Today… this scripture has been fulfilled…

Icon of Jesus reading from the scroll of Isaiah

This week’s lectionary blog focuses on the speech that, according to Luke 4.14-21, Jesus gave in his home town of Nazareth. It has sometimes been described as the ‘mission statement’ or ‘manifesto’ for Jesus’ ministry. This reflection draws on material I offered for a Bible study at a meeting of the Anglican Primates a number of years ago. It also includes two prayers that were written based on this Gospel passage.

Clare Amos, Director of Lay Discipleship, Diocese in Europe

clare.amos@europe.anglican.org

In the Gospel of Luke we find the word ‘Today’ used far more frequently than in any of the other Gospels. It is a characteristic of Luke’s presentation of the ministry of Jesus, which Luke believes lies at the centre of human history. An especially powerful example of Luke’s ‘Today’ occurs as a key part of Jesus’ words at the synagogue of his hometown of Nazareth.

In this ‘Today’ (Luke 4.21) we hear potentially both a word of grace and word of judgement which draws into itself both yesterday and tomorrow, the past and the future.

There is a great solemnity about Jesus’ reading in the synagogue of the scripture passage which comes from Isaiah. Jesus stands, receives the scroll, unrolls it, reads, rolls it up again, hands it back and then sits down. And in the middle – the focus point – there is the actual reading. The reading is from the Book of Isaiah. That certainly can be said. But that is the point when the complexities start. At first sight it looks as though it is a straight reading from Isaiah 61.1-2. Yet there is one addition and one subtraction which means that the sum ends up being completely different.

The addition is the line ‘to let the oppressed go free’, at the end of Luke 4.18. If you look carefully at Isaiah 61.1-2 you will see that it simply isn’t there. So where do these words actually come? The answer is another passage of Isaiah – 58.6 – a passage often used in Lent. God is speaking through the mouth of the prophet: ‘Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke.’

And the subtraction? It is a missing line. Jesus’ final words as he quotes from Isaiah are: ‘To proclaim the accepting or acceptable year of the Lord’ – a sentence which contains the significant Greek word dektos, ‘acceptable’ in it. (The NRSV puts it ‘to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour’.) But in Isaiah the message continues with the threatening line, ‘and the day of vengeance of our God.’ There is little doubt that Jesus and Luke deliberately omitted these. And in doing so Jesus changes the thrust of the Old Testament prophet that he is quoting from. It does indeed mean that, as his audience will approvingly remark in verse 22, he is speaking ‘gracious words’ – or as Luke quite literally puts it when you read the Greek, ‘words of grace’ – alluding surely to the theme of God’s welcoming grace which underlies the whole passage. In the Greek the last word that Jesus quotes from Isaiah is actually dektos ‘accepting’ – a word which expresses at its heart God’s generosity.

Intriguingly the world dektos is also present as the story of Jesus that day in Nazareth develops (although this falls outside the part of the passage selected for the lectionary this week). For just as the mood of the congregation begin to turn from approval into hostility, Jesus himself comments, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted / acceptable’ – once again dektos – in his own home town.(Luke 4.24) ’ And from that point on the hostility bubbles up into fury at Jesus as he sets about giving practical examples of God’s accepting grace to those ‘outside’: firstly a Canaanite widow and then a Syrian army captain. The story captures therefore a wonderful and powerful irony – that it is precisely by offering God’s accepting generosity – dektos – that Jesus makes himself unacceptable – again dektos. And the people that initially were pleased to listen to Jesus ‘gracious words’ turn hostile when he gives examples of God’s grace in action.

Yet perhaps the most threatening word that Jesus uses in this passage is actually ‘Today’. The fact that Jesus quotes scripture and then boldly states that has come true ‘today’ left his audience with no escape route. A meditation by the Reformed minister Edmund Banyard brilliantly points out the problem. Is it our problem too?

‘Today, he said, ‘in your hearing this scripture has come true’.
For those who waited without expectancy
This was too much,
Altogether too much.
God would break into life
In some distant future,
Of course he would;
But not now!
Not in the middle of morning worship!
There was no place in the liturgy for that!’
(Edmund Banyard, ‘Turn but a Stone’)

*****

Mission Statement

Fulfilling God
When we become so used to the old words
when the stories no longer startle us
when the parables cease to challenge us,
and the gospel has slipped into the background of life
may the words take flesh and blood
so that the text comes true today.

May these words take flesh:
Good news to the poor! –
poverty is not God’s purpose,
destined to last forever.

May this come true today:
release for prisoners,
caught in the trap of cruel regimes
or bound by unjust laws.

May this come true today:
recovery of sight to the blind –
eyes closed by prejudice or history,
eyes shut to simple joys.

May this come true today:
the broken victims go free.
Ready to start building life again.

May this come true today:
the year of the Lord’s favour,
when feuds and debts are cancelled.

Fulfilling God, may we know,
in our lives and in our world,
that these words come true today.
(Bernard Thorogood, ‘A Restless Hope’)

*****

Today…

Jesus, living Word of God,
Your Nazareth promise of good news is timeless,
Still you offer it to renew our world today:
You offer release for those imprisoned by debt and poverty,
Life for those who know only death and despair.
Provoke us by your Spirit, so we no longer linger and delay,
Quicken us with the vision of a world transformed,
Challenge us to make hope real for all,
So that God’s kingdom may be celebrated in our time,
And poverty be turned to history. Amen.

One thought on “Today… this scripture has been fulfilled…

  1. A particularly helpful article. Jesus-as-editor is a fascinating transitioning from the Old to the New. Thank you. As you say, the Banyard piece is brilliant – the Grand Inquisitor’s point made more gently!

    Like

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