Jesus’ sermon at Nazareth synagogue is a revolutionary sermon which disturbed the power structures of society. Jesus used two texts from Isaiah (Isa.61:1-2; 58:6) and two narratives from Israel’s history (1 Kings 17:9-16; 2 Kings 5:1-19) to compose his sermon. The texts of Isaiah herald the Jubilee and the two narratives tell the story of God’s gracious care for non-Jews.
The Jubilee announcement disturbed the political power structure which always oppressed the powerless and voiceless. God’s gracious care for the non-Jews has disturbed the religious power structure which limits God’s grace to Jewish community. The central theme of Jesus’ sermon is good news to the poor.
Why the good news to the poor? Who were the poor to whom Jesus was sent to proclaim the good news? Who were the prisoners, blind and oppressed to whom Jesus was sent to liberate?
In the Old Testament, the term ‘poor’ referred to the economically poor. The economic deprivation and political powerlessness made them to depend upon God for protection, help and justice. It has got a spiritual meaning in Psalms (Ps. 34:6; 40:17; 70:5; 74:19; 86:1). The poor in Luke were the ones who lost their independence, freedom and the fundamental rights because of their low economic status. Except Luke 6:20, the term ‘poor’ in Luke refers to the economically poor (Lk.7: 22; 14: 13,21; 16: 20,22; 18: 22; 19: 8; 21: 3).
Luke uses the term “poor” mostly for the people who were crippled, lame, leprous, deaf, blind, oppressed and hungry. Hence, “poor” in Luke refers to people who lacked economic resources. The Roman colonialism and religious authority in Jerusalem drove many to poverty through the various taxes. For example, the Palestinian peasants paid 41-48% of their income as taxes. This made a larger section of people in the first century Palestine to live in poverty.
The Jubilee release is the good news that Jesus had preached to the poor. The repetition of the noun “release” (two times in v.18) and the phrase “the year of the Lord’s favour” (v.19) are rooted in the Jubilee instruction of Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15:1-6.
The Jubilee year is the year of liberation and restoration of human rights. During the Jubilee year, those who became slaves due to poverty should be released (Lev. 25:39-41); the land leased due to poverty should be returned to its owner (Lev. 25:10,13); the land should be given rest (Lev.25:2-7,11-12); and the debts of the poor should be cancelled (Dt.15:1-6).
Jubilee, as Paul Hertig has put it, refers to the “Reversal of rich and poor, a redistribution of resources and flattening of pyramids.” Biblical scholars argue that Isaiah’s prophecy in chapter 61 was spoken in the context of Jubilee. Jesus, by using the Isaiahnic text in the Lukan narrative, proclaims release of the poor from economic oppression.
The Greek term aphesis literally means, “forgiveness”, “release”, and “liberation.” In Luke the term aphesis gives two levels of meaning, viz. spiritual and social. It gives a spiritual meaning when the term aphesis is used with the term “sin” (i.e. put the noun sin in the genitive case), “forgiveness of sin” (Lk.1:77; 3:3; 24:47; Acts 2:38; 5:31; 26:18) but it gives a social meaning when the aphesis is used absolutely without qualifying any phrase, “liberation” (Lk.4:18 [twice]). In Jesus’ sermon at the Nazareth synagogue, Jesus has used the term aphesis in the sense of jubilee release, liberation of the prisoners, blind and the oppressed.
The “prisoners” in Lk.4:18 most likely refers to those who were imprisoned due to debts (cf. Mt.18: 23-35). The “blind” (v.18) were probably the prisoners who sat in the darkness of the prison cells (cf. Isa.42:7). “Those who were crushed or oppressed” (v.18) refers likely to the ones who were crushed economically and socially by the Roman colonialism. The phrase “the year of the Lord’s favour” refers to God’s salvation.
The audience at Nazareth synagogue received the word with amazement because they were looking for a mighty Saviour who would deliver them from the Roman colonialism (Lk.1:69-71). But when they heard that the Jubilee release has been extended to the non-Jews (Lk.4:25-27), they were very furious. Their rejoicing turned into fury. They forgot the Jubilee pronouncement and became preoccupied by their religious ideology.
In their hardness of heart, they rejected the mighty Saviour (Lk.4:28-30).
Revd Dr R. John Vijayaraj is an Associate Professor of New Testament at Concordia Theological Seminary, Nagercoil, India.
Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash