“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me”
Sunday 27 January 2019
A cousin’s family gave a Children’s Bible to my eldest son as a Baptismal gift many years ago. If you look through a Children’s Bible, you’ll find that it gives a unified story of the life of Jesus. By that, I mean, it presents Jesus’ life as a composite of the various incidents and episodes that can be found in the four gospels.
The fact of the matter is though that we have no single life of Jesus in the four gospels. Some incidents occur in all of the gospels; some only appear in the synoptic gospels i.e. Matthew, Mark and Luke; some occur only in John’s gospel or in one or two of the synoptics.
It is clear that the evangelists had access to different traditions concerning Jesus’ life and that they made specific decisions on which traditions they would each incorporate into their particular gospel account and the context into which they would place them. What this means for us is that we need to take notice of these differences if we are going to fruitfully interpret any given text. We need to identify differences and ask ourselves the question as to why a particular evangelist chose to use an episode in the way that he has.
The differences are important, especially those we find between the gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. The reason for this importance is that it is plain from a close reading of these three gospels that Matthew and Luke each had Mark’s written gospel before them when they wrote their gospels. When Matthew or Luke choose to deal differently with a specific episode from Mark’s gospel, we need to reflect on the differences in order to understand what the message intended by Matthew or Luke was in the light of the differences.
Today’s gospel account of Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth provides us with a graphic example of what I mean. Let me demonstrate the sort of reflective process that I believe enhances our reading of the Word of God in the gospels.
If we look at Mark’s account of this incident, we find that it is fairly basic. We are not told what text Jesus used in the synagogue. We are only told that he came to his “hometown”, with his disciples, and that on the Sabbath he taught in the synagogue and that those who heard him were astounded.
Matthew follows Mark reasonably closely, although he gives a little less detail. He does not mention the presence of the disciples; he does not mention that it is the Sabbath; but he does also record that the people in the synagogue were astounded.
The location within the gospel is interesting as well. Mark locates the incident well into the ministry of Jesus, after the twelve have been called, but before the twelve have been sent out on a mission. Matthew also places it well into the ministry of Jesus, also after the twelve have been called, but he places it after they have been sent out and returned from their mission, not before like Mark.
The account we have heard from Luke today is significantly different from Mark (and consequently, Matthew who has followed Mark reasonably closely). These differences will have significance for the message that Luke wants to convey through the telling of the incident.
For a start, Luke places the incident right at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, immediately following his baptism and temptation in the wilderness. We sense that Luke wants to use the episode to set the scene for the shape of Jesus’ entire ministry by placing it here in contrast with Mark and Matthew.
Luke prefaces the appearance in the synagogue by stating that Jesus returned to Galilee, “filled with the power of the Spirit”. Luke immediately stamps Jesus’ ministry with authority – “filled with the power of the Spirit”. He states that Jesus has been received well in the synagogues around Galilee already, setting up a sharp contrast with what will happen in Nazareth. In fact, “Nazareth” itself is a Lukan addition to the episode. Mark and Matthew only refer to his “hometown”. Luke names it as “Nazareth”.
Luke retains Mark’s reference to the fact that he went to the synagogue “on the Sabbath”, but adds the phrase “as was his custom”. It appears to be important to Luke to establish here at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry that Jesus is a faithful Jew who worships on the Sabbath at the synagogue as a faithful Jew would, and who had been accepted well by the Jews at the other synagogues he had visited in Galilee.
It seems that Luke is setting the scene to show that Jesus is not, at this stage, unacceptable to Jews. But this will change dramatically at the synagogue in Nazareth.
Why will it change? Mark and Matthew only mention that he taught in the synagogue and this brought about opposition. Luke goes into greater detail. He tells us that the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him, but most significantly, Jesus chose the text that he would read. And that text was right towards the back of the scroll, in chapter 61 by our numbering system. Can you sense the drama in the scene that Luke is painting?
Everyone would be sitting there in anticipation as Jesus unrolled, and unrolled and unrolled the scroll until he got almost the end of it. And then he read the words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me”. Of course, we already know that, because Luke told us at the beginning of the episode that Jesus returned to Galilee “filled with the power of the Spirit”. So we know this influence of the Spirit is terribly important to Luke’s understanding of Jesus’ ministry.
Luke maintains the drama by telling us that Jesus then rolled up the scroll. (ACTION) Luke tells us that as he did that, all eyes were fixed on him. What would he say? You can feel the tension rising. Mark and Matthew tell us nothing of all this detail. On the contrary, Luke gives us great detail. Jesus gives the scroll back to the attendant and then he sits. Sitting is the traditional Jewish position from which to teach. That’s the posture Jewish Rabbis assumed to teach. Whenever Jesus is described as “sitting”, that is evangelist’s code for “he is about to teach something important”
And what is the teaching? Something very short and simple. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing”. In other words, “This is what I am about”. By placing this episode in great detail at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Luke seems to be saying that this is what Jesus upcoming ministry is going to focus on: a spirit filled proclamation of good news to the poor. Jesus’ ministry will be one of the proclamation of justice in the spirit of the Jewish year of jubilee as described in chapter 25 of the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament. (Read Leviticus 25.8-12)
There are many points that could be drawn out of the specific way that Luke has framed this episode to promote the gospel message for his original audience, but we would be here for a long time and I’m sure that you don’t want that.
But I hope that this has provided you with a good example of how we can gain greater richness out of the gospels by recognizing the different ways that the evangelists present the same episodes in the narratives. Don’t read over differences between the evangelists’ accounts. Look at what the difference might mean for a fuller understanding of the specific intent of the individual writer inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Only Children’s Bibles present a composite picture of the life of Jesus. Adult Bibles are full of much greater subtlety and nuance, and as adults let’s try to explore that subtlety and nuance by the way we seek out and interpret differences and similarities between the individual gospel texts. Our Bible-reading will be greatly enriched by such attention to detail.
“The word of God, though written long ago still speaks to us today”.
Let us pray
we thank you for your holy word.
May it be a lantern to our feet,
a light to our paths,
and strength to our lives, in the name of your Son,
Jesus Christ our lord. Amen.
Fr Allan Paulsen