Jesus in the Synagogue

And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:16-21; full passage here)

I have always believed that, outside of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, there are very few scenes in Scripture that are more dramatic than the one in the verse above; nor are there many that I love more. What I wouldn’t give to have been among the crowds in the synagogue that day, to watch as this mysterious man about whom reports had already begun to spread throughout the region read this passage that, for hundreds of years, had been held onto in the hope of God’s coming salvation and not only claim that it had it fulfilled in their hearing, but that it had been fulfilled in him.

The audacity of his claims are not easily grasped by our twenty-first century minds, particularly in light of Luke’s masterful narration of Jesus’ calm, almost methodical actions; but for a first century Palestinian Jew, Jesus’ words and actions would have been earth-shattering, even dangerous.  He was not just claiming to be someone who was anointed to carry out a general mission of liberation and healing; he was claiming to be the one they had all long awaited, the Messiah whom God would anoint (masach in Hebrew) to bring about their healing and redemption.

I often wonder what my own reaction would have been had I been there. Would it have been hope and anticipation? Or would I, too, have questioned how this man who had grown up among us could possibly be who he said he was or do the things he said he would do? Would I have believed him (however cautiously), or met his claims with a pessimism borne of what had seemed like endless waiting and disappointment up to that point?

I fear I may have been more prone to be in the latter group than the former, because although obedience is not something with which I often struggle, hope and trust are, particularly when healing and deliverance seem a long time in coming. Sometimes it is difficult to believe that change will ever truly come because it hasn’t for so long, and the fear of having one’s hopes met with disappointment and frustration seems far worse than carrying on in neutral, even numb, obedience.

But what is fascinating about this passage is that it clearly presents these aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry not as optional or even ancillary activities of his role as Messiah. They are essential to it. They are the very means by which his Messiah-ship expressed, even proven—so much so that when John the Baptist, himself, struggles with disbelief and sends his disciples to ask if Jesus was “the one who was to come,” Jesus answered simply, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (Mt 11:4-6). The implication is powerfully clear: John will know I am the Messiah because I do these things.

But what does this mean for us who do not have the pleasure of having lived when Jesus walked the earth?

Exactly the same thing as it did for everyone in that crowd that day. These works of healing, liberation and redemption are meant to be held onto not as possible, but potentially unlikely effects of Jesus’ work of redemption in our lives; rather they are the certain end to which he desires to lead all of humanity, indeed all of creation.  Everything he has done in his life, death, resurrection and pouring out of his Spirit, and everything he continues to do in us and for us is oriented toward that end; and its certain attainment is meant to be buoy of hope in the midst of life’s storms and struggles (particularly when there seems to be no end in sight), for as St Paul tells his readers confidently “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6, emphasis added)

A couple of things to note here. First of all, both the portion Luke quotes here and the its original context in Isaiah reveal to us a God who is clearly not only concerned with our spiritual well-being, but also our physical and emotional.  The poor mentioned are not only those who do not have money, but also those who are “downtrodden and disadvantaged, helpless in themselves and at the mercy of powerful people and adverse circumstances” (Alec Motyer); and the captives and prisoners include not only those who are held unjustly (as slaves or captives) but also those, who, in justice have been imprisoned.  This may seem strange and ultimately unjust, but the transformation and healing the Anointed One comes to bring them is so dramatic that it is described as being like bringing prisoners out from a dark dungeon into light; and it is so all-encompassing that it occurs from head to toe.

This is the reality towards which God desires and works to bring every one of us, for we are all prisoners who need to be brought out from the dark dungeon of sin into light.

Second of all, Luke’s placement of this story here makes it clear that this ministry is essential not only to Jesus’ role as the Messiah, but also as the Son of God (the two were not necessarily connected originally). The same Spirit that declared his Sonship at Baptism and then drove him into the wilderness for testing, is the same Spirit that drove him to Galilee (where Nazareth is) and anoints him for this ministry of healing, liberation and redemption.

And it is the same Spirit that we, ourselves, receive at Baptism when, in Christ, we are made into sons and daughters of God.

Thus we see that the same ministry of healing, liberation and redemption to which Our Lord was called as Messiah and Son of God, is the same ministry to which we all are called as sons and daughters of God, a ministry that cares deeply and works endlessly not just for the spiritual well-being of the world around us, but also for its physical and emotional well-being, because this is the heart of God and, as Joel Green reminds us progeny are meant to exhibit the qualities of their parents.