Last revised: January 31, 2016
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THIRD SUNDAY AFTER THE EPIPHANY — YEAR C
RCL: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21
RoCa: Nehemiah 8:2-6, 8-10; 1 Corinthians 12:12-30; Luke 1:1-4; 4:14-21
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Questions and Reflections
1. “all who could hear with understanding” and “with interpretation.” These qualifications imply that, in this post-diaspora situation, there were many in the congregation who could no longer understand Hebrew. Is this somewhat akin to holding onto the Latin liturgy?
2. I have noticed that writing and reading texts seemed to really gel in religion during the 6th-5th centuries B.C.E.: Philosophy was taking hold in the Greece; the post-Vedic period in India was helping to move Hindu traditions into Brahmanistic religion; Buddha lived and started the Buddhist traditions; Taoism began to take hold with scriptures attributed to Lao-tzu; and Confucius wrote extensively initiating Confucianism. The 6th-5th centuries B.C.E. also was the time when the Hebrew canon really began to solidify and take shape. The advent of sacred texts is beginning to take hold in religions across the Euro-Asian continent. This passage from Nehemiah truly seems to give us a glimpse of ritual that is focused now around the sacrality of a text.
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
1. See last week’s resources (Epiphany 2C).
Reflections and Questions
1. Themes around “body” have already been prominent in 1 Corinthians, beginning in chapter 6:
The body is meant not for fornication but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Should I therefore take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Do you not know that whoever is united to a prostitute becomes one body with her? For it is said, “The two shall be one flesh.” But anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. Shun fornication! Every sin that a person commits is outside the body; but the fornicator sins against the body itself. Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? (1 Cor. 6:13b-19)
Chapter 7 continues with ethical reflections around sexuality and marriage, with “body” prominent. Then, it is chapter 10, when discussing the worshiping of idols and the food sacrificed to them, that Paul introduces the “body of Christ,” in both its eucharistic senses of being present with the bread and in the gathered worshiping community:
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread. (1 Cor. 10:16-17)
This lays the foundation for his use of the term in 1 Cor. 11-12.
2. Paul’s scolding of the Corinthians in chapter 11, for their abusive practices of the eucharistic meal, provides the most immediate background of his use of the term “body of Christ” in chapter 12. I comment on 1 Cor. 11:17-34 in the section of my article on Holy Communion entitled “Mimetic servanthood as remedy to mimetic rivalry.” “Discerning the body” in verse 29 is not clear as to which eucharistic sense of Christ’s body is meant. Taken out of context, I would argue that many churches through the ages have focused on the sense of Christ’s presence with the bread and have used it for exactly the opposite purpose of St. Paul, who is chiding the Corinthians for their exclusionary practices of the eucharistic meal. Instead, many churches have tragically used 11:27-29 as a justification for following precisely in the Corinthians footsteps by excluding folks from the Eucharist — their argument being: if one cannot discern Christ’s presence with the bread in the Eucharist, then one should not be allowed to partake and thus eat and drink to one’s own condemnation. (Sound all too familiar?) But I would argue that the whole context of this passage argues for highlighting the other eucharistic sense of Christ’s body: the gathered worshiping community. In the above article, I write:
The abuses are quite specific: contrary to modern worries about including the wrong people, Paul claims that the Corinthians are wrongly excluding people from their meal — specifically, those of lesser material means. The more well-to-do members of the congregation are overdrinking and overeating, while poorer members go away hungry. We might conjecture that the wealthier members are caught up in a mimetic rivalry that results in their ignoring, or “sacrificing,” the needy among them. Paul’s remedy for mimetic rivalry is mimetic servanthood. He invokes the Words of Institution, emphasizing the phrase “Do this for the remembrance of me.” I suggest his point is that a more fitting memorial for the crucified one would be to practice the kind of servanthood which he himself lived when he gave up his body and poured out his blood for all people. In short, disciples are to imitate their Lord in serving.
“Discerning the body” is thus talking about this community gathered together into a Holy Communion to be fed by our Lord for lives of mutual service. It is this “body of Christ” which Paul thus goes on to further elaborate in chapter 12.
1. Jesus’ quote from Isaiah is actually a combination of two passages. 61:1-2a: “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor.” And Isaiah 58:6: “[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?” What may be especially notable about Jesus’ selection is what he leaves out, namely, the bits about vengeance. The prime example is Isaiah 61:2b: “and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn.” Jesus stops immediately short of including God’s vengeance in his mission statement.
Fred Niedner, in The Christian Century, “Living by the Word” (Jan. 3, 2001), does a wonderful job of bringing out this point:
What is your program, Jesus? We sit in your congregation today. Tell us! Jesus stands to read, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor … 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.” He ends in the middle of a verse without reading, “and the day of vengeance of our God.” Nor does Jesus read more of Isaiah’s oracle concerning comfort for mourners and cloaking the faint of spirit with praise, perhaps because further on Isaiah would repeat the claim that Israel shall have for itself the wealth of the nations, while all those others end up with nothing but God’s vengeance heaped upon them.
Such was — and is — the conventional messianic dream of oppressed people. When we take over, we will be on top. The creeps who have oppressed us will be on the first track out.
Jesus wants no part of that. How, then, would he bring good news to the poor or freedom to the oppressed? He would do it, Luke shows, through persistent befriending of the poor, the outcasts, the little people of his day, including those who seemed his enemies. He listened to them and ate with them. Some he healed of maladies that diminished their lives. He simply kept on like that until he fell victim to the rich and the powerful.
Even then he responded not with vengeance, threats or self-interest. Rather, he went calmly toward death, stopping along the way to heal a slave’s ear, to comfort the women who wept for him, to ask forgiveness for his murderers and to encourage his fellow condemned. There we see Jesus’ messianic mission, the epiphany of God’s glory in action.
From there he brings us into Jesus’ mission as the body of Christ in this world, drawing on the Second Lesson. (See also the Brian McLaren excerpt below.)
2. It seems to me that a key verse is Luke 4:21: “Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.'” And the key word is “fulfilled,” pleroð in Greek. Luke uses the word nine times, most often meaning “fulfill,” the the last time also being in reference to scripture being fulfilled. It is the Risen Jesus appearing to his disciples on Easter:
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled (pleroð).” Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. (Luke 24:44-45)
1. Sharon H. Ringe, Jesus, Liberation, and the Biblical Jubilee: Images for Ethics and Christology. A very nice monogram study on the biblical jubilee, especially as it relates to Trito-Isaiah and Luke’s use of it in this gospel passage.
2. Raymund Schwager, Jesus in the Drama of Salvation, pp. 31, 39, 188, 210. The first citation listed here (p. 31) gives a nice summary of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry:
The message of the kingdom of God at hand was a joyful message. According to Luke, Jesus began his public ministry by declaring that the messianic announcement of Isaiah 61:1-2 was fulfilled, and thereby indirectly indicating himself as the one anointed by the spirit of the Lord, whose task is to bring good news to the poor, to announce liberation to captives, and to give sight to the blind (Luke 4:16-21). To the question of John’s disciples, whether he was “the one who is to come,” he answered, “The blind see, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor receive good news” (Luke 7:22). Thus the Old Testament messianic words are related to his activity in the present. Critical exegesis gives differing judgments as to whether the narrative containing the question from John’s disciples is original; but it is virtually undisputed that we have a genuine saying of Jesus in the logion of the blind, lame, deaf, and poor who experience healing and help.
The dawning of the time of salvation was becoming manifest not only in bodily healing, but above all in the overcoming of the power of evil. Jesus freed the possessed from their enslavement, and his saving activity was so clear that people could never deny it, but could at the most interpret it differently. Against the suspicion that he was working through the force of the highest demons against the other demons, Jesus proved that the accusation rests on the unfounded assumption of a voluntary act of self-destruction on the part of the demonic kingdom (Luke 11:14-23). He made his own claim over against this unsubstantiated assertion: “If I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God is come upon you” (Luke 11:20). The linguistic formulation of this saying is so striking and the situation it describes is so specific that it is unanimously recognized by critical exegesis as a genuine saying of Jesus (so Bultmann, 1964; Todt, 1959; Kuhn, 1966; Bornkamm, 1968; E. Schweizer, 1976; Fiedler, 1976; Laufen, 1980). It stands in conjunction with another utterance which in practice no one disputes that it is from Jesus himself, and this speaks in a similar way about the already-achieved overcoming of Satan: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the enemy’s power…” (Luke 10:18-19; see also Mark 3:27). According to the Jewish imagination, Satan was the great prosecutor of humankind (see Job 1:6-2:10; Zech. 3:1-2; Rev. 12:10). Through his fall from heaven, i.e., from the place where God is imagined to be, the element of prosecution was eliminated from the image of God. Jesus’ vision of the fall of Satan is therefore materially connected with his new experience of God as heavenly Father, and it became efficacious in his exorcistic activity.
Because of his healing actions and the overcoming of evil forces, the time of Jesus was that time of salvation which had been expected for so long: “Blessed are you whose eyes see what you see. For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Luke 10:23-24). The messianic time of salvation was like a wedding. Jesus understood himself as bridegroom and his disciples were the wedding guests, who could not fast as long as the bridegroom was with them (Mark 2:19).
The words about the overcoming of Satan and the many diverse messianic images show that Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God not merely as near at hand, but as already dawning and present. If he drove out demons, it was because the new time of salvation was already effective. He saw his own activity as inseparable from the coming of the kingdom of God. Although Jesus lived out of the faith-tradition of Israel, he sounded a note which had never rung out before.
The presence of salvation showed itself especially in the fact that as Jesus proclaimed his message, something actually happened. The effect he had was entirely different from that of other teachers: “for he taught them as one who had authority, and not as the scribes” (Mark 1:22). His message of salvation became a healing and liberating force. The sick became healthy; the possessed became free, and people on the margins of society experienced his loving attention. It was not the abstract content of what he said, but the total event of teaching, preaching, healing, and caring which affected people. (pp. 31-32)
The latter two citations (pp. 188, 210) appear in sections of Schwager’s book: “The Cross and the Transformation of Evil” (pp. 182-191) and “The Revelation of the Holy Spirit and the Trinity” (pp. 209-217).
3. Brian McLaren, one of my favorite writers, has more recently ‘discovered’ Girard’s Mimetic Theory, but even his earlier work anticipates it with resonance to the viewpoints here. The inauguration of Jesus’s ministry in Luke 4 is a crucial passage that has made a prominent appearance in several books. In The Secret Message of Jesus, it is easy to anticipate that this passage would be among the first mentioned:
From Jesus’ first public speech — and speech may be too weak a word; prophetic demonstration might be more fitting — it is clear that he sees each theme or thread or episode in the story coming together in his time, and he sees his own calling in terms of the heroes we have seen. Luke describes Jesus coming to his hometown, entering the synagogue on the Sabbath, and coming forward to read. He is given the scroll of the prophet Isaiah, and he unrolls the scroll to find a certain passage: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).
Then Jesus dramatically rolls up the scroll, returns it to the attendant, and sits down — sitting being the posture of a teacher in those days. Everyone’s eyes are on Jesus, as they wonder what comment he will make on the passage he has chosen. His comment anticipated what he would say about the kingdom being at hand now: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (v. 21).
Jesus seems to see the whole story of his people coming to fulfillment in his time and in his own person. For example, in speaking of the kingdom, he is evoking the memory of David, the great king under whose reign the Jewish people enjoyed unprecedented peace, prosperity, and spiritual vitality. He is claiming to be a new David. (pp. 29-30)
In Everything Must Change, the task is to reframe our contemporary culture’s operating system with operating system from God in Jesus. But first we have to reframe and reintroduce Jesus because our reading of his story has been usurped by our culture’s frame. Luke 4 helps guide this process of reframing Jesus, claiming an entire section of the book, “Not a Tame Prophet.” Here are three crucial paragraphs:
Jesus claims to be anointed by the Spirit of the Lord to do what these words said: proclaim good news to the poor (we’ve already seen how the Roman Empire, through taxation, created a new class of poor tenant farmers), proclaim freedom for prisoners (likely implying those who are held against their will under Rome’s imperial control), and, proclaim new sight for the blind (with blindness referring to his physical healings, or perhaps to the removal of blindness that would come through his insightful teaching, or both). He would also proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor — referring to the Jubilee year, when all are to be released from debt and lands are returned to the families that had owned them in the past, relevant on many levels for people whose lands had been seized both by the Romans and by opportunistic fellow Jews.
In between these proclamations is a single phrase that may appear to be a redundancy, but actually is not. Not only will he proclaim freedom for prisoners or captives, but he will also actually set the oppressed free. Those are revolutionary words for oppressed people. Those are the words of a liberator.
Equally striking is his use of the word “today.” This liberation is not postponed until after death or on the other side of an apocalypse that may include the literal destruction and recreation of the space-time universe. What was promised is now unfolding, in this history and geography. Its fulfillment begins today, and it begins here. (pp. 106-107)
Luke 4 is cited once more in a chapter contrasting the Empire’s framing story of peace through domination with that of Jesus:
The empire’s “good news” is a framing story of peace through domination, peace through redemptive violence, peace through centralized power and control, peace through elimination of enemies. It involves the gods legitimizing those in power so that resistance to their sacred regime becomes not only treason but also heresy. The imperial narrative that drives them to dominance often drives them on to self-destruction. Jesus’ alternative framing story, as we’ve seen, involves God’s bringing down those in power (Luke 1:52-53) so that the poor can be legitimized (Luke 4:18), and so that the religious collaboration with the empire can be exposed as hypocrisy. The empire uses crosses to punish rebels and instill fear and submission in the oppressed: Jesus will use a cross to expose the cruelty and injustice of those in power and instill hope and confidence in the oppressed. (pp. 123-24)
This passage also figures significantly in A New Kind of Christianity. He begins Chapter 13, “Jesus Outside the Lines,” by quoting one of his faithful critics:
The only reason Jesus came was to save people from hell. . . . Jesus had no social agenda. . . . [He didn’t come to eliminate poverty or slavery or] . . . fix something in somebody’s life for the little moment they live on this earth. (p. 127)
Now what could possibly cause this earnest and educated Christian to assert that Jesus had no agenda regarding poverty and slavery? What could motivate a dedicated Bible teacher to minimize horrible social realities as minor inconveniences or pet peeves — “something in somebody’s life for the little moment they live on this earth”? How could a pious and devoted believer ignore all of Jesus’s words about the poor, all his deeds for the poor and oppressed, beginning with his first public sermon, in which he quoted Isaiah 61?
The Spirit of the Lord is on 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. . . . Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing. (Luke 4:18-19, 21)
My faithful critic’s statement is even more amazing in light of the rest of the New Testament, where concern for the poor and oppressed remains strong page after page (see, for example, Gal. 2:10; Philem. 16; 1 John 3:17-18; James 1:27; 2:2-17). Yet for him, the only way we can understand Jesus is as the one who saves from hell (a subject to which we will return in a later question). For him, Jesus is not the one who saves from poverty, captivity, blindness, or oppression, even though these are Jesus’s very words (borrowed from Isaiah) to describe his mission….
…Our quest invites us to understand Jesus in terms of the three-dimensional biblical narrative we introduced earlier — to see him in terms of the Genesis story of creation and reconciliation, the Exodus story of liberation and formation, and the Isaiah story of new creation and the peace-making kingdom. (pp. 127-28)
For those of us who are “evangelical” in Martin Luther’s original sense of the term, namely, “gospel-centered,” Chapter 14 on “What Is the Gospel?” is perhaps the core this book. And once again Luke 4 makes a starring appearance:
More and more of us have begun to see what was incredibly obvious all along, if it weren’t for our thorough Greco-Roman “civilizing” (or mind control): that the good news proclaimed by Jesus Christ wasn’t primarily a way of integrating Plato and Aristotle, spirit and matter, perfect being and fallen becoming, or even law and grace — even though, in a sense, it does all these things. More essentially, it was a fulfillment of the three prime narratives of the Hebrew Scriptures.
First, to accept the free gift of being “born again” into “life of the ages” or “life abundant” meant participation in a new Genesis, a new creation, interrupting the downward death spiral of violence and counterviolence and joining an upward, regenerative movement. Second, to follow Jesus meant embarking on a new Exodus, passing through the waters once again (this time, baptism instead of the Red Sea), eating a new Passover meal (the Eucharist), and experiencing liberation from the principalities and powers that oppress and enslave. Third, to enter or receive the “kingdom of God” meant becoming a citizen of a new kingdom, the peaceable kingdom imagined by the prophets and inaugurated in Christ, learning its ways (as a disciple) and demonstrating in word and deed its presence and availability to all (as an apostle).
In this way, the most striking single element of Jesus’s proclamation of the kingdom may have been “The time has come!” The kingdom of God is not a distant reality to wait for someday, Jesus proclaims; the kingdom is at hand, within reach, near, here, now (Mark 1:15). Everyone agrees the poor and downtrodden should be helped someday, oppression and exploitation should be stopped someday, the planet should be healed someday, we should study war no more someday. But for Jesus, the dream of Isaiah and the other prophets — of a time when good news would come to the poor, the prisoners, the blind, the oppressed, and the indebted — was not five hundred or a thousand years in the future: the dream was being fulfilled today (Luke 4:18-21). The time has come today to cancel debts, to forgive, to treat enemies as neighbors, to share your bread with the hungry and your clothes with the naked, to invite the outcasts over for dinner, to confront oppressors not with sharp knives, but with unarmed kindness. No wonder Jesus called people to repent: if the kingdom is at hand, we need to adjust our way of life and join in the joyful, painful mission of reconciliation right now, ASAP! (pp. 139-40)
It is a chapter crucial to the task of faithfully proclaiming the Gospel, not the Protestant version of it that reads Jesus’s Gospel of the Kingdom in terms of our version of St. Paul (rather than the corrective reverse habit of reading Paul through the lens of the Gospels).
And, finally, his book Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?, which includes a prominent place for Mimetic Theory, cites Luke 4 as a centerpiece for the Feast of Epiphany in a 12-day celebration of Christmas for a reformed liturgical year (in footnote 6 on pp. 171-72, also citing his next planned book titled Catechesis and Subversive Liturgy).
In the chapter on “Reading the Bible Responsibly,” McLaren makes use of the Luke’s omission as noted above in the exegetical notes. The response to biblical literalists who complain that others ‘pick and choose’ in their use of the Bible (as if they themselves didn’t) may be that Paul and Jesus picked and chose when quoting the Hebrew Scriptures. McLaren gives some examples from Paul, and then uses Luke 4 as the primary example for Jesus:
In this, of course, Paul faithfully follows his model. In his very first public sermon in Nazareth (Luke 4:18-27), Jesus similarly “flips the meaning” of Isaiah (61:1-2) by dropping the phrase “and the day of vengeance of our God.” Lest anyone miss the “de-hostilization” and “de-exclusivization” of his omission, he then refers to the story of the prophet Elijah who was directed by God to help a Sidonian woman — an outsider of another religion. And then he adds the story of the prophet Elisha helping a Syrian man — another outsider of another religion. You can imagine the panic in the minds of Jesus’ neighbors as they process what their homegrown prophet is saying: What? Is Jesus suggesting that God loves “those people — Sidonians and Syrians” — just as much as “us?” Is this “good news to the poor” universal, for all people, rather than exclusive to members of our religion only? Who does he think he is to betray our elite, exclusive identity like this? This is heresy! Blasphemy! Treason!
That day in Nazareth when Jesus modeled this deliberately subversive way of reading the Scriptures, he went right to the heart of us-them oppositional identity. No one should be surprised at the response: hostility. The people who spoke well of him a few moments before (Luke 4:22) now want to kill him (4:28-29). (This, no doubt, illuminates the real meaning of Jesus’ words, “I have come not to bring peace, but a sword.”) (pp. 202-203)
Luke 4’s third and final appearance in Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road? comes under the Missional Challenge. It relates to one of my major pastoral concerns, those who follow John Lennon’s prescription, “Imagine … no religion.” I’m very sympathetic with Lennon’s view, especially to the extent that religion is behind so much hostility. But McLaren’s book is all about reimagining religion as helping us to form hospitable identities instead of hostile ones. He writes:
Try imagining what might happen if our religious communities started organizing for the common good, for holistic or integral mission — mission that integrates witness and with-ness. Imagine that the leaders of our various faith traditions actually began meeting with one another — not merely for something called “interreligious dialogue,” but to become friends, to share their personal values and spiritual experiences, to seek mutual understanding, to practice the neighborliness and hospitality toward the other that their traditions preach. And then, from there, imagine that they started setting an example — say one day a month or two weeks a year — working side by side modeling with-ness, collaboration for the common good, on behalf of those in need. Imagine the Pope and the Dalai Lama, a televangelist and a Muslim imam, a leading rabbi and an Orthodox Patriarch, side by side, serving meals in a refugee camp, distributing mosquito nets, digging wells, or assisting dentists in providing dental care to a poor village.
Now imagine that these religious leaders devoted say a month a year to meet together … dreaming, praying, and working for the wellbeing of all. (Some might say they couldn’t spare that much time, since the internal demands of their organizations wouldn’t allow it. But shouldn’t the external demands of the future of humanity and the planet have some demand on them, too?) Imagine if they led their various religious communities to sign treaties or agreements of nonaggression and mutual protection — if they decided to boldly move ahead in peacemaking when nation-states shrink back. Imagine that they showed up in person when one of the presidents or prime ministers or party leaders supposedly under their care spoke or acted in hostility toward others, bringing the power of their religion to bear on the powerful for a change. And imagine if their top-level example were then to inspire religionwide acts of friendship and collaboration worldwide, getting the haves to see the have-nots as their sisters and brothers, fathers and mothers, sons and daughters.
Imagine if organized religion organized billions of people and trillions of dollars to tackle the challenges that our economic and political systems are afraid or unwilling to tackle — a planet ravaged by unsustainable human behavior and an out-of-control consumptive economy, the growing gap between the rich minority and the poor majority, and the proliferation of weapons of all kinds — including weapons of mass destruction.
“Wow,” people frequently say when I propose these possibilities. “If they did that, I might become religious again.” Some quickly add, “But I won’t hold my breath. It’ll never happen.”
It wouldn’t be impossible to prove them wrong, since with God all things are possible.
This possible impossibility is, I think, what Jesus meant when he claimed that the kingdom or commonwealth of God was at hand. It was not out of reach, impossible; nor was it in hand, already attained. It was simultaneously in reach and not yet seized, a gift already fully given, and not yet fully received, opened, and enjoyed.* Jesus embodied this truth to the edges of Judaism and beyond, and the apostles spread it “to the uttermost parts of the earth”: God’s commonwealth was a table where the Pharisees and prostitutes were equally welcome, the chief priests and the Samaritans, the Sadducees and the Roman centurions, the poor homeless leper and the rich young leader, Onesimus the slave and Philemon the slave master, Gentile and Jew, male and female, one and all. A new religion called Christianity (that conflicted term, of course, didn’t exist yet) wasn’t the point; the kingdom or commonwealth of God was the point … for Jesus, for Paul, and for all the apostles. (pp. 250-52)
And the footnote marked in the last paragraph by the asterisk backs this reimagining with Luke 4:
I have written two books on the subject of the kingdom of God: The Secret Message of Jesus (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006) and Everything Must Change (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007). Yet the subject continues to open up new dimensions to me. It is only in the sense mentioned here — a gift already fully given but not yet widely opened and enjoyed — that I subscribe to the already/not yet formula so common in some theological circles. The typical use of the formula does not, in my view, take into account the already-present-ness and already-given-ness of the kingdom inherent in Jesus’ declarations that the kingdom is at hand and among (or within), and especially in his earth-shaking words of Luke 4:21: “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” I see the kingdom as fully present and available, even when we fail or refuse to adjust our lives to it. (note 3 on p. 251)
4. Michael Hardin, The Jesus Driven Life; this passage is central to the opening section of chapter 2, “Discovering the Beloved God,” pp. 59-62; and so it continues to be mentioned in subsequent sections: pp. 63, 75, 95, 99, 111. Hardin emphasizes, as do many, the line from Isaiah 61:1-2 which Jesus skips, about “the day of vengeance for our God.” But Hardin adds that the ensuing references to Elijah and Elisha carries the implication that the proclamation of Jubilee extends even to enemies. So not only is vengeance on one’s enemies precluded but God’s most spectacular promises are also extended to them. Hardin writes,
In short, Jesus is saying to his synagogue hearers “Jubilee is here, not only for you but also for those you hate; in fact God also goes to your oppressors with this message of jubilee, deliverance and salvation.” Now we can begin to understand why they got so mad at him. (p. 62)
This inauguration to Jesus’ ministry in Luke thus parallels Matthew’s inauguration in the Sermon on the Mount regarding an emphasis on God’s love for even enemies (Matt 5:38-48).
It is at the very least plausible that what we have in the development of eschatological language from the “day of vengeance” to the Johannine realized eschatology is a different aspect of the same process: the process by which Jesus’ own subversion of the apocalyptic owing to his own “eschatological imagination,” of the sort I have outlined above, became able to be understood by people whose imaginations were thoroughly formed in the apocalyptic imagination of the surrounding ambience.
There are certain obvious ways in which Jesus’ teaching, as attested by all the Gospels, was subversive of the three dualities that W. Meeks (1) has shown to be characteristic of apocalyptic thought. These three dualities are the cosmic (heaven/earth), the temporal (this age/the age to come) and the social (sons of light, elect, righteous/ sons of dark, the “world,” unrighteous). Jesus was manifestly subversive of the social duality, as evidenced by his fellowship with sinners, and such parables as that of the pharisee and the tax collector in the Temple. That he was subversive of the cosmic duality is shown in his preaching of the Kingdom as coming about now: “today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21), “the time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand” (Mark 1:15), “but if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matt. 12:28), and in the petition of the Lord’s Prayer: “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” That he was also subversive of the temporal duality is shown by his practice, and recommendation, of celibacy lived now for the kingdom, linked with his understanding that this is the condition of life lived in the resurrection (Matt. 19:10-12, linked to Matt. 22:23-33). (pp. 216-217)
- Luke 4:14-30 — Preaching and Rejection at Nazareth
- Jesus ministry begins in his hometown: (Luke 4:14-21) 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.”
- We have to read this more carefully. He sat down. That was it. Then, all the eyes were fixed on him. He stopped the service. He didn’t read it and say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” He read it and sat down. He stopped the show with everyone’s eyes on him, and then he said, “Today…”
- The gospel would seem to indicate that Jesus had no intention on commenting on this scripture when he went up to read it. It seems that he wasn’t moved to comment until all the eyes were upon him.
- And what does that mean to have all the eyes upon him? True ontology is to be grounded in God. And false ontology is to be the observed of all observers.
- So this is another temptation: to have all eyes fixed on him.
- (Luke 4:22-24) All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.'” And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown.”
- The question is why is this true? Why isn’t a prophet accepted in his hometown? A prophet is precisely the one who is not accepted. Not just because he has an unacceptable message, but because his prophetic vocation is all tied up with his rejection by his community. His prophetic vocation begins with some kind of social rejection… (End of side 1)
- …So that a prophet is rejected by those whose acceptance would have made his prophetic vocation unnecessary. Rejection endows the prophet with what Andrew McKenna calls the victim’s “epistemological privilege,” the ability to know things that other people can’t know. The victim is precisely the one who can see things that other people cannot see. The prophet is the one who can see and speak of these things. In order to have the victim’s epistemological privilege, he has to be one. To some extent, he has to suffer social rejection. We tend to think that the prophet gets rejected because of his message, which is, of course, true. But it’s also true that he has a message because he’s been rejected.
- Luke 4:25-28: Jesus mentions two scriptural events, involving Elijah and widow of Sidon and Elisha went to a Syrian leper, both outsiders, Gentiles. The prophets go to the outsiders.
- Luke 4:29-30 — They are immediately filled with rage and try to hurl him off a cliff. Put this rejection with the voice from heaven giving divine approval after the baptism.
*End of notes from Gil Bailie’s lecture on Luke 4:1-30*
9. Michael Hudson, “The Lost Tradition of Biblical Debt Cancellations,” a study available online. The primary emphasis is on debt cancellation in Ancient Near Eastern culture. But when he begins the closing section on Christian perspectives (p. 41), he leads with this passage from Luke 4. Following an impressive cataloging of debt cancellation in the Christian tradition, he concludes,
Only in the most recent decades have minds shut to questioning the social, moral and economic consequences of debt. What once was the core of social renewal and religious ethics has now become the Unthinkable. That is the ultimate irony which may strike future social historians looking back on our era. (p. 45)
10. A good prayer for this day might be Prayer of the Farm Workers’ Struggle, written by Cesar Chavez, UFW Founder (1927-1993):
Show me the suffering of the most miserable;
so I will know my people’s plight.
Free me to pray with others;
for you are present in every person.
Help me to take responsibility for my own life;
so that I can be free at last.
Grant me the courage to struggle for justice;
for in such struggle there is true life.
Give me honesty and patience;
so that I can organize our community.
Bring forth song and celebration;
so that the Spirit will be alive among us.
Let the Spirit flourish and grow;
so that we will never tire of the struggle.
Let us remember those who have died for justice;
for they have given us life.
Help us to love even those who hate us;
so we can change the world. Amen.
Reflections and Questions
1. In 2013 our theme for the Epiphany season was “Embodied Love.” In the sermon “Embodied Love: Turning Community Inside Out,” the theme is how God’s love embodied in human community messes with our schemes of who’s in and who’s out. It makes use of one the most effective sermon stories, one of my favorites, the story of Hilda and her son from Good Goats: Healing Our Image of God, by Dennis, Sheila, & Matthew Linn.
2. Brian Stoffregen, in his fine weekly exegesis of the Gospel (link to Epiphany 3C), shares an interesting quote from preacher Edward Markquart:
God’s story is always related to human need. For example, if a woman is dying of cancer, the gospel is God’s strong word of resurrection. If a person is permeated with guilt, the gospel is God’s assurance of forgiveness. If people experience extreme suffering, the gospel is the prayer: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble.” For the starving, the gospel may be bread. For a homeless refugee, the gospel may be freedom in a new homeland. For others, the gospel may be freedom from political tyranny. The gospel is always related to human need. It is never truth in a vacuum, a theologically true statement which may or may not relate to one’s life. The gospel is God’s truth, God’s message, God’s action, God’s word to a particular person, to a particular need, to a particular historical situation. You don’t throw a drowning person sandwich. However good the sandwich may be, it just doesn’t meet that person’s need. You throw a drowning person a life jacket or a lifeline, or you dive in for the rescue. So it is with the gospel. The gospel is God’s truth, God’s action, aimed at a particular human need. [Witnesses for Christ, p. 69, student book]
From the perspective of mimetic theory, I’d like to turn the point of this quote around. If it is true that God’s truth is aimed at particular human need, and if the focal point of that truth is the cross, then what does the cross say about particular human need? Doesn’t it say volumes about the problem we human beings have with violence, particularly sacred violence? If the lifeline God throws us is the cross and resurrection, then doesn’t that say we are drowning in our violence? Markquart names needs such as relief from hunger, homelessness, or political tyranny. Mimetic theory explains how all human culture — that is, all human life, since we are thoroughly cultural beings — descends out of collective violence, precisely the kind of collective violence of the cross. In other words, can’t we explain how all forms of human need are related to their roots in what the cross saves us from? As Gandhi said, poverty is the worst form of [collective] violence. Being a homeless refugee or suffering under political tyranny is clearly related to collective forms of violence. Jesus showed that the need for physical healing is also addressed by healing cultural ostracism. Death itself, and our thoroughly enculturated experience of it, is always colored by our experiences of violent death. We experience death of loved ones as a violent ripping away, even if the death itself was rather peaceful. All our needs go back to our foundations in collective violence.
Here I feel compelled to once again share the heart of James Alison‘s The Joy of Being Wrong:
The second step shows that death is not merely something which has nothing to do with God, and which need not be, but that as a human reality, it is opposed to God. It is not only that our representation of God is inaccurate, needing refocusing, but our representation of God is actively contrary to the understanding of God which he wishes to make known. That is to say that the death of this man Jesus showed that death is not merely a biological reality, but is also a sinful reality. To put it in another way: it is not just that death is a human reality and not a divine one, but as a human reality it is a sinful reality. God, in raising Jesus was not merely showing that death has no power over him, but also revealing that the putting to death of Jesus showed humans as actively involved in death. In human reality, death and sin are intertwined: the necessity of human death is itself a necessity born of sin. In us, death is not merely a passive reality, but an active one; not something we merely receive, but one we deal out.
However, God did not raise Jesus from the dead merely to demonstrate his own deathless-ness, or to rescue Jesus from the middle of the human reality of death as a bodyguard may rescue a beleaguered pop star from the midst of a pressing crowd of fans, to get her away from it all as quickly as possible. The third step in the recasting of God and the recasting of sin is that God raised up this man who had been killed in this way for us. The victim of human iniquity was raised up as forgiveness; in fact the resurrection was the raising up of the victim as forgiveness. This it was which permitted the recasting of God as love. It was not just that God loved his son and so raised him up, but that the giving of the son and his raising up revealed God as love for us. It is to exactly this that bear witness the remarkably similar passages found in John 3:16-17 and Rom. 3:21-26, as well as of course 1 John 4:9-10. If the third step reveals God as forgiving us (and the presence of the crucified-and-risen victim was exactly this revelation), then it also simultaneously reveals that death is not only a human reality, and one inflected by sin, but that the human reality of death itself is capable of being forgiven.
Furthermore, as it became clear that the whole purpose of raising Jesus from the dead was to make forgiveness possible (i.e., none of this happened for the benefit of God, and all of it for the benefit of humanity), so it becomes clear that that forgiveness stretches into our human death. Which is to say, the forgiveness which flows from the resurrection affects not only such acts as we may have carried out, but, much more importantly, what we had hitherto imagined to be our very natures. If death is something that can be forgiven us, we were not only wrong about God, but we were fundamentally wrong about ourselves.
Let me try and unpack this difficult notion a little. If God can raise someone from the dead in the middle of human history, the very fact reveals that death, which up till this point had marked human history as simply something inevitable, part of what it is to be a human being, is not inevitable. That is, that death is itself not a simply biological reality, but a human cultural reality marking all perception, and a human cultural reality that is capable of being altered. This it seems to me is the decisive point at which any pre-Christian notion of sin and the Christian understanding must differ. The drastic nature of sin is revealed as something which has so inflected human culture that death is a human, and not simply a biological reality, one which decisively marks all human culture. This nature of sin as related to death is simultaneously revealed as something which need not be. It is not that God can, of course, forgive all our sins, but then there is also death which is just there. It becomes clear that God is not only capable of forgiving us for such things as we might have done, but the shape of his forgiveness stretches further than that, into what we are: we are humans tied into the human reality of death. We need no longer be.
This it seems to me is an anthropological discovery of unimaginable proportions. At exactly the same moment as God is revealed as quite beyond any human understanding marked by death, entirely gratuitous love, so also it is revealed that the human understanding marked by death is something accidental to being human, not something essential. Here we have the lynchpin of any understanding of original sin: that what we are as beings-toward-death is itself something capable of forgiveness. Furthermore we can see that the only way we are able to appreciate our true condition as humans-marked-by-death is precisely as it is revealed to us that that condition is unnecessary. It is in this way that the doctrine of original sin is the culmination of the revealed understanding of being human: the shape of divine forgiveness revealed in the resurrection of Jesus shows itself to stretch into our congenital involvement with death. The doctrine of original sin is the doctrine of the un-necessity of death. Its epistemological possibility is the discovery that the forgiveness of sins reaches further than the forgiveness of actions or intentions: it reaches into who we are as constituted in and by death. What is particularly vital is that if there had been no resurrection-as-forgiveness, there could have been no understanding of death itself as a reality of sin, and therefore no anthropological discovery of the non-necessity of death.
We might put this more simply by saying that the presence of the crucified and risen Lord to the disciples revealed that humans are wrong about God and about humanity. Not simply wrong as mistaken, but wrong as actively involved in death. And that this being wrong does not matter any longer, because we can now receive the truth, and thus life, from the forgiving victim. This then might be said to be a first approximation to original sin: that the doctrine of original sin is the doctrine according to which divine forgiveness makes known the accidental nature of human mortality, thus permitting an entirely new anthropological understanding. (pp. 117-119)
Link to a 2004 sermon that combines the above reflections on Markquart’s comments with the insights of Frederick Niedner’s essay on this text in The Christian Century (Jan. 3, 2001), “Taking the good news home.” The last several paragraphs are taken from Niedner, and so I titled the sermon “Taking the Good News Home.”
3. A good preaching theme is the temptation aspect of having everyone’s eyes fixed on you. Is our call from Jesus to be famous in that way? Or is it to be grounded in God? Link to a sermon entitled “Playing for God, not the Crowd.” Among my examples were what many in the pews in Wisconsin were thinking about in 1998: their Super Bowl hero Green Bay Packers. There is also a 2001 version of this sermon around the inauguration of George W. Bush.
This theme focuses on Gil Bailie’s comments above: “And what does that mean to have all the eyes upon him? True ontology is to be grounded in God. And false ontology is to be the observed of all observers.” This was to be a major theme in Gil’s second book Changing the Subject from “Self” to “Person”: From a Secular to a Sacramental Anthropology of Human Subjectivity. It has been a theme throughout many of his later taped lectures, especially his excellent study on fame, “The Famished Craving: The Attention of Others, Fascination for the Famous, and the Need for Faith.” His use of the word “ontology” is a psychological one which proposes that true Being has to do with a person being rooted in faith in the one who lived outside or fascination with the famous, our craving for the attention of others. This passage from Luke presents us with a story of Jesus in which he has the chance to be famous, to be the “observed of all observers.” This does not result in true Being, in being a person of substance. Having faith in the One who is the ground of our Being is what truly enables us to be persons. Jesus came to show us that kind of Being, true personhood, that we might begin to live it with him. (Consider, too, St. Paul’s, “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” — Gal. 2:20.)
4. Is there a connection in this passage with the preceding one? Jesus has, with the power of the Holy Spirit, been able to resist Satan’s temptations. Now, he faces one in real time, in non-parabolic form. Are all the eyes fixed on him, ready to make him famous, akin to the spectacular show of jumping off the pinnacle of Temple and surviving? The eyes of his hometown crowd are fixed on him, presumably waiting for him to perform the spectacular show he has been doing elsewhere with his miraculous healings.
5. There is some scholarly debate around whether it was typical to preach sitting down — which somewhat changes Gil’s take on the significance of Luke’s noting of it. Either way, though, I think it has the same significance in terms of Jesus becoming a fascinating figure of mimetic contagion.
6. In 2007 we designated this Sunday as one of our Healing Sunday’s (at which we offer individual laying on of hands and prayer for healing). The sermon, “Reflections on Healing,” uses elements of this text with common Girardian elements on healing relating to the scapegoat mechanism.
1. See W. Meeks, “Social Functions of Apocalyptic Language in Pauline Christianity” in D. Hellholm (ed.) Apocalypticism in the Mediterranean World and the Near East (Tübingen, 1983), p. 689, mentioned in T.J.Radcliffe, “‘The Coming of the Son of Man.'”