After the holidays, we settle down in Year C, going through Luke’s Gospel account of Jesus’ teaching and activity. Today, two significant beginnings in Luke, while the first reading has an important ‘re-start’ in the past.
Nehemiah 8:2-6, 8-10
This is a book of the Hebrew Bible that most will find unfamiliar, in part because it concerns a period of time that is not entirely clear as to the historical details. It is from late in Jewish history, when the exiles from Babylon had returned to find the temple in ruins and much rebuilding of Jerusalem to be done. Besides a physical construction, there was a need felt for the people to take up the full observations of the Jewish religion. Our selection today recounts a reading of the ‘Law’ (‘Torah’), written down in parts in the ‘Pentateuch’ or first five books of the Old Testament.
Ezra’s reading with the explanations lasted all morning, which is well beyond the modern attention span for a lecture. The reason for the weeping of the people is not stated. It would seem to be their repentance after a time of laxity and despair. Ezra (the priest) and Nehemiah (an official) tell them observing the Law is rather to be considered a cause for rejoicing and they are to feast and have a good time. The phrase, ‘The joy of the Lord is your stronghold’ is one that expresses the ideal relationship of a loving God and his care for his people.
Psalm 18/19:8-10, 15
This is a selection from one of the numerous psalms which are meditations on, and praises for, the Law, and expands the joy called for in the first reading. For Christians, getting out from under the ‘yoke of the Law’ came as a liberation, as St Paul describes in his Letter to the Romans. Yet for observant Jews, the Law is taken as a cherished way of living with God. These psalms expressing this may help us to understand their way of thinking.
1 Corinthians 12:12-30
The second reading often gives a different focus, as today with more from St Paul’s instructions to the community at Corinth. The idea of society as a body was widespread at the time, but Paul has special focus on a unity which is within diversity. He then takes this a step further, and calls the body of believers ‘Christ’s body’. First he points out that the church needs all the various parts (meaning both people and their gifts) then switches to reminding them that as individuals like cells in the body, we need each other. As in last week’s reading, he notes the differing roles in the community and the need for all of them to be carried out without competition or conceit over who does what.
Luke 1:4, 4:14-21
As we move into Ordinary Time with Luke after the Christmas celebrations, the liturgy gives us two beginning in the Gospel. First comes a formal dedication in the classic Greek style, all one sentence. Luke alone of the four Evangelist writes an introduction explaining his intent in writing his ‘account’ and setting out his qualifications to do so. It is addressed to an official with the title of ‘your Excellency’. He stresses his care to be accurate but also to be ‘orderly’, which is a hint that he will be arranging the individual stories and sayings that he found about Jesus into his idea of a continuous story. Luke does not tell us what are the ‘traditions’ he found, and what were written sources, but scholars have some theories which, when helpful for the background of weekly readings, will be mentioned in future notes.
The second part of the reading skips ahead several chapters to the point where Luke makes a formal beginning to Jesus’ ministry, one which will give a theme to his teaching and actions. These verses too are only in Luke. It begins with one of Luke’s frequent references to the Spirit which has figured in his account just before this of Jesus’ baptism (which we heard in recent weeks) and the story of the testing or ‘temptation’ that will be read on the first Sunday of Lent.
Although other gospels mention Jesus in a synagogue, only Luke tells us it was his ‘custom’ to attend. The Sabbath services in a synagogue included prayers, a reading from the Torah, and a second reading from the prophets followed by some teaching or interpretation. Their texts were written on scrolls, and not books with pages like we use, hence had to be ‘unrolled’ to find a passage. Any male might be asked to take part, and Jesus seems to have been chosen on this occasion. Luke sets the scene for us, as Jesus stands – the usual position for reading – unrolls the scroll till he finds the text he wants. After reading, he hands the scroll back and sits down – the usual position for teaching. The people – and therefore we – wait to hear what he will say.
The words of Jesus from the scroll of Isaiah are taken from two sections of that book, in chapters 61 and 58 in our numbering system. The ‘anointing’ in the text of Isaiah is a metaphor for the prophet’s call rather than an actual physical act with holy oils, as was done for priests and kings. Jesus’ concern for the poor will be especially important in this gospel and that is the first promise. Healing the physically blind will be part of Jesus’ activities, but the proclamation of liberty, giving sight, and freeing the downtrodden may both factual and metaphoric for spiritual healing and a total restoration – physical, social and spiritual. At the time of Isaiah, release from actual oppressive conquerors was a living real memory for the Jews, and it is likely that many hearing Jesus were thinking of liberation from the Roman Empire then controlling Israel. The ‘year of favour’ echoes of the Jubilee celebration of the Jewish Law. Every 50th year was to be celebrated as a sacred time and it was called ‘the liberation of all the inhabitants of the land’ (Leviticus 15:10).
‘This text is being fulfilled as you hear it’: Showing how Jesus in his life and work was foreshadowed by the Old Testament images and prophecies will be significant to Luke. He speaks of it here, and will again near the end of the gospel in the appearance of Jesus on the road to Emmaus after the Resurrection. Some take this fulfilment to mean Jesus is claiming to be another prophet who is anointed to speak. But another interpretation is the one I prefer: Jesus is carrying the message once spoken prophetically in that it is he himself who will enact these healings and liberation.
After telling us Jesus ‘began to speak’ Luke does not record anything further he might have said, and this focuses all attention on that moment of a claim of ‘fulfilment’. Our selection today ends in anticipation of finding how his teaching will be received. We will hear that next week.