Have you ever been looking and looking for something… only to find that it had been right there — “under your nose” — all along? You might feel pleased, although perhaps a little embarrassed—especially if someone else had been watching as you searched high-and-low. I wonder if some of the people listening to Jesus read from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue that day felt pleased (and perhaps a little surprised!) to have found something rare and special right under their noses in their own little hardscrabble village of Nazareth: a Prophet of God! Perhaps there were others, however, who couldn’t quite bring themselves to believe that anyone so common, so accessible to them could be anything special at all, let alone a Prophet… or a Messiah. Certainly, the Jews had been waiting for their foretold Messiah for centuries, but they were looking for a King like David, or a Prophet like Moses… not a local carpenter’s son, and not from Nazareth! Even the Apostle Nathanial, when he was first told by Philip about “Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth” said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:45) So, it’s not always enough to simply look for something… you must have eyes to see… and, in this case, ears to hear.
This was the beginning of Jesus’ period of active ministry and he began it on his home turf in Galilee. He had just returned from forty days of fasting in the wilderness, where he had been sorely tempted by the devil. The experience seemed to have empowered rather than diminished him however, and people were already beginning to talk about this new teacher. So, when Jesus entered the synagogue in Nazareth that day, expectations were likely pretty high… among those with eyes to see and ears to hear. The order of worship in the synagogue on Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath, likely began with the Shema: “Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Eḥad” – “Hear, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD is One.” Next would have come a recitation of the Decalogue (or Ten Commandments) followed by a series of prayers and benedictions, after which Scripture would be read and interpreted. There would likely have been more than one reader with each reading at least three verses. They would stand to read and sit to teach/interpret. While the readings from the Torah (the Law) were predetermined in a fixed, triennial cycle, much as they are today in our own Lectionary, companion readings from the Prophets were often selected on the spot by readers. In this case, Jesus chose to read a passage from the prophet Isaiah. The Hazzan (assistant) would have handed Jesus the scroll and Jesus would have opened it and read the passage in Hebrew before interpreting (or teaching from) it in Aramaic.
The interesting thing about Jesus’ use of this particular passage of Scripture is that he doesn’t seem to have read it “straight…” at least not the way Luke tells it. He omits some of the language originally contained in Isaiah 61:1 about “binding up the brokenhearted” and inserts the bit about “letting the oppressed go free” from an earlier location in the scroll (Isaiah 58:6). An accident, perhaps? Not likely. I don’t want to take us too far into the weeds on this… the takeaway is that Luke’s Jesus knew exactly the point he wanted to make, and didn’t balk at mixing and matching Isaiah’s words to suit his purposes. Jesus carefully selected and connected certain of Isaiah’s prophecies about future Messianic deliverance: to bring good news, to proclaim release, to free the oppressed and proclaim the year of the LORD’S favor… identifying them as being of the highest importance. The threefold repetition of the pronoun me underscored the role of this passage as a description of his own ministry and set the stage for Jesus’ simple and straightforward interpretation of the passage: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled…” let those with ears hear.
So, in the end, the long-awaited Jewish Messiah was neither a King like David nor a Prophet like Moses. God was doing a new thing. God became Immanuel in a flawed and broken world… full of haves and have-nots, oppressors and oppressed, politicians and prisoners and the sick in mind, body and spirit… to spread hope, and lead us to a more abundant way of living. Jesus came to set us free from the crushing bondage of our sins by teaching us to love… and share… and forgive.
Are you still looking for your Messiah? I wonder how often we find ourselves face-to-face with Jesus and fail to recognize him. Is it because our expectations are too high? Can anything good come from Nazareth? Or because they’re not high enough? It’s a lot easier to create God in our own image than it is to love like Jesus. Jesus Messiah was “in the world, but not of it…” and I wonder if the question we should be asking ourselves today… and every day… is how we can be less worldly… and more like Jesus. It doesn’t seem that hard on the surface, but there are a hundred… no, a thousand… decision points we encounter every day that offer us the opportunity to spread the Good News and proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor to “the least of these…” sometimes when it’s not terribly convenient. How are we doing with that? Are we deciding to follow Jesus as the Body of Christ in the world a thousand times a day here in our own hometown… following the example of Jesus in his? How well are we living this abundant life that God is offering? The price Jesus paid was his own life. God says we’re worth it… but are we behaving like we’re worth it? Like we’re redeemed? Are we loving like Jesus Immanuel… God with us? The cost was so great, we can never hope to repay… we can never be worthy. But we can do our best to spread the Good News and extend God’s love and forgiveness to our neighbors as we sojourn together through this weary world. That’s what Jesus would do.
The scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. Have you ears to hear?