GOSPEL: THIRD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
LUKE 1:1-4; 4:14-21 Link to all three readings from USCCB site
Since many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the events
that have been fulfilled among us,
just as those who were eyewitnesses from the beginning
and ministers of the word have handed them down to us,
I too have decided,
after investigating everything accurately anew,
to write it down in an orderly sequence for you,
most excellent Theophilus,
so that you may realize the certainty of the teachings
you have received.
Jesus returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit,
and news of him spread throughout the whole region.
He taught in their synagogues and was praised by all.
He came to Nazareth, where he had grown up,
and went according to his custom
into the synagogue on the Sabbath day.
He stood up to read and was handed a scroll of the prophet Isaiah.
He unrolled the scroll and found the passage where it was written:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring glad tidings to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord.
Rolling up the scroll, he handed it back to the attendant and sat down,
and the eyes of all in the synagogue looked intently at him.
He said to them,
“Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.”
The Gospel texts for this Sunday reflect the sometimes conflicting aims of the editors of the Lectionary: providing the Catholic worshipper with exposure to the four Gospels in a way that is true to the intent of the sacred author (as opposed to cherry-picking texts) while building a pastoral framework inclusive of the liturgical calendar and the other scripture texts of the day. It does happen that these goals, while mutual, sometimes reflect the challenge of the task, and this weekend coming is one of those times.
The chapter citations alone tell you we are dealing with two distinct texts from this gospel, and you probably would have gathered that from looking reading the texts anyway. The opening paragraph is actually the opening preface of the entire Gospel, and ahead of even the Infancy narrative. The second and third paragraphs jump over the Infancy narrative of chapters one and two—which we heard in the Christmas cycle of feasts—as well as chapter three, which includes an extensive treatment of John the Baptist. I regret that the description of John’s message did not make the “lectionary cut.” This is why I recommend the private reading of the entire Gospel for the year’s cycle, not just the “Sunday readings.” I am doing this with Joel B. Green’s commentary, The Gospel of Luke, which includes the whole text. Don’t be afraid of a “substantive text; as one Amazon reviewer out it, “it is a hard read at times and I felt lost at certain areas but I am grateful for the information it gave me.”
The introduction to the Gospel (Green, 33-46), or the “prologue,” has fascinated the Church throughout its history. Luke is the only evangelist to introduce his work and explain how he did it, his methodology. The style of 1:1-4 is a common form of introduction indicating that the author is adopting the historical style of writing history handed down by the ancient Greeks Herodotus and Thucydides, western civilization’s first objective investigators of the past.
Luke tells us that “many” have undertaken to write an orderly exposition of the Christ event. In terms of the books considered inspired by the Church, only St. Mark for sure (and possibly St. Matthew) preceded Luke, so other accounts have probably not survived. Moreover, these other writers were using material handed down to them by eye witnesses. Luke is very clear that he is no eye witness, but a later day historian with a theological story to tell. His factual sources come from others before him, though it will become clear through the year that Luke will weave factual narrative into Old Testament fulfillment and Holy Spirit potential. The identity of Theophilus (‘lover of God”) is one of history’s mysteries: A Godly gentleman, a patron, a (prospective) convert, a Roman official—all of these identities have supporters.
The critical term in the prologue is “fulfilled.” Luke makes the point that his subsequent sequence of events has been “fulfilled among us.” This word turns out to be the connecting rod to the second part of Sunday’s Gospel, which concludes with Jesus announcing in his local synagogue that Scripture is being fulfilled in the midst of the worshippers there.
Paragraph two jumps to Jesus’ adult ministry. He has already encountered the Baptist, heard his message at great length, accepted his baptism, prayed (a very intense word in Luke), enjoyed the public favor of the Holy Spirit, and had his lineage traced back to “Adam, son of God.” (chapter 3) Luke opens chapter four with a detailed account of Jesus’ in the desert, having been led there by the Holy Spirit to face the temptations of the devil. (That text will be read on the First Sunday of Lent.) We join the story at Luke 4:14 on Sunday, where he reports that by the power of the Holy Spirit Jesus has become a teacher who works in synagogues throughout Galilee
Jesus returns to his home town of Nazareth and as a Jewish layman takes his turn in reading the Scripture, which here happens to be Isaiah 58 (Luke quotes—and edits—just a representative portion.) There is a great deal to say about this Isaiah text, but Green (206ff) focuses on just a few words. The word “poor” is not intended here simply as material poverty or depravity of spirit; it is used, per Green, “in a holistic sense of those who are for any number of socio-religious reasons relegated to positions outside of the boundaries of God’s people.” Put another way, Jesus is expounding a doctrine of “non-exclusion” in the face of a religion and a culture that burdened under the weight of division and boundaries.
A second key word is “release.” The coming of Jesus, throughout Luke’s Gospel, will be a series of “releases”: release from infirmity, from sin, from captivity, from the power of Satan, and in a particularly pertinent Old Testament style, release from debts, the beloved Jubilee Year, now writ large.
The conclusion of this second portion is the dramatic announcement of Jesus that on this very day the passage from Isaiah is fulfilled in the hearing of his townsfolk. If you read the next paragraphs after the Sunday Gospel text, you will discover that Jesus’ words were badly received. Was it his new (sounding) interpretation of the Scripture directed toward a religious culture where eating with unwashed hands was an abomination? Or was it anger at Jesus’ seeming impertinence, even blasphemy, that this age of deliverance and unsullied blessings would come though him personally?
The parallels here between the Lukan Christ and the efforts of Francis to make 2016 a year of mercy are so obvious that I can think of nothing more to add.