January 27, 2019
Sermon on Luke 4:16-30 and Isaiah 58:5-7
By Canon Dr. Jim Sanders
A report of Jesus’ sermon in his hometown synagogue appears also in Matthew
and Mark but with Luke only telling us what Jesus said and preached, and that
the people were amazed at his wisdom which they nonetheless failed to heed.
Matthew and Mark, however, place the sermon in the middle of Jesus’ ministry.
By contrast Luke’s Gospel places it at the very beginning and gives quite a full
report about the incident. Luke says the Nazareth sermon event occurred right
after the purification event or bar mitzvah of Jesus in Jerusalem at which Jesus’
wisdom and knowledge (drush) of Torah readings astounded the elders in the
Temple. Right up front Luke shows how well versed Jesus was in Scripture and
tradition up to that point in his development as a youth in Jewish practice and
Then a few years later in the synagogue service Jesus is given an ‘alyah or
invitation to read the haftarah portion from the Prophets of that week, which were
portions from Isaiah chs. 61 and 58 which Jesus combines in his recitation,
omitting a phrase from Isa 61 and adding one from Isa 58. In the lectionary
sequences at that time in Judaism, these were the haftarah portion that was to
be recited when Genesis 35 about the death of Rachel was read as the Torah
portion. Isa 61 was understood to be a poem of consolation appropriate to be
read along with Gen 35. But Isaiah 61 was actually also one of the most popular
passages of Scripture in all Judaism in the first century because it was a poetic
proclamation of the Jubilee. Jubilee was a year in the calendar to be observed
every 50 years. During that year all debts were to be forgiven, all slaves
released, and all property returned to the original tribes to which God had allotted
it (Joshua 13-17). The point was forgiveness of everything related to personal
indebtedness. Most slaves in antiquity, usually European and Asian, not African,
owed money they could not repay, and often property was sold in order to pay
debts. Most people in prison in those days were there because of unpaid debts.
But all was to be forgiven in the Jubilee year. The whole economic slate was to
be wiped clean and a new start for everybody initiated. The excesses of
capitalism were to be firmly put in check.
But because Jubilee was so difficult to observe then, as it would be now in a
capitalist society, two ways to observe it in the breach were devised. One way
was a post-biblical judicial ploy, supported by pro-Pharisaic groups, that was an
arrangement whereby one could go to the courthouse when the Jubilee year
approached and get a prosbul, or waiver, so that debts could be honored and the
same-old economy affirmed. The other was eschatological, that is, Jubilee was
taken out of the calendar entirely and put in the hands of God solely. God would
in a year acceptable to God proclaim the Jubilee year at whatever time seemed
best to God--not to humans, nor even priests who had charge of the calendar. A
document from Cave 11 at Qumran was discovered in 1956 (11QMelchizedek)
that shows that the members of the sect of the Dead Sea Scrolls down at
Qumran firmly believed that God was proclaiming the Jubilee also in their time.
The upshot of what Luke reports is that Jesus in the Nazareth synagogue
proclaimed that God was instigating the Jubilee and hence all Galilean debt to
Rome, and the Roman legions posted there, was to be forgiven. Galilean
farmers and fishermen were taxed up to 53% of their means to support the
Roman occupation, indeed the very troops who harassed and humiliated them
daily just as Palestinians there are dehumanized daily today. Therefore, when
Jesus sat down and started to preach on the Isaiah passages by proclaiming that
the passage was fulfilled in their hearing that very day, the congregation were
ecstatic. Luke reports that “all spoke well of him and the words of grace that he
spoke”—meaning they believed what Jesus said, right there in front of them, that
God was finally proclaiming the long-awaited Jubilee, and Jesus was its herald.
Prof Simon Joseph, who recently spoke at Adult Forum, has convincingly written
that Luke’s message was that Jesus was the herald of God’s Jubilee before
Jesus was later understood as messiah.
No wonder the people were ecstatic and thought well of this young man whom
they had seen grow up in their midst over the past thirty years, and that is where
Matthew and Mark leave the matter. No prophet is acceptable in his own
country. Yes, but, according to Luke, not because he was a local lad but
because of his message—just as was the case with the Prophets of old who
were rejected by their own people because of their message. Except for a few all
the prophets had been from among their own people. It was their messages that
the people rejected as well as the prophets who proclaimed them.
According to Luke, Jesus then preached on the passages in Isaiah and in doing
so he quoted form I Kings 17 and II Kings 5 to explicate what the Isaianic
passages really meant. He in effect explained that Jubilee meant Jubilee for all
people everywhere, not just Jews. Why? Because the passages from which he
quoted in I and II Kings told of how Elijah’s life was saved by a foreign,
unbelieving widow, and how Elijah cured a hated Syrian enemy. Jesus in effect
was saying that the Jubilee applied to the hated Romans as much as to Jews.
This shocked the congregation to the point that they hauled him out of the
synagogue and took him to the top of the hill on which Nazareth was built to
throw him down headlong--preparatory to stoning, which was the punishment for
blasphemy. Blasphemy in the Bible, according to the Prophets, was the offence
of saying that God was bigger than they thought, just as blasphemy or heresy
has always been, that is, saying that God can not be stuffed down into human
doctrinal boxes. That is the centuries-old meaning of blasphemy. This is the
reason the Prophets were rejected by the people of their time and accused of
blasphemy. In other words, God is not just our Christian God but is the God of all
the world, indeed the God of all peoples, no matter what name we pitiful humans
use for God.
And that is what Jesus said throughout his ministry that brought him to the cross
on Golgotha’s fateful hill. God is always bigger than we think, not just today but
forever. God cannot be stuffed into any religion’s box, especially those who
claim exclusivity for some Christian interpretation of the Bible, or for any religion’s
message. But that is exactly what happened when the Christians Isabel and
Ferdinand conquered Muslim Southern Spain, and deported Jews and Muslims
to Africa, thus instigating the Inquisition. Muslims at that point followed the
teachings of the Prophets and Jesus, but the Christians did not.
God is God, and that is all the Bible permits humans to say. Why? Because
God cannot be confined by any definition or crammed into any box whatever.
And that is the monotheizing message of the Gospel today, tomorrow, and
thereafter until God’s Jubilee is finally consummated and fulfilled. Amen.