Greetings, SBT Readers!
Learning to see involves the willingness to let go of assumptions, preconceived ideas and cherished viewpoints; it involves being able to listen to others' perspectives so as to form an opinion based on input from multiple sources. All this takes humility, the recovery of sight. As prophet and truth-speaker, Jesus' mission was to strip back layers of falsehood and hypocrisy, to lay bare the hidden thoughts and ignoble attitudes of those who were spiritually blind. At the same time, he raised up the oppressed, liberating those held captive by sin, or illness, or by any number of "demonic" forces. His mission, then, was to turn upside down the reality of those he encountered along the way. The poor discovered they were blessed not cursed; those who imagined they were free began to see the prisons that confined them while captives learned that even the shackled can experience inner freedom. Suddenly, the Good News belonged to everyone and not just to the privileged 1%. This was his vision; this was his message. It upended Jesus' life and summons each of us to face similar disruption.
He came to Nazareth, where he had grown up, and, according to his custom, went into the synagogue on the sabbath day. He stood up to read and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Unrolling the scroll, he found the passage where it was written:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.
Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down, and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him. He said to them,
“Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”
So much revolves around the scroll in today's Gospel. From the text, it seems that a synagogue attendant handed Jesus a random scroll which just happened to be a scroll from the prophet Isaiah; and Jesus just happened to know the specific lines he wished to read -- delivering them not just as a message to the community but as a personal mission statement. Some scholars suggest, however, that there was nothing random about Jesus' visit to the synagogue in Nazareth. Instead, they propose that as a member of the community, he was scheduled to read from the Haftarah or the assigned portion from the prophets that traditionally followed a reading from the Torah; moreover, it was likely that those gathered expected him to deliver the Derasha or brief sermon following the readings. What he had to say was much more succinct than they could have expected -- and much more controversial: "Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing" (LK 4:21).
By positioning this event right after Jesus' baptism and subsequent time in the desert, Luke connects the descent of the Spirit (Lk 3:21-22) with Jesus' awareness of his anointing and mission. Just as the Spirit drove Jesus into the desert, so this same Spirit led him into the synagogue of his home town. There, surrounded by people he had known all his life, Jesus inaugurated his ministry; the text confirmed for him what he already knew -- that he was the one to whom the prophets pointed, the promised Messiah who would usher in a new age of comfort, justice and healing for all. I suspect that proclaiming Is 61:1-3 was profoundly moving for Jesus, that the words burned in his heart so powerfully that he experienced what could be described as a state of mystical union. Perhaps that's why he sat down instead of remaining standing -- and perhaps that's why he had so little to say...
What happened to Jesus while proclaiming God's Word can happen to each of us, if we let that Word penetrate our hearts and our minds. Scripture is not to be read like a historical treatise, a book of rules or even a collection of stories. Rather, it is more like a love letter filled with the presence and the energy of its Author. Past down from generation to generation both through the oral tradition and through the labor of zealous scribes, scripture is a living reality that can shape consciousness, inspire devotion, crack hearts of stone, energize the weary, bring hope to the hopeless and encourage those who are afraid. As Jesus read, Spirit spoke in him and through him -- hence the amazement of the assembly. Then came the pivotal moment when Jesus' prophetic utterances became "too much" for his audience -- but that is material for next week's reflection!