Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 1:1-4 & 4:14-21 – NRSV)
The address to “Theophilus” is uncertain. We have no reliable information on who this person is. Luke maybe simply using a literary form of addressing a single person to communicate with a wider group of people.
None of the other Gospels begins in this fashion. Mark – the oldest of the Gospels – goes straight to the ministry of John the Baptist. Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus. John begins with his remarkable “Prologue”. “The Third Gospel from its very outset betrays the author’s intention of relating his work consciously to contemporary literature of the Greco-Roman world” (Joseph Fitzmyer, The Gospel according to Luke I–IX: introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 28), New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008, 287).
Our text then moves to Chapter 4:14-21 and the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry. Here in Luke, Jesus is presented as the one who teaches and acts under the power of the Holy Spirit. There are seventeen explicit references to the (Holy) Spirit in Luke’s Gospel. The whole Gospel is bookended by references to the Spirit of God. In Luke 1:15 the angel Gabriel announces that John will be filled with the Holy Spirit; in Luke 1:35 the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you”. Though the Holy Spirit is not mentioned explicitly in the closing words of the Gospel, the reference is clear. Jesus tells the disciples, “I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). In Acts 2:2 the “violent/powerful wind” signifies the coming of the Holy Spirit.
The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Christian community sees the continuation of the salvific work of Jesus: “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear” (Acts 2:32-33).
Galilee: Each of the three evangelists has Jesus beginning his ministry in Galilee. “The limits of Upper and Lower Galilee are described at length by Josephus J.W. 3.3,1–2 §§ 35–43. He notes its fertility, its thickly crowded distribution of towns and villages, and claims that the smallest of them contains ‘above fifteen thousand inhabitants’.” He numbered them as ‘204 cities and villages in Galilee’ (Life 45 § 235) (Joseph Fitzmyer, op cit, 522).
In Acts 10:37 and 13:31, Luke reiterates that Jesus’ ministry began in Galilee. He tells us that Jesus selects his disciples and early followers from Galilee – see Acts 13:31; Luke 8:1–3 and 23:49, 55. It is in Galilee that he teaches those who are to be witnesses to him later. When he goes to the region of the Gerasenes (8:26), Luke notes that it is opposite Galilee. His reputation spreads beyond Galilee, and people flock to him from it and other areas – see Luke 5:17. In Luke 9:51, however, Luke tells us that Jesus set his face towards his ultimate destiny in Jerusalem.
filled with the power of the Spirit: “(A) change of locale is effected under the guiding influence of the Spirit. In Lucan theology the dynamis that Jesus possesses is not limited to a miraculous power (for healing or exorcising, as chiefly in Mark); it is closely associated with the Spirit under whose guidance he teaches and interprets Scripture” (Joseph Fitzmyer, op cit, 523).
He began to teach: Fitzmyer notes that this “introduces a Lucan motif, of Jesus as teacher (see 4:31; 5:3, 17; 6:6; 11:1; 13:10, 22, 26; 19:47; 20:1, 21; 21:37; 23:5; cf. p. 218 above). Luke 23:5 sees the beginning of it precisely here in Galilee” (Ibid). Unlike Mark and Matthew, Luke does not specify what the particular focus of Jesus’ teaching is.
their synagogues: The Greek word used here – synagōgē – can mean either a gathering or the place of a gathering. Another Greek word – ekklesia – also used for a gathering or the place of a gathering, became common currency for the early Christians.
Fitzmyer writes: “The origin of the Jewish synagogue is usually traced to the Babylonian Captivity, when Jews separated from their homeland and the Temple and, anxious to preserve their religious traditions, congregated on the Sabbath for prayer, reading of the Torah, and instruction. On their return to Palestine, and even after the rebuilding of the Temple, the custom of meetings continued in local communities and even in Jerusalem itself. ‘Synagogue’ came to denote not only the congregation, but even the place of Jewish religious assembly (see Philo Quod omnis probus liber sit 12 § 81; Josephus J.W. 2.14,3 § 285). The Theodotus inscription from Jerusalem expresses the purpose of the synagogue: ‘for the reading of the Law and the teaching of the commandments’ (C. K. Barrett, NTB, § 50). Luke himself records: ‘For generations Moses has been preached in every town and has been read aloud on every Sabbath’ (Acts 15:21), referring to synagogue services. Possibly ordinary houses were used for such assemblies at first, for though they are mentioned as early as the second century B.C. in Palestinian inscriptions, archeological remains of them all date from later, Christian times” (Op cit, 523-524).
he came to Nazareth: In the parallel passages in Mark and Matthew, Nazareth is not named – see Mark 6:1 and Matthew 13:54. They simply say he came “to his own country”.
he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom: This is unique to Luke. Luke seems to be emphasizing that Jesus is a practicing Jew. In Acts, Luke describes the first Christians in Jerusalem habitually going to the Temple – see Acts 2:46; 3:1; 4:1; 5:12, 42; 21:26. “This brings out for Luke the initial relation of Jesus and the nascent church to Israel; indeed, the relation of the church to Israel is depicted as based on the practice of Jesus himself” (Joseph Fitzmyer, op cit, 530).
“In first-century Palestine the Sabbath synagogue service apparently consisted of the singing of a psalm, the recitation of the Šĕmaʿ (Deut 6:4–9; 11:13–21; Num 15:37–41) and the Tĕpillāh (or Šĕmōnê ʿEśrēh, the “Eighteen [Blessings]”—for its text, see W. Förster, Palestinian Judaism in New Testament Times [Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1964] 228–229)—and the reading of a sēder or pārāšāh from the Torah (Law) and a section from the Prophets (haptārāh—see Acts 13:15). This was followed by a sermon expounding the Scriptures read, and the service was concluded by a blessing uttered by the president and the priestly blessing of Num 6:24–26” (Joseph Fitzmyer, op cit, 531).
Thus, Jesus is asked to read from the prophet Isaiah. Luke seems to be suggesting, however, that Jesus deliberately went to the particular text taken (mostly) from Isaiah 61.
The prophet Isaiah: Luke has an earlier citation from Isaiah – see 3:4-6. Both citations are from the later Isaiah – clearly a primary reference for the early Christian community. The earlier citation is from Isaiah 40:3-5. The citation in today’s text – 4:19 – is from the Septuagint of Isa 61:1; 58:6 and 61:2, leaving out “to heal the brokenhearted,” and replacing Isaiah’s “call” with “proclaim”.
The Jewish writer and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel (1928-2016), tells a story from the (Jewish) Hasidic tradition. The story ends with the enigmatic observation: “God made man because he loves stories” (The Gates of the Forest, New York: Avon Books, 1967, 10). Doesn’t our lived experience bear this out? We all love a good story – if our minds have not been so corrupted by the mythology of rationalism that dominates our culture. Stories make deeper truths available to us, truths that so-called evidenced-based thinking simply cannot access. Does this mean evidence-based thinking is to be dismissed? Absolutely not! Evidence-based thinking is useful, even necessary at times, especially so in the laboratory. But when we are in search of the deeper truths of life, stories – in one form or another – must take us where evidenced-based thinking cannot go.
The American journalist, Fulton Oursler (1893 – 1952), is probably best known for his 1949 classic, The Greatest Story Ever Told: A Tale of the Greatest Life Ever Lived (Doubleday). This novel of the life of Christ, is still available as a Penguin paperback. The actual story of the life of Christ is still available too, in our own lives, in the lives of the people around us and in the events of our world. Oursler is one of many who have tried to tell the story over the years, beginning with the Gospel writers. In today’s Gospel – Luke 1:1-4 and 4:14-21 – we read the opening sentences of Luke’s Gospel. Luke tells us that he is putting in writing things that “were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word”. Those “eyewitnesses and servants of the word” have passed on accounts of historical events surrounding the man, Jesus of Nazareth. Ironically, there is evidenced-based thinking here. But that only gives the context, not the text. Every text must have its context to be rightly understood. The story of Jesus Christ will be told and re-told until the Last Day – more or less well, more or less badly.
We can think of ourselves as participants in that story – the greatest story ever told. We are story-tellers in the way we turn up for life each day, in the way we respond to life’s gifts and tasks, the way we open ourselves to His Presence in each moment – or we don’t. We must never forget that the ultimate story-teller is God and the ultimate – the final – story is the story of the victory of love over hate, good over evil, the truth over the lie.
When we make a mess of our part of the story, that is never the final word, never the end of the story. To believe that would be to despair. The real story, the enduring story, the unending story, the greatest story ever told, is the story of Jesus of Nazareth. He is Lord! We are baptized into His story. And that can never be changed.