The Spirit of the Lord is Upon Me

Exegesis and Sermon Notes on Luke 4:14-30, the Third and fourth Sundays After the Epiphany, Year C  

Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10; Psalm 19 (Ps. 19:7); 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21

(see bottom of article for detailed translation notes)

For someone with a progressive justice outlook, preaching an economic justice sermon on this passage is “low hanging fruit.” It would appear to be almost to clear and direct. How could someone not hear the calls to “bring good news to the poor…proclaim release to the captives…sight to the blind, [and to] let the oppressed go free.” However, while that inclination is most likely correct, it’s not as clear a shot as some might imagine, and many will just as easily interpret the passage a different way. Retired Riverside Church (NYC) pastor, James Forbes, has famously said that liberals love to proclaim Jesus’ words this way, “the spirit of the Lord is upon me TO BRING GOOD NEWS TO THE POOR,” and Pentecostals and Evangelicals love to say it this way: THE SPIRIT OF THE LORD IS UPON ME to bring good news to the poor.” What one brings to the table often determines what one finds to eat there.  

So, while in the comments below, I will lift up the concerns expressed by Jesus for the poor and the oppressed of his day and ours, I will encourage you to keep your ear to the ground to hear and respond to the many critics on the other side who have an opposing and alternative way of hearing those words.

Background on Luke 4
There are a number of passages in the New Testament that are suitable for preaching on Jubilee themes, but none speak more directly to the theme than Jesus’ “inaugural address” in Luke. At one level, this is a very quiet story, especially following as it does on the heels of angelic extravaganzas of the birth story, the cast of thousands baptism story, and the dramatic temptation in the desert story. But theologically, it is one of the most important in the gospels. In it Jesus comes back home to Nazareth following his anointing by John and temptation by Satan, and joins his friends and family for an evening of worship on the Sabbath. He, in fact, leads worship that evening by reading and teaching from the scriptures. That scripture, as it turns out, is the profoundly evocative derôr (“liberty”) text of Isaiah 61:1-2, which is itself a thinly veiled reference to God’s Jubilee age in which all of the brokenness of humanity is returned to its original order.
It is occasionally debated whether the passage he reads was actually chosen by Jesus or assigned by the steward of the synagogue. I think it was his choice. For one thing, assigned lectionary readings were usually from the Torah, the Law of Moses. The reading from the prophets was usually the choice of the reader, in this case, Jesus. Also, even if someone chose it for him, Jesus did some significant editing work in his reading, which sharpened its message and adapted it to his own interpretation.
The way he rebuilt it is a bit complicated but important: Look closely and you will see that there are four phrases in Isaiah 61:1. Jesus reads the first, second, and the fourth, but skips the third, “to heal the broken-hearted.” He leaves that out. Then he pastes in a phrase from Isaiah 58:d, “Let the oppressed go free.” The added phrase fits his theme theologically, but wasn’t in his original reading. He then deletes the end of the next verse, “the day of vengeance of our God” (61:2b). Why all of the cutting and pasting? No one knows for certain, but presumably he deleted “Heal the broken hearted” to avoid over spiritualization of his reading.[1] He added “let the oppressed go free” because it comes from another compatible Jubilee passage, and is thematically linked by the word, “release” (aphesis, “liberate,” “set free”) which is found in both.[2] And he probably deleted the last phrase about the day of God’s vengeance in order to de-emphasize the negative aspects of the reading. The result is that he strengthens the justice portions and weakens the vengeance portions. So, even if one argues that he didn’t pick the text himself, he certainly made it his own.
This story of Jesus reading from Isaiah to his hometown family and church is not found in the other gospels, but it is central to the self-understanding of Jesus as found in Luke. I personally believe that it is central to our understanding of Jesus himself. Both Matthew and Mark have a reference to Jesus’ returning home to Nazareth (Mark 6:1-6; Matt. 13:54-58), but they place it but much later in their gospels. Luke places it early in his gospel and probably does so because he senses its importance as a blueprint for the ministry of Jesus and the early years of the church. It is important to tell his readers that the age of the Jubilee (or the potential for it) had arrived with the life and teaching of Jesus, and that that message was rejected by the people whom Jesus knew and loved best in his hometown. The story, therefore, sets the stage for the entire two-volume saga of the saving life of Jesus and missionary success of the apostles.  
The story doesn’t just tell about how Jesus came to Nazareth and announced the good news. The announcement in fact embodies the good news. It is Jesus presenting himself as the fulfillment of one of the most profound prophesies of the Hebrew Scriptures. The hope of the people of Israel will be fulfilled in him. Jesus is the messiah, “the anointed one,” because he has been “anointed” (chriō, or specially chosen) by God to bring good news to the poor. In the Beatitudes the poor in spirit are blessed and will receive the kingdom of heaven (Mt. 5:3), but in the Gospel of Luke the good news brought by Jesus is proclaimed for those who are economically poor. And what is this good news? The good news is that those imprisoned for their debts will be pardoned, the blind will be able to see (remembering that blindness and poverty were inextricably related in biblical times), and the economically and politically oppressed will be freed—because the year of God’s amnesty, the Jubilee, has arrived.

A Few Important Things to Note in Your Sermon Preparation
First, you might point out to your listeners how so many of our Bibles label the entire section from 4:16-30 something like, “Jesus’ Rejection at Nazareth.” That is actually only the last of the four themes in the section, and I don’t think Luke would have agreed with it. The first theme, and the one that most determines the meaning of the next three, should be something like, “Jesus aligns self with time of Salvation.” Mark that down in the margins of your Bibles.
Second, note the word “Spirit” (pneuma), a term that is of critical importance in Luke. Among others, Jesus is conceived by the spirit (1:35); he was just baptized with the spirit (3:21), and now empowered by the spirit (4:1, 14, 18). Walter Pilgrim says that “it is the divine reality behind Jesus’ life and mission and that of the church.”[3] The Spirit has anointed Jesus “to bring good news (i.e., the gospel) to the poor.” His anointing in the spirit at baptism was a divine commissioning. In it he says that he was ordained to bring the good news of God’s redemptive task to one particular social group: the poor. Some commentators believe that the term “poor” is a collective term that stands for all of the others in the passage: the captives, blind, and the oppressed. It is more likely, however, that he means it as separate term alongside the others. This would be more in line with the numerous other examples of Jesus concern for the poor.
Third, “release (aphesis) to the captives.” “Release” is a technical term for the forgiveness of debts in the time of a Jubilee (Lev. 25:27) or the Sabbath Year (Deut. 15:1, Exodus 23:11). In the words of Jesus in Luke’s gospel, that concept seems to be broadened to include also the forgiveness of sins (1:77; 7:47; 24:47). But authentic forgiveness of financial debts remains just under the surface in many of Jesus’ teachings. See for example that in the “Lord’s Prayer,” we are to ask God to “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors” (Matt. 6:9-13; Luke 11:2b-4).
It’s very interesting to note that one of the manuscripts found in Qumran cave, number 11, called “The Melchizedek text,” links this phrase in Isaiah directly to Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15, and sees the captives as debtors, not—for example—exiles in Babylonia. “Let the oppressed go free” (en aphesei). The point is that when Jesus in the first century quotes from this text, and the people hear him reading it, the most likely understanding would be that it was referring to poor Judean peasant farmers who had gotten so ground up in the dishonesty of the financial lending system that they had lost their homes, families and livelihoods. Based on the Qumran use of this passage, it is very likely that Jesus is directing these words to people not at all unlike African farmers today who have lost everything because of the unjust lending arrangements made by foreign lenders and local elites.
Fourth, “recovery of sight to the blind.” As with many others, Jesus could well be functioning on two levels. Both a literal recovery from blindness (Luke 7:21; 18:35-43) as well as a metaphorical recovery of the poor about their social situations (John 9).
All in all, there are four themes in this passage that point back to the Jubilee language of Leviticus.
  1. Announcement of good news to the poor
  2. Release of slaves
  3. Liberation of captives
  4. The acceptable year of the Lord (Year of the Lord’s favor)

One must be cautious about applying the socio-economic justices themes of Leviticus and Isaiah directly to the life and teaching of Jesus. Jesus had concerns for wealth, poverty, and liberation, but he was larger than that. He did not call for the establishment of a Jubilee-style debt cancellation program, and nothing of the type has ever occurred since.
It is, however, safe to say that Jesus’ ministry was inspired and empowered by the message of the Jubilee, and that it infused his teachings on a number of occasions (i.e., the “Lord’s Prayer,” Matt. 6:12; Luke 11:4; the Parable of the Unjust Judge, Luke 16:1-9, etc.). And it is also fair to say that with Jesus’ frequent expressions of concern and compassion for the poor, the sick, and the hungry, that he saw the Isaiah text as God’s vision for how the world ought to be. He may never have called for the establishment of a world-wide Jubilee economic system, but he did call for the kind of changes in human hearts that—if human beings had responded—would have made a Jubilee world possible. In many ways the Jubilee is like the Kingdom (or better, Realm) of God. That is, though it may not ever come to pass physically, it is the goal and vision to which we are called to aspire. And those who live their lives in walking towards that vision are internally and eternally changed by making the journey.
The Jubilee/realm of God did not suddenly, magically become manifest in the world with the arrival of Jesus. But what did happen was that for the select few who were able to hear, understand, accept, live, and have faith in his words, it did arrive, and it arrived  in their “hearing.” Those with “ears to hear” experienced the Jubilee. It became real for them and they lived it out in their deeds and words and in their changed and redeemed lives. In so far as the time of God’s “favor” ever comes to pass today it will be because people of faith and conscience have heard the dream, the vision, the ideal, and managed to believe it, own it, live it, and make it come to pass. Jesus will not do that work for us. Jesus will call us to it, but not force us to do it. If we are followers of the one who believed himself to be anointed to the ministry of proclaiming release to the captives, then we too are to be “releasers.” We too should be about the business of making the world a more humane, equal, just, and liberated world. Anything short of that would be denying our call.
Sermon Suggestion
 A possible three-part sermon based on the three sections of this story might follow this way:
1. Bringing good news to the poor
Who are the poor? What does it mean to “bring” good news to them? Note that the kjv translated this as “preach” good news to the poor, which emphasized the word and not the deed of evangelism. 
Give some of the background on the Jubilee message of Isaiah and how Jesus appropriates it in his reading. Jesus was called, ordained to this task. What does that mean to we who are followers?
2. This is fulfilled in your hearing
This grand vision can only be fulfilled (pepērōtai, to complete, to consummate) when those who have ears to hear actually hear the Word and act on it. Ask yourself, what does it mean to have this message come to pass eschatologically when your ears are able to hear it. It is a magisterial vision, and (nearly) impossible without God’s help. Jesus is saying that we must hear it, and own it, and want it. A.T. Robertson says of this verse, “It was a most amazing statement and the people of Nazareth were quick to see the Messianic claim involved. Jesus could only mean that the real year of Jubilee had come, that the Messianic prophecy of Isaiah had come true today, and that in him they saw the Messiah of prophecy.”[4]
3. Jesus’ sermon on this text (Luke 4:21-30)
Finally Jesus preaches on the text. His sermon is essentially two stories taken from very familiar and recognizable passages in their own Hebrew scriptures. However, what made them important (and troubling) to the listeners was that in both, the heroes and people to whom God showed favor were foreigners. The simple, but powerful, message is that God comes to people outside of our protected circles. God’s Jubilee is not just a sweet spiritual gift for those inside the white churches on the hill. The gift of God’s love comes not only to us but also to people outside of our race, class, gender, country and beliefs. God loves the child who is denied an education in Ghana because the IMF requires the country to impose “user fees” on education in order to raise money to pay on their thirty-year-old debts. God loves the elderly person in Kenya who can no longer attend the local clinic because it was closed in order to save money to apply to their external debts.[5]
The people in Jesus’ church heard this message and were enraged. The message of God’s love for the stranger was so heretical that they literally tried to kill their hometown boy who had the gall to come back and preach it to them. They took him to a high hill outside of town (a subtle reference to a later crucifixion?) and attempted to throw him off, but miraculously, “he passed through the midst of them, and went on his way” (Luke 4:30).
What does this story say about us? How high is our “fear factor” for learning the truth about God’s love. Do we too want to hoard it, or are we capable of saying the whole human family is my neighbor and when one hurts we all hurt?

[1] Walter E. Pilgrim, Good News to the Poor: Wealth and Poverty in Luke-Acts (Minneapolis: Augsberg, 1981), p. 182.
[2] It was common for rabbis to embellish a reading with compatible quotes from other sources. (Go ahead and admit it: you’ve done it yourself.) And the messages of both were similar. In Isaiah 58, the prophet asks rhetorically why it is that they fast and do other acts of worship yet Yahweh does not seem to hear their cries. God responds by giving  a list of the kinds of fasting and worship that God would listen to, and they are classic Jubilee acts: “loose the bonds of injustice, undo the thongs of the yoke, let the oppressed go free (the phrase pasted into the Lucan text), break every yoke…share your bread with the hungry, bring the homeless poor into your house.”
[3] Pilgrim, Ibid., p. 67.
[4] A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures In The New Testament, Vol. 2: The Gospel According to Luke (New York: Richard R. Smith, 1930).

[5] “The World Bank and User Fees,”  RESULTS, “Elimination of User Fees brings big increase in clinic utilization rates in Uganda,” Rick Rowden, RESULTS, n.d., 


Exegesis and translation notes for Luke 4:14-21 and 21-30
Third Sunday:
  • Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
  • 1 Corinthians 12:12-31
  • Luke 4:14-21

Fourth Sunday:
  • Jeremiah 1:4-10
  • 1 Corinthians 13:1-13
  • Luke 4:21-30

The Beginning of the Galilean Ministry

[I have combined here the notes from the third and fourth Sundays of Epiphany because they both deal with the same text and should be read together. ]

Then Jesus, filled with the power[1] of the Spirit,[2] returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15 He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.

The Rejection of Jesus at Nazareth[3]

 16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up,[4] he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom.[4] He stood up to read,[6]  17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him.[7] He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18    “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,[8]
            because he has anointed me[9] to bring good news to the poor.[10]
       He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind,[11]
            to let the oppressed[12] go free,[13]
19   to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[14]
20 And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down.[15] The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Luke 4:21-30

21Then he began to say[16] to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled[17] in your hearing.”[18]
22All spoke well of him and were amazed[19] at the gracious words[20] that came from his mouth. They said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?”[21]
23He said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb,[22] ‘Doctor, cure yourself!’ And you will say, ‘Do here also in your hometown the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.’” 24And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted[23] in the prophet’s hometown.
25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon.
27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.”
28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage.[24] 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

[1] Power, dunamis; from “force” (lit. or fig.); spec. miraculous power, ability, abundance, meaning, might (-ily, -y, -y deed), (worker of) miracle (-s), power, strength, violence, mighty (wonderful) work.
[2] the power of the Spirit (en teôi dunamei tou pneumatos) It’s very common for Luke to use the sense that one is infused, or driven by the Spirit.
[3] The people would have known that Jesus was devout and skilled in Hebrew from his previous readings in his hometown synagogue. One customarily sat while expounding Scripture (Mt 5:1) but stood while reading it. Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993).
[4] Jesus had worked in the carpenter shop in Nazareth, a city of Galilee. It likely had a population of 20,000 people. (New Commentary on the Whole Bible, Philip W. Comfort, Editor.)
[5] Synagogue, the most influential institution in Nazareth. The synagogue had a religious, educational, and a judicial function. In the meetings, there was a fixed reading from the law (called Shema—Deut. 6:4-9), followed by a free reading from the prophets (called Haphtorah), a translation of this into the vernacular and a running commentary, a sermon, the offering of prayers, and blessing. (New Commentary on the Whole Bible, Philip W. Comfort, Editor.)
[6] Stood up (anesteô). It was the custom for the reader to stand except when the Book of Esther was read at the feast of Purim when he might sit. It is not here stated that Jesus had been in the habit of standing up to read here or elsewhere. See v. 20, when he sits down to teach.
[7] At the proper stage of the service “the attendant” or “minister” (hupeôreteôs, under rower) or “beadle” took out a roll of the law from the ark, unwrapped it, and gave it to some one to read. On sabbath days some seven persons were asked to read small portions of the law. This was the first lesson or Parashah. This was followed by a reading from the prophets and a discourse, the second lesson or Haphtarah. This last is what Jesus did.
[8] See the references to “Spirit” below. A major theme in the Gospel of Luke. For Luke, the Spirit’s presence upon Jesus was the fulfillment of prophecy. (New Bible Companion, Robert B. Hughes and J. Carl Laney (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers)).
[9] “Anointed me.” echrisen me. First aorist active indicative of the verb chrio⌠ from which Christ Christos is derived, the Anointed One. Isaiah is picturing the Jubilee year and the release of captives and the return from the Babylonian exile with the hope of the Messiah through it all. Jesus here applies this Messianic language to himself. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me” as was shown at the baptism (Luke 3:21) where he was also “anointed” for his mission by God’s voice (3:22).
[10] See references below to “poor.”
[11] From Isa. 61:1-2.
[12] “Oppressed.” tethrausmenous. kjv has, “Them that are bruised.” From suntribo, “to crush completely.”  Perfect passive participle of thrauô. Here only in the N.T. It means to break in pieces. "The same Hebrew word is used in Isaiah 42:3: “a crushed reed shall he not break,” which the Septuagint translates by τεθλασμένον, a word which does not occur in the New Testament. In the citation of this latter passage (Matthew 12:20, on which see) the word for bruised is συντρίβω, which the Septuagint uses for break." (Marvin R. Vincent, Vincent’s Word Studies (1886].) 
[13] “Let the oppressed go free.” From Isa. 58:6. rsv has “to set at liberty those who are oppressed.”
[14] “The year of the Lord’s favor.” eniauton Kuriou dekton. From Lev. 25:8-12 See Jubilee Year, below. rsv has “acceptable year of the Lord.”
[15] Sat down (ekathisen). Took his seat there as a sign that he was going to speak instead of going back to his former seat. This was the usual Jewish attitude for public speaking and teaching (Luke 5:3; Matthew 5:1; Mark 4:1; Acts 16:13).
[16] “And he began to say” (ērxato de legein). Aorist ingressive active indicative and present infinitive. “He began speaking.”
[17] “Has been fulfilled” (peplērōtai). Perfect passive indicative, “stands fulfilled.” “Today this scripture (Isaiah 61:1, 2, just read) stands fulfilled in your ears.”
“It was a most amazing statement and the people of Nazareth were quick to see the Messianic claim involved. Jesus could only mean that the real year of Jubilee had come, that the Messianic prophecy of Isaiah had come true today, and that in him they saw the Messiah of prophecy” (Robertson’s Word Pictures).
[18] “In your ears” (ν τος σν μν). This scripture has been fulfilled, “in your ears. That is, “by the fact that the voice of Him of whom the prophet prophesied has entered into your ears” (italics added). Critical and exegetical Commentary On The New Testament Handbook, Heinrich August Wilhelm Meyer, Th.d. (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1880).
[19] “Were amazed” (kai ethaumazon) imperfect active. also, perhaps inchoative also. to wonder, wonder at; marvel; to be wondered at, to be had in admiration. They began to marvel as he proceeded with his address. This verb is an old one and common in the Gospels for the attitude of the people towards Jesus.
[20] “Gracious [words]” (χάρις , charis). Most often translated “Grace,” also “favor,” “thanks,” “pleasure.” Charis is in the genitive case, here meaning the words of Jesus. The meaning is more like “words of Grace,” than “gracious words.” The latter has more of the connotation of “graciousness,” or “charm,” which may have been true, but was not Luke’s point. According to pastor and greek scholar, Rob Myallis, literal translation would be "The words of grace walking out of his mouth,” which he refersto as “A bus station of grace!” (
[21] “Is not this Joseph’s son?” (Ouchi huios estin Iōsēph houtos̱). The use of ouchi intensive form of ouk in a question expects the answer “yes.” “This popular conception of Jesus as the son of Joseph appears also in John 1:45. The puzzle of the people was due to their previous knowledge of Jesus as the carpenter (Mark 6:3; the carpenter’s son, Matthew 13:55). For him now to appear as the Messiah in Nazareth where he had lived and labored as the carpenter was a phenomenon impossible to credit on sober reflection. So the mood of wonder and praise quickly turned with whispers and nods and even scowls to doubt and hostility, a rapid and radical transformation of emotion in the audience” (from Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament).
[22] “This proverb.” Note that it is Luke the physician alone who gives this saying of Jesus. The word parabolē in the N.T. is confined to the Synoptic Gospels except Hebrews 9:9; 11:19. Luke uses this word both in its more common sense a comparison story (8:4; 12:16; 15:3; 18:1, 9; 19:11; 20:9), or as in this case as a proverb (5:36; 6:39; 21:29). (Robertson.)
[23] “The irony is that the word “acceptable” (dektos) here is the same word found in verse 19, in which Isaiah 61:2 is quoted. The prophet who is to announce the “acceptable” year of the Lord is himself not “acceptable” to his own people (cf. John 1:10–11).” Craig A. Evans, in Roger Van Harn, ed., The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday's Texts, Volume Three (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001), pp. 325.
[24] “Rage” (θυμοῦ, thymos). n.m.  A state of intense anger, with the implication of passionate outbursts—‘anger, fury, wrath, rage.’ ἐπλήσθησαν πάντες θυμοῦ ἐν τῇ συναγωγῇ ἀκούοντες ταῦτα ‘all the people in the synagogue were filled with anger when they heard this’ Lk 4:28. C.f. Mark 6:3, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.” Johannes P. Louw and Eugene Albert Nida, vol. 1, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains, electronic ed. of the 2nd edition. (New York: United Bible Societies, 1996), p. 761.