Have you ever waited a long time for something? As you see it draw near, anticipation rises. Do you remember the turning points as you moved from dating to engagement and then marriage, the anticipation of graduation, a work promotion, the purchase of a house, the arrival of a child? The moment, when it comes, is full of joy and the emotion of the realization of what had been anticipated.
God had promised the decisive demonstration of his salvation for his people for a long time. Now Jesus turns to declare the day has come; opportunity is present. After almost two thousand years of promise, stretching all the way back to Abraham, Jesus claims that the promises of a prophet like Isaiah are now being decisively realized.
But as in many great moments, questions arise. Is this really it? Have we moved from the days of promise to the time of the beginning of realization? Is God at work to fulfill his promise? Jesus' synagogue declaration brings a moment of decision for those who hear his claims. A snapshot of his entire ministry flashes in this brief exchange. Jesus offers much, but the crowd questions what is on offer. In the tension of the contrast, Luke's readers are left to choose sides.
The piety of Jesus' parents continues in Jesus, as on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. Unfortunately this is the first of several sabbath events that will end in controversy (4:31-37; 6:1-5, 6-11; 13:10-17; 14:1-5). Jesus' piety is not like that of the Jewish leadership. The controversies raise the question who represents God and his way—a major thematic concern in Luke's portrayal of Jesus.
Yet despite the tension, Jesus does not attempt to separate himself from Judaism. Rather, he presents his mission as the natural extension and realization of Israel's hope. As Jesus hopes to show, the time of fulfillment has come. The opportunity to share in and experience release according to God's promise has come this very day (v. 21).
To appreciate the account, it helps to understand the order of an ancient synagogue service (m. Megilla 3—4; m. Berakot 2). To have a synagogue service required the presence of ten adult males. At the service, the Shema was recited (Deut 6:4-9), followed by prayers, including some set prayers like the Tephillah and the Eighteen Benedictions (m. Berakot 2:2). After this the Scripture was read, beginning with a portion from the Torah (Gen—Deut) and moving next to a section from the Prophets. Instruction then followed. Often the speaker linked the texts together through appeal to other passages. The service then closed with a benediction.
Jesus appears to speak during the reading of the Prophets. He reads from Isaiah 61:1-2, a passage that promises the coming of God's salvation. His commentary, unlike most sermons, is brief, declaring simply, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." The claim is so great that we need to work through the elements of the Old Testament passage carefully.
The passage starts with Jesus' claim that the Spirit of the Lord is on me. Jesus claims to be directed by God to minister and preach. The details follow, but interestingly, the reader of Luke's Gospel knows more about what this means than Jesus' original synagogue audience would have known at the time. The first hearers would have heard a claim for a divinely directed ministry, but they may not have realized that at his baptism Jesus had been anointed not just for a prophetic ministry but as Messiah. Readers of Luke have the memory of the anointing fresh in their recall. Jesus' remark recalls 3:21-22. His statement, along with what follows, shows that he is both an anointed Son and a prophetic figure. He reveals God's will and brings God's promise.
In the synagogue speech, the next line gives the goal of the anointing: to preach good news to the poor. This theme has already received attention in Mary's hymnic burst of praise in 1:51-53. Theologians today debate the significance of what Jesus said. Does this verse and those that surround it resonate with themes of political liberation for the oppressed? Is Jesus supporting class struggle? Luke's use of the term poor in chapter 1 and beyond makes it clear this is not only a socioeconomic reference. On the other hand, neither is class excluded from Jesus' concerns. In 1:50-53, the reference to "the humble" is surrounded by descriptions that indicate the spiritually sensitive character of the poor. Luke 6:20-23, too, compares the trouble the poor face in this world to the experience the prophets of old faced. So the text Jesus reads is not a carte blanche endorsement of the poor, nor is it a political manifesto. This hope extends only to the spiritually sensitive poor, to the responsive. The passage recognizes that often it is the poor who respond to God's message and embrace it with humility (1 Cor 1:26-29; Jas 2:5). They tend to sense their need and have no delusions of power, control and independence. They are what the Old Testament called the 'anauim "the pious poor," also called "the afflicted" (2 Sam 22:28; Ps 14:6; 22:24; 25:16; 34:6; 40:17; 69:29; Is 3:14-15; Amos 8:4; Bammel 1968:888).
For those looking to God for hope, Jesus was the answer. To respond to God, one must be open to him. For those in need of God, Jesus has a message of good news. Luke loves to emphasize that a potential audience for this message can be found among the poor. His social concern expresses itself fully through the details of what Jesus said at the synagogue—details the other Gospels lack. But this social concern is concerned with spiritual realities, not political ideologies.
So Jesus is sent to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed. Luke 4:31-44 makes clear that the oppression in view here is mainly spiritual. Forces stand opposed to humanity that pull down and bring sin, pain and pressure. Being under demonic oppression is like being trapped in a prison of pain and despair. Jesus offers release from such pain and dark despair. That is what his miracles picture and point to, the reality beyond the act of the miracle (11:14-23).
Jesus' words, then, work at two levels simultaneously. He will heal the blind, but that also pictures the coming of light to those in darkness (1:78-79). The healing of the blind man in 18:35-43 also pictures what Jesus does for Zacchaeus in 19:1-10. Jesus is the physician who comes to heal the sick (5:31-32). Eventually the ministry of Jesus will bring total restoration and release to the creation (Rom 8:18-39; Rev 21—22), but in the meantime, deliverance means release into forgiveness and relationship with God.
Jesus' statement that he liberates the oppressed makes it clear that he is more than a prophet; he effects salvation. The allusion here is to Isaiah 58:6. Isaiah 58 calls on Israel to respond to God by fasting with a life of ethical honor to God (esp. 58:13-14). The prophet rebukes the nation for having failed to live up to the call of its sabbath worship. What Jesus promises here is a release that will result in his providing what the nation had failed to provide. In fact, many of the sabbath controversies in Luke have to do with Jesus' providing such release despite complaints about the sabbath timing of his healings. But Jesus replies that no time is more appropriate than the sabbath for such healings (and what they picture; 13:16).
This is why Jesus has come to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor. Here the allusion is to the jubilee, the year of cancellation of debts (Lev 25:8-17; Sloan 1977:39-41). What happened in that year, when debts were canceled and slaves were freed, pictures what Jesus brings for those who respond to his message of hope. Jesus builds on the picture of Isaiah's ministry, which also proclaimed such hope, and notes that what the prophet had proclaimed Jesus is fulfilling.
In sum, Jesus makes three points: (1) Jesus is anointed with the Spirit. (2) He is the prophet of fulfillment who declares good news. This office is what theologians have called "the eschatological prophet" or "the prophet like Moses," because Jesus proclaims the arrival of a new era of salvation, functioning as a prophet-leader. (3) Jesus is the one who brings release as well as the one who proclaims it. He is Messiah. This final idea helps to explain the blind man's insight into what he has been hearing about Jesus when in 18:35-43 he calls out to the Son of David for healing. The Son of David brings not only a future rule but also present release from sin and a reversal of the effects of Satan's presence in the world (11:14-23). In short, this is the beginning of the fulfillment of God's promise, and Jesus is the source of that fulfillment.
Jesus' claim that "today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing" places both listeners and readers in the position of having to make a choice. No fence-sitting is possible. Jesus' teaching is not some ethical instruction detached from his person. He is the promise of God. Either he brings God's promise or he does not.
The crowd does reflect on the claim; they are amazed and perplexed simultaneously. They spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his lips. They recognized a persuasive speaker in their midst, but his pedigree gave them pause. Isn't this Joseph's son? How could he be the promised one of God? Knowing their thoughts, Jesus responds. In the Gospels, when someone thinks and then Jesus speaks, his words usually carry rebuke (7:39, 49-50; 11:38-39).
Jesus replies in three ways. First, he cites a proverb that indicates they want him to prove it. "Show me" is their basic response to his claim. Yet after the evidence is produced, there will still be doubt. Miracles, as powerful a testimony as they are to Jesus, in the end never convince one who does not want to come to God (16:31). People must be willing to hear the Word of God and receive it before they will see anything as God's work.
Second, Jesus quotes the proverb that a prophet is not honored in his home. This remark reveals Jesus' understanding of Old Testament history. He knows how repeatedly God's messengers were rejected. This theme will also surface continually in Luke (11:49-52; 13:32-35; 20:10-12: Acts 7:51-53). God's message is often met with rejection. The proverb also serves as a prediction that for many in Israel Jesus' ministry will fit into this tragic mold.
Third, Jesus recalls the history of Israel in the period of Elijah and Elisha (1 Kings 17—18; 2 Kings 5:1-14). The history lesson is a warning. That period was a low point in the nation's life, when rejection of God was at an all-time high and idolatry and unfaithfulness ran rampant. So God moved his works of mercy outside the nation into Gentile regions, as only a widow in Sidon and Naaman the Syrian experienced God's healing. The price of rejecting God's message is severe: mercy moves on to other locales. It is quite risky to walk away from God's offer of deliverance. This exchange reveals the basic challenge of Jesus' ministry: the choice he presents carries high stakes.
The crowd does not seize the opportunity. Rather, Jesus' warning angers them. The suggestion that Gentiles might be blessed while Israel reaps nothing leaves them fuming. Such displeasure at the accountability implicit in the gospel message is echoed in Acts (7:51-59; 13:46, 50; 22:20-22). Many respond similarly today when they realize that the gospel is a matter of "take it or you will be responsible to God for the consequences."
Jesus departs, despite the crowd's efforts to seize him and remove him from the scene. People can try to turn their back on Jesus and do away with him, but he always will be sojourning in their midst.
Opportunities for God's work are also opportunities for tragedy. That is what is pictured in Jesus' synagogue visit. The promise's arrival was a great, historic moment, an occasion to enter into God's rich blessing. But blessing refused is tragic. The crowd's response is the first of many moments of opportunity lost in the Gospel. It is another step in a paradise lost. The gospel brings a choice—and choice has consequences.