Saturday, 16 January 2010

Transforming hope into reality

Jesus Unrolls the Book in the Synagogue (Jésus dans la synagogue déroule le livre), James Tissot (1831-1902), Brooklyn Museum

Patrick Comerford

Luke 4: 14-21

14 Καὶ ὑπέστρεψεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς ἐν τῇ δυνάμει τοῦ πνεύματος εἰς τὴν Γαλιλαίαν. καὶ φήμη ἐξῆλθεν καθ' ὅλης τῆς περιχώρου περὶ αὐτοῦ. 15 καὶ αὐτὸς ἐδίδασκεν ἐν ταῖς συναγωγαῖς αὐτῶν, δοξαζόμενος ὑπὸ πάντων. 16 Καὶ ἦλθεν εἰς Ναζαρά, οὗ ἦν τεθραμμένος, καὶ εἰσῆλθεν κατὰ τὸ εἰωθὸς αὐτῷ ἐν τῇ ἡμέρᾳ τῶν σαββάτων εἰς τὴν συναγωγήν, καὶ ἀνέστη ἀναγνῶναι. 17 καὶ ἐπεδόθη αὐτῷ βιβλίον τοῦ προφήτου Ἠσαΐου, καὶ ἀναπτύξας τὸ βιβλίον εὗρεν τὸν τόπον οὗ ἦν γεγραμμένον, 18 Πνεῦμα κυρίου ἐπ' ἐμέ, οὗ εἵνεκεν ἔχρισέν με εὐαγγελίσασθαι πτωχοῖς, ἀπέσταλκέν με κηρύξαι αἰχμαλώτοις ἄφεσιν καὶ τυφλοῖς ἀνάβλεψιν, ἀποστεῖλαι τεθραυσμένους ἐν ἀφέσει, 19 κηρύξαι ἐνιαυτὸν κυρίου δεκτόν. 20 καὶ πτύξας τὸ βιβλίον ἀποδοὺς τῷ ὑπηρέτῃ ἐκάθισεν: καὶ πάντων οἱ ὀφθαλμοὶ ἐν τῇ συναγωγῇ ἦσαν ἀτενίζοντες αὐτῷ. 21 ἤρξατο δὲ λέγειν πρὸς αὐτοὺς ὅτι Σήμερον πεπλήρωται ἡ γραφὴ αὕτη ἐν τοῖς ὠσὶν ὑμῶν.

14 Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15 He 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, 17 and 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,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.”

20 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. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Jesus in the Synagogue, as imagined by the Northern Ireland-born artist Greg Olsen


This morning we are looking at the Gospel reading for tomorrow week [Sunday 24 January] – Luke 4: 14-21. The Gospel readings in the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) for this year, Year C, are drawn mainly from Saint Luke’s Gospel, although there are a few readings from Saint John’s Gospel too.

The reading for Sunday next bridges the interlude in the Church Calendar between the Christmas and Epiphany stories and the beginning of Christ’s Galilean Ministry and, in the provision for a longer reading this morning or in the reading for the following Sunday (Luke 4: 21-30), brings us to his rejection in Nazareth.

The beginning of ministry

Saint Mark’s Gospel places the rejection of Jesus by the people of Nazareth at the end of his first year of his ministry (see Mark 6: 1-6), but Saint Luke places it at the beginning of his ministry, although we are told at the beginning of this reading that there was an earlier period of ministry in surrounding Galilee (verses 14-15), perhaps in Capernaum.

Instead of succumbing to the temptations of a dramatic but false start to his Messianic ministry (Luke 4: 1-14), Jesus begins his ministry in a very slow, thoughtful and considerate way. We are told at the beginning of this reading we are told that it was habitual in the first stage of his ministry for Jesus to attend the synagogue on a Saturday, and we are told too that he taught in the synagogues regularly (verse 15). Regular worship, scripture reading and teaching are the foundations of this ministry and for any action in it.

Worship, reading, teaching and action

There was no ordained minister in a synagogue. Even in those places where there was resident rabbi, he was an arbiter and a teacher, but not an ordained liturgical leader.

The synagogue would have been controlled by a board of elders, the equivalent of a select vestry in our parishes today, and by the chazzan or attendant. On Saturdays, the sabbath service began with the shema (“Hear O Israel …” Deuteronomy 6: 4-9), and included prayers, fixed readings from the Torah or the Law, a reading from the Prophets, a sermon, and a blessing.

The two readings were in Hebrew, with a running translation into the vernacular, which was normally Aramaic but might have been Greek in some places.

It would have been normal for literate adult male Jews to be called in turn to read the Scriptures in the synagogue: first those who were of priestly descent, the cohanim, then the Levites, and then the other Israelites. So, on this particular Saturday, Jesus may have been the third person called on to read, or he may even have been further down the list.

The scroll of Isaiah was given to Jesus by the chazzan or attendant of the synagogue, who combined the functions that in a parish we might now associate with the sexton, verger, churchwarden and Sunday school teacher. And it is to him that Jesus returns the scroll when he is finished reading from it (verse 20).

The portion Jesus reads from (verse 18-19) is actually three verses, and we should note that they do not come in sequence: Isaiah 61: 1, part only of verse 2 and a portion of Isaiah 58: 6. And so, even if Jesus had been handed a pre-selected portion of Scripture to read – perhaps following in sequence from two or more previous readers – we see a deliberate choice by Jesus to roll back the scroll and to insert a portion of that extra verse, Isaiah 58: 6.

So often we complain when the compilers and editors of the RCL omit or jump over certain verses in readings in order to provide coherence and continuity, but this is what appears to be happening here.

Having read while standing, Jesus then sat down. After he sat down, all eyes were on Jesus (verse 20), so it was he who was expected to preach and teach that sabbath day.

Jesus tells the congregation in Nazareth that the Scripture has been fulfilled in their hearing. Scripture has not been read that morning just to comply with part of the ritual; it actually has immediate meaning, significance and relevance that day. Jesus is not merely reading the words, he is promising to see them put into action, to transform hope into reality.


Introducing this reading for Sunday next, I pointed out that it bridges the interlude in the Church Calendar between the Christmas and Epiphany stories and the beginning of Christ’s Galilean Ministry.

Traditionally, the Church associates Epiphany-tide with three public, epiphany moments before beginning to look at Christ’s public ministry:

● The visit by the wise men, who, on behalf of the nations of the world acknowledge him as king, priest, prophet and king with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

● Christ’s baptism by John in the River Jordan, when he is acknowledged in a Trinitarian movement by both the Father and the Holy Spirit as the Son of God.

● The Wedding at Cana, which is the first of the seven signs in the Fourth Gospel, and which sees Christ reveal his glory so that his disciples believe in him (tomorrow morning’s Gospel reading, John 2: 1-11).

These three Epiphany moments are brought together in this reading:

● Jesus is seen in this reading as king prophet, and priest: King, in the majestic way in which he proclaims the Jubileee Year on behalf of God who is the Sovereign Lord; priest in the way he becomes the mediator between God and his people, in a liturgical context, opening up the way to salvation; and prophet in bringing to their true completion the promises of the prophets of old.

● The Spirit that descended on him at his baptism is manifest that Saturday morning as he declares: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” (verse 18). That Epiphany moment at the Jordan was not a once-off experience of the Spirit; the Spirit remained with Christ, and he continues to act throughout his ministry in a Trinitarian movement.

● The miracle at Cana was a foretaste of the heavenly banquet and as a consequence the disciples believed. In this reading we see that God’s promises are not just fanciful, they are to be fulfilled. And as a consequence of what Jesus said, “all spoke well of him and were amazed …” (verse 22).

Of course, rejection was to follow, and that is the subject of the Gospel reading (Luke 4: 21-30) the following Sunday, the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany (31 January).

Some questions:

As you prepare for ordination, how important is it for you to prepare not just for ministry in the years ahead, but for the moment of ordination itself and the prayer for the Spirit to come upon you?

Do you find a model for setting off at the start of your ordained ministry in those priorities of regular worship, scripture reading and teaching are the foundations of this ministry?

Have you already tried to work on a lifestyle in which you find time for regular worship, for regular study of scripture, and for regular study?

How do you feel about scripture readings being “cut-and-pasted together” for lectionary readings?

Should a Sunday sermon always have relevance to today’s situation?

This passage has sometimes been described as providing a manifesto for the future ministry of Jesus. What are the boundaries between being prophetic and being political?

Jesus appears to be praised by everyone at the beginning of his ministry (verse 15). How do you cope with bland praise and people telling you that was a “nice sermon”?

Do you expect to face rejection in the course of your ordained ministry? Do you think you have been prepared to deal with this?

Should you go back to a parish that was once your home parish or a parish in which you once lived?

If you were to apply the reading to today’s political and economic climate, who would you say in today’s society are the poor, the captives, the blind, the oppressed, and those in need of the Lord’s favour?

How would this reading empower people in your parish who are trying to respond to the present crisis in Haiti?

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin. This essay is based on notes prepared for a Bible study in a tutorial group of NSM and MTh students on Saturday 16 January 2010.