A couple of weeks back I reviewed Kenneth Bailey’s Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, a book I have found revelatory about Jesus. I have gained many helpful insights from it.
Today, some new understandings about one of my favourite gospel accounts – Jesus in the synagogue at the start of his ministry, when he made clear what he was on about.
The story in Luke 4 will be familiar to most of us. After beginning to gain a reputation as a teacher and healer, Jesus returns to his home village of Nazareth and attends the synagogue. As a courtesy to the visiting rabbi, Jesus is invited to read the scriptures and then expand on the message.
He reads a passage from Isaiah recognised as Messianic, and then makes the startling announcement that, after hundreds of years, Isaiah’s prophecy is being fulfilled – in him! Jesus is announcing himself as the long awaited Messiah. But the crowd isn’t happy with his teaching and almost stones him, but he escapes.
What did Jesus say about himself and his mission, and why did this upset his townsfolk, most of whom presumably would have known him and his family for years?
A very Jewish account
When Jesus reads from Isaiah 61:1-2, he makes several changes to the reading, omitting some sections and adding a phrase not in the original passage, but from another chapter of Isaiah. What’s going on? Didn’t Jesus respect the scriptures enough to read them accurately? Or did Luke just get it wrong?
Bailey says it is unlikely that these changes originated with the gentile Luke, for the account follows a rhetorical structure where a series of statements before the scripture reading is followed by a reverse of those statements after the reading. This was a very Jewish rhetorical structure which, Bailey says, means it was originally composed by a Jew for other Jews. Luke is just repeating what he has been given.
And apparently rules for synagogue reading, written down more than a century later, but likely reflecting custom at the time, allowed the reader to omit sections or bring in sections from elsewhere in the scroll when reading from the prophets, but not when reading from the Torah. So Jesus was following custom, and creatively reading from Isaiah to make some very important points.
Furthermore, the resulting reading is very close in structure to a Messianic text found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, suggesting thyat Jesus was deliberately drawing on contemporary expectations of the Messiah.
The final reading
So the final reading is as follows:
“The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
So Jesus lists these signs of the Messiah’s mission, then makes the amazing claim: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
The changes Jesus makes are as follows:
- He omits the phrase “he has sent me to bind up the broken-hearted” which was in the Isaiah passage.
- He adds the phrase: “to set the oppressed free”, which comes from Isaiah 58:6.
- And he omits the second half of the last phrase, which says “and the day of vengeance of our God”, and stops the reading before a large section (verses 3-7) which talks of the restoration of the nation of Israel, including the gentiles serving the Jews.
Why would Jesus do this?
Galilee at the time of Jesus had been settled by many Gentiles, but Nazareth was very much a Jewish village. According to Bailey, nationalistic Jews would have been hoping to see the gentiles gone, or else subservient, and this would have been what they expected of the Messiah. And Isaiah 61, with its promise of “comfort those who mourn ….repair the ruined cities …. foreigners will work your fields and vineyards …. you will feed on the wealth of nations, and in their riches you will boast”, would have been seen by them as a prophecy of better days to come.
So when Jesus began to read the passage, his hearers would likely have settled back with a smile. This was what they wanted to hear – vengeance, restoration, wealth and lording it over the gentiles. We know this because a contemporary Aramaic translation of Isaiah (the Isaiah Targum) spells this expectation out in detail.
But that wasn’t Jesus’ agenda.
A different Messianic mission
In omitting the sections about binding up the broken-hearted, comforting those who are currently mourning, God’s vengeance, etc, Jesus is telling them that his Messianic mission was not the restoration of Israel to some long-gone and somewhat imaginary glory days. He had much more important matters in mind.
Bailey points out that the structure of the reading as delivered by Jesus emphasises three aspects of his ministry.
Jesus was sent to “preach good news to the poor” and the “proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord”. The words used suggest that people need to hear the good news that Jesus has begun the process of reconcile them to God. And this included gentiles!
Freedom for the prisoners and the oppressed, in context, would have meant the return of exiles to their homeland, and the restoration of justice. The Messiah’s mission included justice. And this included gentiles!
Restoration of sight for the blind was seen as part of the messianic agenda, an act of compassion. And this included gentiles!
A holistic mission
It is clear that Jesus didn’t see his mission as purely evangelistic, or purely restoration of justice, or purely acts of compassion.
All three were part of the messianic mission. And God’s people, the Jews, were to take it to the gentiles rather than seek vengeance and superiority over them.
The angry reaction
It isn’t immediately obvious why his hearers reacted so angrily. We can understand that they might have been surprised, and sceptical, that Jesus the carpenter they knew so well would claim to be the long-awaited Messiah, but that would hardly have provoked such a fierce response.
But Bailey’s point is that Jesus was effectively trampling on their deepest hopes and expectations. The Messiah wasn’t going to “make Israel great again” at the expense of the gentiles, but was instead inviting them on a mission to join with the gentiles in the new kingdom God was beginning in him. The Jews would no longer be subject to God’s unique favour, but God’s grace would extend equally to Jew and Gentile alike.
Jesus emphasised this point in his discussion of the passage, when he mentioned two gentiles (a widow and Naaman the Syrian) who received the grace of God when God’s people were suffering.
Six things we might learn
- Jesus, in common with the Jews of his day, had a more flexible approach to scripture than is common among christians. This suggests to me that we have imposed a rigid view of scriptural reading, interpretation and application than scripture itself presents to us.
- Zionism, and christian support for Israel at the expense of the Palestinians, seems to be contrary to Jesus’ purposes as outlined here.
- If we want to properly understand Jesus, we need to see him first in his middle-eastern Jewish context.
- Now, as then, nationalism isn’t on God’s agenda. Jesus’ mission overturns nationalistic power and privilege.
- God is less interested in vengeance than we might like to think.
- The mission of Jesus, then and now, is threefold – proclamation, justice and mercy. We should always be wary of over-emphasising any one of these at the expense of the others.
This makes all the difference!
Understanding this passage better makes an enormous difference to how we understand Jesus’ values and mission.
Can you think of ways that we christians today are working opposite to him?
Are we going to change?