes this phrase. It appears over a dozen times in Luke/Acts, but not at all in Matthew, Mark, or John. Proclaiming Jesus to be "in the power of the Spirit" also looks back to the Spirit's descent upon him (3:21-22) and his encounter with the devil in the wilderness where he is also said to be "full of the Holy Spirit" (4:1).
Jesus is now in Galilee, teaching in "their synagogues." (The imperfect verb suggests that this is an ongoing activity, begun in the past and repeated in the present.) Jesus is often seen in synagogues in Luke, but this occasion is the only time we are given the specific content of his teaching.
His mission thus far has met with astounding success. His "fame" has spread throughout the region, and he was "glorified--doxozemonos--by all." The people rally to Jesus. Sometimes it is easy to forget that, despite the opposition he met, Jesus was a popular figure, adored by many.
The focus narrows from Galilee to Nazareth to synagogue. Typical for Luke, Jesus is portrayed as a devout Jew--he went to the synagogue on the sabbath "as was his custom." This is consistent with the Jewish devotion of his parents in having him circumsized (2:21), presenting him in the Temple (2:22ff.), and regularly participating in the passover (2:41-51).
It is difficult to pin down, historically, exactly when the "synagogue system" began. Some trace it back to the Babylonian exile (c. 550 BC). Others place its beginning in the second century before Christ. What is clear is that, after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in AD 70, synagogues became the main center of Jewish religious activity.
The synagogue service began with prayer. The law would be read, followed by readings from the prophets. Any man (but, of course, no woman) could volunteer to read simply by standing up, though, as in our present-day churches, usually the readers were assigned in advance. The reader would typically sit down to offer his interpretation. It also appears that vigorous discussion sometimes ensued (Acts 17:2).
By stepping up to read (and preach), Jesus begins his public ministry. You can tell that the occasion is of maximal importance by the way Luke narrates it. Sometimes in scripture, whole centuries can pass in a sentence. Here, the action slows way down. Even body movements are noted. Jesus "went in." He "arose to read." The book of Isaiah "was given." He opened the book. He found the place.
In any work of great literature, the first statement by the main character has special import. That is likewise the case here. Though the book of Isaiah "was given upon him," Jesus chose which particular passage to read, and the first words of his public ministry were those of Isaiah, specifically most of 61:1-2 with dashes of Isaiah 58.
Jesus' reading does not follow the Isaiah text directly. He omits a phrase in 61:2b--"the day of vengeance of our God," probably because this would sound a negative note in an overwhelmingly positive message. He also borrows a phrase from Isaiah 58:6--literally: "to send the broken ones release"--and inserts it toward the close of the reading. (He omits the phrase "to bind up the brokenhearted" in Isaiah 61:1.)
The accent of the first three phrases is on himself: The Spirit...is upon me...for (the Spirit) has anointed me...(the Spirit) has sent me." This establishes a firm link between the anointing of Jesus, his being "in the power of the Spirit," and the primary focus of his mission: "to bring good news to the poor." Joel Green defines "poor" in the first-century Mediterranean world:
In that culture, one's status in a community was not so much a function of economic realities, but depended on a number of elements, including education, gender, family heritage, religious purity, vocation, economics, and so on. Thus, lack of subsistence might account for one's designation as "poor," but so might other disadvantaged conditions, and "poor" would serve as a cipher for those of low status, for those excluded according to normal canons of status honor in the Mediterranean world. (p. 211)
There is some question about the grammar of the text. Most translations have "(the Spirit) sent me" connected with the phrase that follows ("to proclaim release"). Schweizer, however, connects that phrase to the phrase which precedes it, i.e. "to bring good news to the poor").
In other words, Schweizer has: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me. To preach good news to the poor he has sent me." (Schweizer claims this reading is consistent with Luke 4:43, which seems possible, and Acts 10:38, which seems a stretch.)
The Greek text itself is not clear on this point. One thing Schweizer's translation does is place the emphasis on "good news to the poor." That is why Jesus was anointed and that is why he was sent. The phrases that follow are placed in that context.
The next expression following is: "To proclaim release to the prisoners of war." The word is aixmalotois, which is formed by aixme (spear) and alonai (taken). It refers to those taken by violence during a time of war, hence "prisoners of war." Jesus will bring "release" (aphesin) to them and to "the broken ones" (tethrausmenos). Both groups--prisoners and broken ones--would fit Green's definition of "poor."
Aphesin is quite often translated as "forgiveness," and, indeed, "forgiveness of sins" figures more prominently in Luke than in the other gospels (24:47). Luke uses aphesin five times in his gospel. Two of those uses are in this short passage where aphesin is normally translated as "release."
"Forgiveness of sins" should be seen in its fullest sense. It is not only "forgiveness of sins," but also a "release" from whatever is holding a person in bondage. It is not just a spiritual "release," in other words, but also one that includes one's captivity to economic, political, and psychological forces. "Prisoners of war," for example, is a political/military term, and tethrausmenos refers to "the ones broken in pieces," or "the shattered ones."
Who would have been considered "prisoners of war" and "shattered ones" in first century Israel? Robert Tannehill suggests people in prison for debt payment, those who were physically ill or oppressed by the devil, and those who were excluded from the religious community. (p. 92) These are "released" or "forgiven" which paves the way for their re-integration into the community's social life.
Jubilee Year: Some argue that Luke is raising the image of the Jubilee Year. According to Leviticus 25, the Jubilee Year was to be observed every fiftieth year and was to include the freeing of slaves and the cancellation of debt--"the year of release," according to Lev. 25:10. Likewise, the "year of the Lord's favor" in Isaiah 61:2 carries echoes of Jubilee. In Luke, the Lord's Prayer reads "release from debt" (11:4). (See also Deuteronomy 15.)
There is no evidence that the Jubilee Year was ever actually observed--numerous loopholes allowed the wealthy to avoid letting their debtors off the hook. Still, those who argue that Jesus was invoking the Jubilee Year can make a good case.
"Fulfilled in your ears":
And he began to say to them, "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your ears."
As Jesus closes his remarks, Luke again slows the action down to include Jesus' body movements. "He closed," "gave", "sat down." This gives the preceding remarks additional importance and provides a time for the reader to integrate what has just been said. A similar effect pervaded those in the synagogue--"the eyes of all...were gazing intently upon him."
Then Jesus gives what is perhaps the shortest sermon ever: "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your ears." In fact, the first public word spoken by Jesus himself in Luke's gospel is the word "today." The word is a favorite of Luke's. It appears twelve times in Luke's gospel. "Today" conveys a sense of immediacy. Fulfillment is a present reality.
Moreover, the words of Isaiah are "fulfilled in your ears." Hearing is an intimate thing. The words literally come all the way inside one's body where they are then "processed" and understood through ones neural connections. Hearing Jesus' words, connecting them with the fulfillment of scripture, seeing Jesus' ministry of "release" on behalf of the poor--all this is apprehended intimately, right now, today.
Image: Jesus teaching in the synagogue, Robert Leinweber