Third Sunday after Epiphany
January 27, 2019
Commentary on the Texts
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
This text, like many other Lectionary passages, is only a portion of a larger literary unit, vv. 16-30, that includes Jesus' return to his hometown of Nazareth and his reading from the Isaiah scroll in synagogue worship there, as well as the response of the people of Nazareth to his comments climaxing in an attempt on his life. For the full thought of Luke here, the entire passage must be kept in view, even though the latter part of it (vv. 21-30) will be dealt with for next week's reading.
Another point of literary context is important to note here. The cycle of lectionary readings that progresses through the book of Luke this year has moved from the baptism of Jesus directly to the beginning of Jesus ministry in Nazareth, skipping the narrative of Jesus temptation in the wilderness (4:1-13, reading for the first Sunday of Lent). That narrative, which immediately precedes today's reading, is a crucial link in Luke's flow of thought in this passage and in the entire book.
There are three significant events here that Luke links together structurally and rhetorically: the baptism of Jesus, the temptation in the desert, and the incident in his hometown of Nazareth. In the baptism narrative, Luke specifically mentions that "the Holy Spirit descended upon him" (3:22). Then, Luke begins the temptation narrative with: "Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the Wilderness" (4:1). The same operation of the Spirit opens the account of Jesus' return to Galilee: "Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee" (4:14).
Luke also puts these into a larger literary context by connecting them with events in the infancy narrative. Luke has used similar language to mark the birth of John from both Elizabeth ("he will be filled with the Holy Spirit," 1:15; also 1:41) and Zechariah ("his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit," 1:67), the annunciation to Mary ("The Holy Spirit will come upon you," 1:35), the confession about Jesus from Simeon ("the Holy Spirit was upon him," 2:25-27), as well as the preaching of John about Jesus ("he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire," 3:16).
The same way of relating events to the work of the Holy Spirit continues throughout the book of Luke and on into Acts. This suggests that these three events all need to be understood within that context, especially with the emphasis on the empowering work of the Holy Spirit in the lives of key figures, and in the life of the early church. Luke emphasizes that both John and Jesus come into the world under the operation of the Holy Spirit. Both carry out their ministry by the Holy Spirit, and Luke especially notes that both the inauguration of Jesus' public ministry and his return to his hometown are under the leadership and power of the Holy Spirit. Luke is obviously placing this feature in a central position. While we will not be able to carry out the full implications of this confession by Luke in this passage, we need constantly keep in mind Luke's concern. And it is clear that Luke is greatly concerned with anchoring this new work of God in the world through Jesus in the work of the Holy Spirit.
This is not so much a directly Trinitarian formulation as it is a developing theology of the church. We have already noted in previous readings that the structural unity of Luke, especially as it continues into Acts, serves to highlight the movement, the journey, not only of Jesus toward Jerusalem and the explosive events there, but also the journey of the church toward Rome and beyond. It will become increasingly clear throughout the book of Luke, that he is presenting a theology that grounds the church firmly in Christology. He sees the church shaped by who Jesus was as the incarnate Son of God empowered by the Father through the Spirit, who inaugurated a new beginning of God's work in the world. As the church is grounded in Jesus, Luke then understands that the church is to carry on the work that Jesus modeled, empowered by the same Spirit (Acts 1:8, 2:4). Many of the unique features of Luke's Gospel from this point on will gradually shape and sharpen that perspective.
Two further observations are important to note about this passage in terms of context and the shaping Luke gives it within his Gospel. Both Matthew and Mark place this incident of Jesus' return to his hometown and subsequent rejection later in his ministry (Mk 6:1-6, Matt 13:53-58; there is no parallel in John). Luke basically follows the chronology of Mark in most of the events of Jesus' Galilean ministry, except for this one. Luke moves this incident to the beginning of Jesus' ministry. It is obvious that Luke knows that Jesus had already been active for some time, since he tells of the favorable reports about Jesus that are circulating (v. 15), as well as Jesus' rhetorical reference to the things he has already done in Capernaum (v. 23). This suggests that while Luke knows the chronology of the events, he has chosen to structure his account on some other basis than strict chronology.
The effect of moving this incident to the beginning of Jesus' recorded ministry serves to place the subsequent actions of Jesus under the cloud of rejection by those who knew him best (v. 22). It is much the same way that John places the cleansing of the Temple at the beginning of Jesus' ministry to place all of Jesus' later actions within the context of the hostility of religious leaders (John 2:13-25; cf. Matt 21:12-17 and parallels).
While this will become a more important factor in next week's reading in which the actual rejection takes place, the way that Luke is telling the story must be considered even here. This is not going to be a simple confession that Jesus is the fulfillment of the servant in Isaiah that leads to rejoicing. There is built into that confession in Luke's Gospel that from the very beginning of Jesus' public activity such identification carries with it a threat of rejection.
This linking of a servant ministry to the oppressed and the proclamation of release and restoration of sight, with rejection by "hometown folks" that results in having to leave that hometown, becomes a means to address the situation of the early church, not only with its mission to the world, but with the consequences of carrying it out. That will continue to work out as an important theme in both Luke and Acts.
The second unique feature of Luke is the Old Testament quotation itself (from Isa 61:1), which does not occur in the other Gospel accounts. Even though the idea of "fulfillment" is introduced by Jesus himself here (v. 21), Luke does not really present the OT passage as a prediction whose fulfillment offers proof or even witness of who Jesus is, as, for example, Matthew often does. Especially in this context of the beginning of Jesus' ministry in the baptism and the temptation narratives just preceding, the Old Testament reference rather defines a particular role for Jesus and His ministry. The significance is not related to prophetic predictions as much as it demonstrates Jesus' taking to himself the role of the servant described in Isaiah. And as noted, if, indeed, Luke is building a theology of the church from his shaping of the Gospel traditions, this becomes an important aspect of what Luke understands to be the role of the church.
As noted, this passage begins with a reference to Jesus being "filled with the power of the Spirit." While there are no doubt some implicit Trinitarian ideas here, rather than struggling to define those it might be more profitable to ask what Luke intends to communicate by this reference to the Spirit. We have noted earlier that the Old Testament metaphors of wind (Heb: ruach - breath, wind, spirit), smoke, and cloud, as well as fire, were ways of talking about the active presence of God in the world (see Commentary on Luke 3). Even though the single Hebrew term is translated in various ways even when used of God, this idea became a way to talk about God in terms of his immediate activity in the world. The idea behind the Hebrew term ruach expressed the immanence of God in the world and encompassed his willingness and power to act in human history (note Gen 1:2). This idea carried over into most of the New Testament since the equivalent term in Greek (pneuma) carries the same varied meaning.
Yet, there is an even deeper Old Testament background for the reference here. Old Testament prophets who were commissioned by God to bring a message to the people were able to speak that message because the spirit of the Lord came upon them (e.g., Mic 3:8). The same metaphor was used of Israel's leaders to express their dependence on God for leadership (Judg 3:10, 1 Sam 16:13, Isa 63:11-12, Zech 4:6; cf. Hag 1:14). While some want to trace the origins of this usage culturally to various settings, it seems clear that whatever the origin, the Old Testament tradition used this idea to express the need for God's presence to enable leaders and prophets to carry out their God given missions.
The reference to Spirit, then, is a way to express the active presence of God in the world, here specifically empowering Jesus for his task in the world. Just as the presence of God enabled the Old Testament prophets to communicate a message, and as it empowered Israel's leaders to carry out their responsibilities, so the active and immanent presence of God is with Jesus enabling him to carry out his task. It also stresses Jesus' authority to proclaim whatever message he is to bring and whatever mission he will undertake, both defined here by the following Old Testament quotation (vv. 18-19). Luke will apply that same metaphor with the same meaning to the early church as it experiences the infilling of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
Many writers have noted the details of Jesus' return to his boyhood home and what we learn and what is confirmed about first century AD synagogue worship. As interesting as those details are, the actual emphasis of the narrative is more focused. We have noted that Luke early linked Jesus with temple worship, both by his parents' careful adherence to religious custom and torah (2:21, 22-24, 39), as well as by the fact that as a child Jesus regularly went to Jerusalem for religious festivals (2:42). Now as an adult, we are told that Jesus' early activity has been centered in the synagogues, and when he returned home, he attended the synagogue "as was his custom" (v. 16).
This emphasizes Jesus' faithfulness in devotion to God and a dimension of personal piety. Jesus was no iconoclast, no rabble rouser who thumbed his nose at the traditions and conventions of the faith that had nurtured him to this point. He will have some harsh things to say later about those who do not take their religion to heart and whose piety is a mask for self interest. And he will call the people to a new future that will take that religion of his boyhood in new directions. But it is clear that as much as Luke is emphasizing the newness of what was unfolding in Jesus, he is also anchoring that newness as an outgrowth, even as a climax, of what had gone before. In this sense, Luke is working to preserve a continuity with the Jewish "cradle" of emerging Christianity, while at the same time he is bearing witness to the dawning of a new age.
The passage Jesus read in the Nazareth synagogue was a slightly modified version of the Greek translation (Septuagint) of Isaiah 61:1-2. This reading in Luke omits the phrase "to bind up the broken hearted" (Isa 61:1), and adds "to let the oppressed go free," a phrase borrowed from Isa 58:6. It is also significant that this reading stops just short of the very negative phrase in Isaiah, "the day of vengeance of our God," an omission that serves to leave the reading focused on grace and its effect.
There are various ways to understand this form of the reading: a) Jesus himself was conflating Scripture readings, which he had the right to do as the Messiah, and so further demonstrated his authority; b) the Gospel tradition telescoped the actual reading with Jesus' comments about the reading; c) the Gospel tradition did not preserve exactly what Jesus read, but rather the gist or intent of the reading; d) Luke is not intending to replicate the exact reading but is interpreting the significance of the reading in light of Jesus' comments and the whole Gospel tradition about Jesus' ministry.
None of these views deny that Jesus actually read from Isaiah 61 in the Nazareth synagogue. And we finally have no way to know why the text differs. But whatever the reason, the particular form of the reading that Luke gives us does have the effect of emphasizing certain aspects, and shapes the picture that Luke is drawing of Jesus' role as the Messiah.
The passage in Isaiah 61 is closely related to the so-called "Servant Songs" of the earlier sections of Isaiah that are set in the period of Babylonian exile (587-538 BC, chs. 40-55). In those, the nation of Israel in the metaphor of a servant is reminded of her mission to the world (41:8-11; 42:1-4), brought face to face with her failure and its consequences (42:18-25), awakened to the possibility of forgiveness and renewed mission (43:8-13), promised the grace of God in restoration (44:1-5), given the renewed mission to be a light to the nations (49:5-11), and emerges chastened and humbled yet in a position to be the blessing she had been called to be (52:13-53:12).
The later sections of Isaiah, from which this reading comes, are set in the post-exilic period as the people were struggling to survive in a hostile and dangerous environment (538-450 BC, chs. 56-66). Things had not gone as they expected, and the people were discouraged and were tempted to abandon their calling as God's people. In that context, the prophet encouraged them by again calling them to their mission as the people of God, especially in extending that mission to be a blessing in behalf of Yahweh to the "nations," to the entire world (58:3-14), again with the metaphor of light into darkness (vv. 8, 10). A large part of what they were called to do in order to realize that goal was to be faithful to the principles of torah (59:1-15), especially as it worked out in relationship with others that reflected the grace they had experienced: "loose the bonds of injustice. . .let the oppressed go free. . .share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your homes, when you see the naked, to cover them" (Isa 58:6-7).
And yet, since the conditions they faced were so harsh and their situation so desperate, there was clearly a future (eschatological) dimension to the prophet's message, with phrases like "soon" (56:1), "in its time" (60:22), and "your deliverance comes" (62:11). They were called to have faith that just as God had brought them home from exile by His grace, that he would also enable them to live out being His people as they were faithful. This wedding of the ethical responsibility of the people as God's people with a future expectation of vindication by a new act of God (59:15b-21, 64, 65:17-25) is the single dominant theme of this entire section of Isaiah.
With that background for Isaiah 61, which, along with chapter 58 comprises the strongest exposition of the role of God's restored people in the entire book, the synagogue reading here in Luke takes on immense significance. There seems little question that Luke is using this reading to draw a parallel between the mission given to the restored post-exilic community as a response to God's grace in bringing them back from exile, and the mission that Jesus is undertaking in this new gracious act of God in the world. And, again, there can be little question that in so doing, Luke is equating both of those with the role of the church as it moves into the world as a new "light to nations," a new people of God whose existence is shaped by the coming of Jesus.
It is important to note that this mission is specifically directed at the needs of people: poor, captive, blind, oppressed. We could get sidetracked here and engage in debate about the validity of a "social Gospel." Or we could try to determine whether Jesus is speaking literally or metaphorically here. In any case, there is little question that the role Jesus takes to himself here is one of ministering to the hurting, oppressed, outcast, and marginalized of the world. Luke will continue to develop how that will work out in the real world as Jesus encounters these people in real life: lepers, tax collectors, women. This is no grand social program. It is a definition of mission that called Israel, that called Jesus, and thereby calls his followers, to engage the world and its people and their needs as a way fulfill being a light to that world.
The future eschatological dimension is even picked up in Jesus' brief comment to the reading. The prophets had continually promised "days are coming" when God would again work in salvific ways in the world, and would vindicate the righteous and punish the wicked. Jesus' declared that those future expectations are now becoming a reality. The "days are coming" of past generations had now become "today" (v. 21). Again, this reveals Luke's understanding that the "last days" began with the coming of Jesus, that the future so long awaited had now become a reality. He does not draw it in apocalyptic imagery that envisions a fiery end of the world. Yet Luke is resolute that the future is "today" (17:20-21).
The people were quite willing to accept this proclamation of grace. Jesus had used the imagery of the Year of Jubilee ("year of the Lord's favor," v. 19; cf. Lev 25) in which debts were canceled and debtor slaves were released. They were eager to participate in this outpouring of God's favor announced by Jesus, so they "spoke well of him" (v. 22). But as we shall see next week, that is not the end of the story.
One of the most productive preaching paths here is to pick up the main idea in this passage that "the future is today." This will not only continue the Epiphany theme of manifesting Christ to the world, it will also begin laying the groundwork, both logically and theologically, for dealing with the role and mission of the church in the world as we move toward Lent and eventually Pentecost.
There are several ways this can be developed, although the emphasis on the enabling presence of the Holy Spirit is hard to ignore. This feature combined with the genuine piety and religious devotion demonstrated by Jesus overlays all of his activity with a profoundly spiritual dimension. Much of our modern culture increasingly operates on a level so far from the spiritual that it is easy negatively to associate piety and spirituality with the excesses of fringe religious groups, or the worst examples of pure emotionalism, or distorted images of robed figures walking with their hands folded and spending all day in prayer. In other words, it is easy in our culture and society to push the spiritual dimension to the margins of life, and relegate it to the domain of the fanatic.
And yet this text shows us the incarnate Son of God deeply involved in religious activities and led by the Spirit as he begins his mission. Those religious activities in and of themselves, as a means on their own to relationship with God, Jesus himself will later denounce. But here they are an important part of who he is in carrying out his mission. If "the future is today," then we probably should take seriously this spiritual dimension in living out being followers of this Jesus. The emphasis on prayer, attendance at synagogue and temple, and the willingness to be filled and led by the Spirit, are all calls to life live by a different set of standards. If "the future is today," then that fact should make a difference in how we live in that future that is unfolding, that is already among us and in us.
Yet, and perhaps most importantly, it is not a piety that is disconnected from the world, as if it were our own personal and individual way to live. It will not allow us to sit and meditate for a while until we feel good, and then go live the rest of our life as if "today" had not yet really happened. In the life of this One who came, we are called to live out that spirituality on a day to day basis as we encounter the poor, captives, the blind, and the oppressed. If we really are in the "today" of the Lord's favor proclaimed by Jesus, then, indeed, "the eyes of all" are fixed on us. Words will not be enough. And our own strength will not be enough. It doesn't have to be! Because of this Jesus, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news. . . !"
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