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Making Connections: Jesus' Synagogue Sermon

ACCORDING TO ALL FOUR CANONICAL GOSPELS, teaching the good news of the Kingdom of God in the synagogues of Galilee and Judea was a central component of the earthly ministry of Jesus (Matt 4:23; 9:35; Mark 1:39; Luke 4:15, 44: 13:10; John 6:59; 18:20). They were places of worship, community centers that also hosted town halls and courts of law. Synagogues in the First Century were places where people of the town gathered to consider ideas and make collective decisions, so these were a natural venue for Jesus to proclaim and explain the Gospel.

Luke preserves and presents us with an outline of one of Jesus' Sabbath sermons, delivered in his hometown of Nazareth. It provides remarkable insight into the message he taught in these type of gatherings. His account also gives a snapshot of what went on in a typical Jewish synagogue service, with the Scriptures read and then expounded (Luke 4:16-30). After a prescribed reading from the Torah, the speaker would choose a related passage from the Prophets as the basis for a sermon, linking additional verses with that passage to develop the sermon's theme.

In this case, Jesus chose Isa 61:1-2 as the reading from the Prophets (Luke 4:18-19). Though not identified, there are several intriguing candidates for the Torah portion. Since "anointed" is a keyword in Isa 61:1, the section could have been Exodus 29, which features instructions for the anointing of the Aaronic priests; or from Lev 8, where those instructions are first implemented.

Another possibility is Deut 18, which speaks of God choosing priests (v. 5) and raising up a unique prophet (vv. 15-18) to proclaim his will. The Isaiah passage also mentions "the year of the Lord's favor" or Jubilee Year, so a fourth related Torah reading possibility is Lev 25, which introduces the concept of a Jubilee Year.

Regardless, Jesus announced the fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy was taking place even as he spoke (Luke 4:21). In other words, that he was the Messiah, the one anointed by the Spirit of God to carry out the program expressed in Isa 61:1. Two other passages in Isaiah (11:1-2; 42:1) also describe the Messiah as led by the Spirit.

Readers of Luke's Gospel should not be surprised by Jesus' announcement. He already told us that the Spirit had descended upon Jesus at his baptism (3:21-22) and empowered him to conquer temptation and minister in Galilee (4:1, 14). However, the people in Nazareth had difficulty believing that Joseph's son who grew up among them could be the Messiah (4:22; cf. Matt 13:54-58; Mark 6:1-6). They may have hoped that Jesus would produce a sign to back up his claim (4:23).

In response to the skepticism he was sensing, Jesus pointed out that Israel's prophets had often been unpopular at home and had sometimes accomplished their mightiest works on behalf of foreigners (4:24). He began giving examples of this pattern, starting with the prophet Elijah (4:25-26). After Elijah told King Ahab that a drought was coming, God sent him north to Sidon, where he stayed with a poor widow at Zarephath. When Elijah caused the widow's last handful of flour to feed them indefinitely, then raised her son from the dead, the widow recognized him as a man of God (1 Kings 17).

Elijah's work in Sidon is an example of an anointed prophet proclaiming "good news to the poor" as expressed in Isa 61:1. This connection suggests that Jesus was linking his examples of prophets ministering to strangers with the phrases in Isa 61:1.

Jesus' next example (4:27) involved Elijah's successor Elisha, who healed the Syrian military commander Naaman of a severe skin disease, setting him free from a lifetime of chronic pain and discomfort (2 Kings 5). And what was the next phrase in Isa 61:1? To "proclaim liberty to the captives." Luke gives us no further details of the sermon. He does relate that the people gathered at the synagogue that day were so angry they did not allow him to finish. Instead, they drove him out of town and tried to kill him (4:28-29).

What was the cause of their anger? Could it be they anticipated where the sermon was heading and did not like the conclusion they suspected was coming? The next phrase in Jesus' prophetic program is "recovering of sight to the blind," which connects well with the following chapter in the Elisha narrative. In 2 Kings 6:8-23, Elisha opened the eyes of his servant to the reality of the unseen realm of God's heavenly host. He then blinded a Syrian army that had been sent to capture him in Dothan and led them to Samaria, opening the eyes of the Syrians to the power of the true God.

Unfortunately, the Syrians did not internalize this lesson, and they soon returned to lay siege to Samaria (2 Kings 6:24), leading to a severe famine for Israel. Elisha eventually ended the blockade, causing the Syrian army to become frightened and flee. A group of lepers discovered that the Syrian camp was abandoned and told the Samarians about the supplies available there. People then rushed from Samaria to the Syrian camp, trampling to death an Israelite official who had doubted Elisha's prophecy of deliverance (2 Kings 7:30).

In lifting the Syrian siege, Elisha acted to "set at liberty those who are oppressed" (Luke 4:18), including the lepers at Samaria. Was this the next link in Jesus' sermon and the cause of the anger at the synagogue that day? The townsfolk may have anticipated that Jesus would unfavorably compare them to the Israelite official in 2 Kings 7 who lacked faith and died.

They had been hoping for a Messiah who would deliver them from Roman oppression and judge their oppressors. Instead, Jesus was suggesting that the Messiah would help receptive foreigners, but that Israelites who lacked faith would come under judgment. Infuriated by his implications, they tried to crush Jesus much as the Israelite official himself had been trampled.

Sadly, the people at Nazareth did not allow Jesus to go on and "proclaim the year of the Lord's favor," the final phrase in his reading from Isa 61. As the climax of his sermon, Jesus' announcement of how the Kingdom of God would bring liberation, truth, and well-being to the whole world was heaven's good news for both Jew and Gentile. May we who pray, "Your Kingdom Come" never lose our sensitivity to the heart of the Holy One who is doing his will on earth.


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