Luke Week 3
By Mark Abbott
Seattle Pacific University Adjunct Instructor
Read this week’s Scripture: Luke 4:14–6:16
As I was having blood drawn at a doctor’s office recently, I engaged the technician in conversation about what she does. “I love drawing blood!” she exclaimed. “I love the challenge of trying to find a vein that is hiding. I have this surge of excitement when I see blood flowing into the tube.” As she left the room after successfully fulfilling her mission, I urged her: “Keep on loving what you do!”
It’s important to have a sense of mission about what we do, whether it’s drawing blood or saving the world. And no, I don’t put a phlebotomist in the same category as Jesus. But Jesus of Nazareth does begin his public ministry with a powerful sense of divine mission.
Luke 4:14–30: Hometown Boy’s Vision of Ministry
Returning from Judea to Galilee, his home territory, Jesus, “filled with the power of the Spirit” (4:14), begins to preach in the synagogues. Early response is overwhelmingly positive. “[A] report about him spread through all the surrounding country” (4:14).
Luke highlights Jesus’ attendance at a synagogue [Author’s Note 1] Sabbath service, “as was his custom” (4:16). This is in Nazareth, where, we are reminded, Jesus was brought up. When invited to read from the scroll containing the prophecy of Isaiah, Jesus reads from Isaiah 61:1. It’s a passage about what we might call the “Servant-Messiah,” a shadowy figure who weaves in and out of the latter section of Isaiah.
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 (Luke 4:18–19).
It’s Jesus’ comment on this powerful passage that conveys his sense of mission and provokes a stir among his listeners. What he says after he has finished reading is, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (4:21). Jesus’ mission is to the needy of society, the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed.
His listeners at first respond positively — “all spoke well of Him” (4:22) — even with amazement, that this hometown boy, this “Joseph’s son,” has spoken so well. Listeners heard “gracious words” (4:22), or maybe words about God’s grace for all, especially for the marginalized of society.
But Jesus seems to sense pushback in the crowd:
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” (4:23–24).
Then he heads in a risky direction with this Nazareth crowd: He lifts up two familiar Old Testament characters, Elijah and Elisha, who were sent to serve and provide healing not for Jewish people, but for non-Jews. And suddenly the attitude of the crowd takes a 180-degree turn: “When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage” (4:28).
Why did this enrage Jesus’ listeners, leading to what was almost a lynching? N.T. Wright puts it concisely: “Israel’s God was rescuing the wrong people.” [Author’s Note 2; italics added for emphasis] Jesus’ hearers would have been happier if he had continued the Isaiah quote to the next verse, where Isaiah speaks of “the day of vengeance of our God” (Isaiah 61:2). Everyone in Nazareth wanted to hear about and, yes, see such “vengeance” wreaked on the hated Romans, who had a major headquarters in nearby Sepphoris. But what Jesus seems to be saying is that God’s grace is extended to all, regardless of ethnicity and status in life.
So this is Jesus’ vision of his ministry. It was not to push the hated Romans out and “take back our country,” but to extend grace and healing to the needy and oppressed — in fact, to all, regardless of who they were. “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” is what the angel had announced to outcast shepherds outside Bethlehem (Luke 2:10). That vision of ministry would be appealing to those in need, but appalling to those who might be challenged by this radical agenda. This segment of the story concludes with Jesus’ escaping the mob and going on his way inspired by this mission (4:30).
Luke 4:31–5:26: Authority and Healing in Galilee
The storyline shifts from Nazareth to Capernaum, several miles east and on the shore of Lake Galilee. Again, in the synagogue, Jesus is teaching with authority, much to everyone’s amazement. Why are they amazed? The typical rabbi of that day taught not on his own authority, but on the authority of an illustrious predecessor. One rabbi claimed never in his life to have said a thing he did not hear from his teachers. By contrast, Jesus spoke on his own authority.
Yet it was not just his authority in teaching, but also his authority in healing the sick that captured most attention. “A report about him began to reach every place in the region” (4:37). [Author’s Note 3] Four stories of individual healing are told, along with a more general reference to “any who were sick with various kinds of diseases … and he laid his hands on each of them and cured them” (4:40).
There’s a possessed man creating a noisy outburst in the Capernaum synagogue, and Simon Peter’s mother-in-law, who has a high fever (4:31–39). There’s a leper, who breaks out of that culture’s boundaries separating lepers from others, in order to seek healing from Jesus (5:12–16). There’s a paralyzed man brought by loyal friends, who remove roof tiles to place him unavoidably before Jesus (5:17–26). All these Jesus healed, expanding his reputation and the pressure of crowds around him.
Tucked into the stories of healing, there’s a scene where Jesus’ authority is extended over nature. In Lake Galilee where fish are normally caught at night, Peter and his crew, operating at Jesus’ command, net huge quantities of fish in broad daylight (5:1–11). At this demonstration of Jesus’ power, it’s not the crowds’ response that Luke notes. Instead, Luke zeros in on Peter, with James and John, his partners. In Luke’s telling of the story, they begin to take their places as key members of the inner circle of followers, 12 “apostles” whom Luke lists later, in 6:14–16.
One of the healings gives rise to another demonstration of authority, this time the authority to forgive sins. When the paralyzed man brought by his friends is lowered through the roof, Jesus’ first words to him provoke a major reaction. “Friend, your sins are forgiven you” (5:20). Religious leaders, who have apparently swarmed the place to sniff out heresy and ruthlessly put it down, respond predictably. “‘Who is this who is speaking blasphemies?’” they ask. “‘Who can forgive sins but God alone?’”
“But so that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” — he said to the one who was paralyzed — “I say to you, stand up and take your bed and go to your home” (5:24).
This “Son of Man” (“Human One,” CEB), or messiah in human form on the model of a Daniel 7 prophecy, has authority to heal and to forgive. [Author’s Note 4] People are amazed at Jesus. Awestruck, they exclaim, “We have seen strange things today” (5:26). From the Greek word for “strange things” comes our word paradox. This paradox seems to be that a “Human One” has such authority both in the physical and in the spiritual realms.
True to his emphasis on the significance of prayer, Luke shows us Jesus escaping from the press of crowds for solitary prayer. Hordes of people find him and try to keep this dispenser of healing from leaving them. But Jesus repeats his sense of mission: “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose” (4:42–44).
Luke 5:27–6:11: A New Day and New Understanding
Jesus’ mission was to bring about something radically new, not just a moderate adjustment to the old way of living and believing. The new, however, is often hard to accept. Do we not find in our day that change often leads to reaction? Unique to Luke’s vision of Jesus’ mission is his conclusion to the “new wine and old wineskins” image. It is Luke who reports Jesus’ words: “[N]o one after drinking old wine desires new wine, but says, ‘The old is good’” (5:39).
One of the radical changes Jesus’ mission brings is illustrated by the opening story in this section. It involves Levi, a tax collector, thoroughly hated by fellow Jews because he’s a collaborator with Roman overlords and their underling king, Herod. Taxes were collected not by an impartial government agency but by a businessman who offered the highest bid for the privilege. He collected taxes, yes, but also collected more to line his own pockets. So Levi must have fulfilled the common image of tax collectors as extortionists. Yet it is Levi, one of these social and religious pariahs, whom Jesus calls to follow him. How could that be? And surprise! Levi “got up, left everything, and followed him” (5:28).
That’s not all. Levi gives a party for Jesus. (Luke loves feast scenes, party celebrations involving food and fellowship. Watch for these “eating scenes” as we read Luke’s gospel.) Who comes to this party with Jesus? It’s people like Levi, “a large crowd of tax collectors” (5:29). Good folks in Jesus’ day never, ever ate with people of questionable morals and bad reputation. Religious leaders complain to Jesus’ disciples: “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” They also complain that Jesus’ disciples eat and drink, in contrast to John the Baptizer’s disciples, who fasted frequently. Jesus’ response shows the radical newness of his ministry.
Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance (5:31).
Trying to patch an old garment with a new piece of cloth doesn’t work, says Jesus. Furthermore, it won’t work to put new wine into old wineskins. “[T]he new wine will burst the skins and will be spilled, and the skins will be destroyed. But new wine must be put into fresh wineskins” (5:37–38). You can’t just add a bit of Jesus’ mission and message on to the teaching of John the Baptizer and the Pharisees. You have to take the whole thing or nothing at all!
The same thing applies when it comes to the legal requirements associated with Sabbath-keeping. To harvest grain on the Sabbath, even pluck it casually as you walk along, as the disciples do, is work (6:1–2). And work is forbidden. To heal on the Sabbath also was classified as work and should not be done. On the Sabbath, you could prevent someone’s illness from getting worse, but you could not make a sick person better.
Jesus, however, makes it clear that with him comes a new day. This isn’t just about Sabbath observance or about whether it is okay to heal on the Sabbath. This is a question of who Jesus really is, and what Jesus came to be and do. Jesus is bringing in God’s new world, and rules appropriate for the old world have to be rethought. But this was hard for religious leaders, who, probably in all sincerity, were dedicated to the old ways. “[T]hey were filled with fury and discussed with one another what they might do to Jesus” (6:11).
This passage does not give contemporary reformers carte blanche to make any and all changes they want. But it does remind those of us who once in a while see ourselves in the Pharisees that Jesus brought in a radically new day centered on him and his ministry. That new day can make some of us uncomfortable and wanting, as they did in Jesus’ day, to stick with the old. But Jesus, again referring to himself as “Son of Man,” declares that he “is lord of the sabbath” (6:5). Jesus is the one who brings healing to the sick — on the Sabbath or on any other day. And we who follow Jesus are part of that new day!
Questions for Further Reflection
- How does Jesus’ declared mission compare with what seems often to be the mission of many of Jesus’ followers today? How does our mission in life square with Jesus’ mission?
- How do you accept and live under Jesus’ authority over sickness and storms, and in the spiritual realm?
- Think of some contemporary ways Christ followers try to patch old garments with new cloth or put new wine into old wineskins. How does the radical newness of Jesus’ ministry and message fit into today’s life? Does Jesus’ openness to all, regardless of who they are or what they have done, and Jesus’ lordship over all of life make us uncomfortable?
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