Jesus’ dramatic encounter in the Nazareth synagogue is unique to the Gospel of Luke, and it may be the interpretive lens through which to understand the entire Gospel. This narrative comes right on the heels of Luke’s account of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. Certainly, the temptation narratives are meant to define the nature, direction, and purpose of the Kingdom Christ Is initiating. The Kingdom of God will not be defined solely by satisfying appetites, grasping for earthly power, nor in displaying religious signs and wonders. The Kingdom of Jesus will be defined by embodying the Word, worshiping the Lord, and obeying the will of the Father – even unto death.
This unique proclamation by Jesus in the synagogue brings even more clarity, for Luke, to the nature of the mission of Jesus. Empowered and led by the Spirit, Jesus (who has been teaching in a number of synagogues along the journey) participates in the life of worship in his hometown synagogue on the Sabbath. With his ever-burgeoning reputation, like a hometown hero returning to his familiar friends and neighbors, the people excitedly invite Jesus to take the led by reading from the Scripture. He has handed the scroll of Isaiah. The text Jesus reads is from Isaiah chapter 61:1-2a:
The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me. He has sent me to preach good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Isaiah 61 falls in the third section of the book (a section often referred to by scholars as Third Isaiah). It is likely that this section of the book of Isaiah was written sometime after 540 BC, after the people of God had returned from the exile in Babylon to Jerusalem. The challenge the people faced was the massive rebuilding project. The joy and excitement of returning home had been deeply diminished by the reality of the rubble that lay in front of them. Imagine people today returning to their home after a devastating hurricane, tornado, or wildfire. Imagine the joy of returning home only to find little or nothing of the previous home remaining. How do you start over? How do you find the strength to rebuild when everything has been lost?
It is into this sense of despair that the prophet proclaims words of hope likely rooted in one of the key economic codes from the Torah.
In the law, or Torah, there are several economic laws and regulations, but there are four primary economic codes. The first economic code of significance is tithing. The people in gratitude and thanksgiving to God committed to give back ten percent of everything they grew and raised as an offering to God. This practice was not a way to buy God’s favor, rather it served as consistent practice meant to remind the people that everything they received from the hand of God was gift. Practically, tithing served to not only support the priestly Levites and their families (the one tribe in Israel who, in their care for the temple, did not own land). However, tithing also served to care for the marginalized – in particular, the widows, orphans, and refugees – and to support their frequent communal celebrations.
The second significant economic code was the practice of keeping Sabbath. This practice entailed not only resting, or refraining from work, on the seventh day of the week; it also meant resting every seventh year, allowing the land and livestock to also rest and recover. Sabbath remains a central practice of identification for many Jewish people. Observing Sabbath is not only a way of connecting regularly to God, but it is also a reminder that we are not ultimately identified by our work or labor. Our identity in the Lord encompasses more than our occupation or our net worth.
The third code, and the one less familiar to contemporary Christians, is the practice of gleaning. Most clearly seen in the book of Ruth, gleaning was the practice of not harvesting one’s field to the very edges, but rather leaving the outer rows and the broad corners of the field unharvested. The gleanings of the field, including the grain that fell off the cart or was dropped by the harvesters, had to remain on the road for the alien and sojourner to be able to receive what was needed to sustain life. In this code, Israel made sure that their lives were always hospitable to the foreigner or refugee.
The final code, and the one code of the four that appears never to have been fully obeyed, is the proclamation of Jubilee. Articulated most clearly in Leviticus 25, the Jubilee law specified that the beginning of every fiftieth year (the year following the seventh sabbatical cycle) the trumpets (jubals) were sounded announcing that all of the debts were cancelled, all the prisoners were freed, and everyone who had lost land in the previous five decades could return and possess their ancestral property. Jubilee – or the year of the Lord’s favor – appears to be a recognition by God’s people that even the most just of communities occasionally needs a complete do-over. Too often, even in the most just societies, the rich end up getting richer and the poor get poorer. Jubilee seems to imagine that what might be needed is, twice every century, for the means of production and sources of well-being to be returned equally to all.
Of course, one doesn’t have to be a brain surgeon to understand why the year of the Lord’s favor was apparently not enacted by Israel. It is difficult if not impossible to imagine in any culture or nation that those who have accumulated much in the ways of wealth, power, and economic wherewithal to give willfully and voluntarily that affluence up to others. Nevertheless, the prophet of Isaiah, in this moment of return from exile, captures this divinely designed law of Jubilee and imagines the rebuilding of Jerusalem through it. In the prophetic imagination, the people may never have enacted a voluntary Jubilee, but God has decreed the year of his favor for the sake of the people. What appears to the people to be nothing but rubble, through the lens of the prophet, is God’s gift of a do-over. Like a child shaking an Etch-a-Sketch and starting their artwork over, God has given the people a complete fresh start. The bad news may be that there isn’t much structure left in Jerusalem. However, the good news is that means there isn’t much left of the old life. The Spirit has empowered the prophet to proclaim this as an opportunity of freedom, an opportunity for newness, and an opportunity for the Lord to rebuild what he desires in his people.
In the Nazareth synagogue, this prophetic text about Jubilee becomes politically charged. First century Jewish people, living under the thumb of Rome, were longing for liberation, for deliverance, for the newness of “the year of the Lord” to come. Speaking through the words of the prophet, Jesus proclaimed in the synagogue that the Spirit had empowered him to proclaim liberation, freedom, and jubilee. Having read this provocative text, Jesus sat down and all the eyes in the synagogue were fixed on him. Perhaps they were waiting for him to begin a provocative rabbinical conversation. “When do you think the year of the Lord’s favor will come?”, he may have asked. Instead, he significantly upped the ante by radically stating, “Today, this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”
It appears, for Luke, that this proclamation of Jubilee, or the year of the Lord’s favor, is the lens through which he understands and interprets the messiahship of Jesus. Jesus came to proclaim Jubilee, a great cosmic do-over, for all people. For example, in Luke’s most famous parable – the Parable of the Prodigal Son (probably better titled the Parable of the Older Brother) – why is the son welcomed home? Why is he not only allowed to remain at home, but also restored to his position of familial authority? It is the year of the Lord’s favor! The debts have been cancelled. The prisoners have been released. Those damaged by their own decisions and the decisions of others have been healed and restored.
After sharing a meal with Jesus, Zacchaeus not only received the grace at work in Jesus, but he then also turned around and enacts Jubilee with those whom he has cheated. Again and again, in Luke, the mission of Jesus was to give people a completely fresh start. In the coming of Christ’s kingdom, all things are made new. Today, the year of the Lord’s favor has begun.
The text for this third Sunday of Epiphany ends with Jesus’ proclamation. The preacher may want to end on this high note. However, I can’t help but think about where this text eventually goes. This proclamation of the Lord’s favor, initially so well received by the hometown friends of Jesus in the synagogue, quickly went bad. Jesus offers to those gathered an apparently familiar saying about a doctor. The essence of this strangely worded statement is this: if you are a doctor who cares for strangers each day, how much more will you care for your family when you return home? In other words, Jesus is saying to them, “I know you think this newness I have been offering to those strangers I have been encountering, will be especially good for you the people of my hometown.”
He then reminds them of two brief stories from the lives of Elijah and Elisha. Jesus reminds the people that there were many widows in Israel during the time of Elijah, but the only one who was taken care of was a widow from Zarephath in the region of Sidon. There were also many lepers in the time of Elisha, but the only one God intervened to heal was a foreign general, Naaman the Syrian. These two lines were all it took for Jesus to go from hometown hero to potential hometown martyr. Why such an ugly turn in the story?
It appears that these latter verses essentially are Jesus’ way of saying this: Jubilee – the opportunity to receive grace and have a do-over – is good news for you. However, remember that grace is not only received, but it is also meant to be extended. The people wanted Jesus to show favoritism to his family and friends. Yet that kind of favoritism is not the way God operates. God extends grace to outsiders from Zarephath and even to warring “enemies” from Syria. Jesus is essentially saying, “You want jubilee for yourselves, but you do not want to extend it to others. It is not the year of the Lord’s favor if it is not extended to all.”
Therefore, it is not just the receiving of grace by the Prodigal that is central to the parable, it is as significant, if not more, that the older brother was not able to lean into this moment of grace. When Jesus taught the disciples to pray in Luke, this familiar line is central to the prayer, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” The Kingdom Jesus proclaimed is about the grace that makes all things new. However, that grace is not ours alone nor ours to hoard, it is extended to all. Jubilee is ours to give away. The good news of Luke’s gospel is that God indeed sets us free and gives us a do-over; God tears up our debts. The difficult news, the challenge of jubilee, is that it requires us to tear up the debts of others as well.