... and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll ...
This afternoon, for our reflection, I have chosen the Gospel reading for next Sunday (Luke 4: 14-21), which the interlude in the Church Calendar between the Christmas and Epiphany stories and the beginning of Christ’s Galilean Ministry. But, in the light of the interviews the Year III students are going through today and tomorrow, this reading also reminds us of some important aspects of ministry.
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), Saint John when he returns from Jerusalem and after his meeting with the Samaritan woman at the well (see John 4: 43-45), while 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 neighbouring parts of Galilee (verses 14-15), perhaps in Capernaum.
I am preaching on this passage next Sunday morning. And so often I have heard it being described as something akin to an election manifesto for Jesus. It is a very popular passage for people engaging in political theology. But I’d like to look at a few other aspects that often get neglected.
Worship, reading, teaching and action
Instead of succumbing to the temptations of a dramatic but false start to his 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 that it was habitual in this 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.
Not being of priestly descent, one of the cohanim, and not being a Levite, Jesus may have been the third person called on to read that Saturday morning, or he may even have been further down the list.
The scroll of Isaiah was given to him, and the portion Jesus reads from (verse 18-19) is actually three verses that 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 on his part 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, Jesus then sat down to preach and to teach. No matter how many priests, Levites or other Israelites had read before him, all expected Jesus to preach.
Jesus tells the congregation that the Scripture has been fulfilled in their hearing. Scripture has not just been read that morning 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.
There are three Epiphany-like moments in this passage:
● 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).
As our students move on from this week’s interviews to preparing for ordination, have we prepared them enough not just for ministry in the years ahead, but for the moment of ordination itself this summer and the prayer for the Spirit to come upon them?
Can they find a model for setting off at the start of their ordained ministry in those priorities of regular worship, scripture reading and teaching as the foundations of this ministry?
Have we introduced them to a lifestyle in which they give place and time to regular worship, for regular study of scripture, and for regular prayer?
Have we prepared them for the expectations that will be placed on them, when all eyes are on them on a Sunday as they are about to preach?
Jesus appears to be praised by everyone at the beginning of his ministry (verse 15). But how are they going to prepare for the dangers of accepting praise from people and the later sorrows of rejection?
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 at a faculty meeting on 20 January 2010.