Commentary: Luke 4:21-30
Many commentators treat Lk 4:16-30 as an entire text. The lectionary has split it into two lessons.
Function of the Text
This text is a preview of what is to come. Specifically, Luke has a programmatic purpose here: to present in capsule form the theme of fulfillment and to symbolize the rejection that will mark the ministry of Jesus as a whole.1 On the one hand there is the success associated with the amazement of the people. On the other hand, there is rejection by the crowd. This foreshadows the rest of the gospel of Luke, that there will be wonder and amazement and there will be rejection (with the ultimate rejection on the cross).
As Fitzmyer notes, the sequence of sentences, especially in vv. 22-24, is not smooth.2 There is debate over what the sources are for these verses. A plausible hypothesis is that the story as a whole gets its inspiration from Mk 6:1-6a. Furthermore, the wording in vv. 16, 22, and 24 probably comes from "Mk," and vv. 17-21, 23, 25-30 are either derived from L or they can be ascribed to Lucan composition.
The question then becomes why the rewording, why this particular composition. A realistic argument is the reality of the author's dominance in story-telling. (My CPE supervisor said that "your own stuff leaks out all over, all over your counseling, your preaching and everything else.") Given that Luke may have had some clear messages to tell, we can consider how that influenced this passage. To do so, we need to look ahead to Lk 4:31-37.
When Jesus healed the man with the unclean spirit, the first question people asked was "What is this word?" Luke is writing to an audience that no longer experiences the miracles of Jesus. They do still experience the word of Jesus. Just as we do not live by bread alone, so we also do not live by miracle alone, but by every word which proceeds from the mouth of God. By down playing deeds (which are implied in the physician proverb), Luke is emphasizing the life-giving power of the word of Jesus. It is the ministry of the Isaian figure to preach and announce, to call to repentance, to offer freedom and hope, and to teach. This is the powerful work of Jesus, a ministry of teaching the word which is life-giving. Searching after life-giving miracles is not what disciples are called to do.3
Old Testament Influences
Jesus moves quickly from emphasizing the power of the word to drawing upon Old Testament archetypes. Already we have witnessed Luke's rich usage of Hebrew literature. He draws upon such imagery again here.
Members of the Qumran community believed that in the end-time God's wrath would be directed against Israel's enemies, while God's blessing would be bestowed upon Israel. The references to the Elijah/Elisha narratives negate this thinking. These references indicate that even the Gentiles will receive the benefits and blessings of the messianic era. The religiously upright even assumed that not only would the Gentiles be cast out, but their less devoted fellow Jews would also be excluded. Lk 4:25-27 serve to challenge the first-century Jewish assumptions about election. (Recall, also, the Baptist's rebuke in 3:8-9, that God can raise up children of God even from stones.)
Significance of the Text
There are several ways in which this text is significant. One, after the wonderful pronouncement that Jesus is the Son of God (which the past three Sundays have lifted up), we are reminded that there is both success and rejection that goes with his calling. The ministry of Jesus will not be simply glorious baptisms and fine wine; there will also be suffering and rejection.
Two, like the Lucan community, people of the 1990s no longer experience the kind of miracles described in the gospels. (This is not to say that sometimes we don't long for them and even pray for them.) Like the early church, then, we need to be reminded that it is the word of Jesus, the living Logos of God, which is life-giving. Searching for miracles is like chasing rainbows. Our time will be better spent listening to God's word.
Three, this lection announces the breadth, depth and width of God's blessing. This preacher is always aware that the American flag hangs behind her pulpit. (Yes, it would be faithful and prophetic to challenge that, but I am not up to that battle yet.) The current political climate suggests the degree to which Christianity and patriotism have blended. As first century Jews were reminded by Luke's gospel, God's blessings are for the Gentiles as well as believers, for foreigners as well as for hometown folk. That significant understanding is still important today.
1. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Good News According to Luke I-IX , The Anchor Bible (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1981), p. 71. 2. Ibid., pp. 526-527. 3. John J. Kilgallen, S.J., Provocation in Luke 4,23-24, Biblica, Vol. 70, 1989, pp. 511-516.