Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at

Luke 4.14-21
3rd Sunday after the Epiphany - Year C

Other texts:


Our text should not be read or studied apart from next week's text, 4:21-30. They are all part of one scene in Luke. Our text has Jesus' reading and preaching. Next week's lesson has the people's responses.

Walter Pilgrim (Good News to the Poor: Wealth and Poverty in Luke-Acts) states about Luke 4:16-30:

No text is more important for understanding Luke's two volumes than this one. Recent scholarship is in general agreement that here we find the programmatic text for the Lukan writings. These verses introduce four major emphases:

A little later Pilgrim comments:

Our primary interest lies with the first half of this text, vv. 16-21. Many commentators have all too quickly overlooked this section, a fact already indicated by the common heading given to both halves, "Jesus' rejection at Nazareth." A more appropriate title would be, "Jesus' announcement of the Salvation-Time." [p. 65]


In sum, we want to grasp as concretely as possible the way in which Luke interprets the announcement of salvation on the basis of Isaiah. Perhaps the crux of our question can be stated this way: Is the ministry of Jesus depicted by Luke as the fulfillment of Isaiah meant to be understood metaphorically or spiritually, or as literally as possible? Or another way of asking it: Who precisely are the poor, captive, blind and oppressed to whom the good news is preached and for whom the acceptable year of the Lord has arrived? Most interpreters in the past have tried to spiritualize this text or have ignored its plain meaning. Perhaps another reading is necessary in light of Luke's gospel as a whole and especially in view of his undeniable concern for the poor and the oppressed. [p. 66]

As exegetes we need to explore the way(s) Luke understands the poor, captive, blind and oppressed. As preachers, we also need to discern who those people are today for our hearers and what it means to proclaim good news and release and new sight and freedom and the year of the Lord's favor to such people.

Good news is only good news when it meets the needs of the people. As Edward Markquart states in the course Witnesses for Christ:

God's story is always related to human need. For example, if a woman is dying of cancer, the gospel is God's strong word of resurrection. If a person is permeated with guilt, the gospel is God's assurance of forgiveness. If people experience extreme suffering, the gospel is the prayer: "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in time of trouble." For the starving, the gospel may be bread. For a homeless refugee, the gospel may be freedom in a new homeland. For others, the gospel may be freedom from political tyranny. The gospel is always related to human need. It is never truth in a vacuum, a theologically true statement which may or may not relate to one's life. The gospel is God's truth, God's message, God's action, God's word to a particular person, to a particular need, to a particular historical situation. You don't throw a drowning person sandwich. However good the sandwich may be, it just doesn't meet that person's need. You throw a drowning person a life jacket or a lifeline, or you dive in for the rescue. So it is with the gospel. The gospel is God's truth, God's action, aimed at a particular human need. [p. 69, student book, emphases added]


We are told at the beginning of our text that "Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee." This Spirit-filled power came after the Spirit led him into the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil for 40 days (Lk 4:1-2). Might this suggest that spiritual power comes from battling temptation?

We are told in only the briefest generalities what Jesus had been doing in Galilee "in the power of the Spirit" before coming to Nazareth.


In these verses we are given the content of Jesus' teaching in at least one synagogue.

While the other synoptics indicate that Jesus taught in the synagogue in his hometown (Mk 6:1ff.; Mt 13:54ff.), that event comes later in their narratives and we are not told about the content of Jesus' teaching -- just the people's negative reaction.

As I quoted above, Luke places this event at the beginning of Jesus' public ministry and it serves as a "mission statement" of that ministry.


Jesus mostly quotes from Isaiah 61:1-2a with a bit of Isaiah 58:6 thrown in. I present a comparison of Luke and the LXX version of the Isaiah texts.


The Spirit of the Lord [is] upon me 
because he anointed me 
to preach good news to the poor
he has sent me
to proclaim release to captives
and recovery of sight to blind 

 Isaiah 61:1

The Spirit of the Lord [is] upon me
because he anointed me
to preach good news to the poor
he has sent me
to heal those who are broken in the heart
to proclaim release to captives
and recover of sight to blind


to send away 
those having been oppressed
in release (or forgiveness) 

Isaiah 58:6d

to send away send away
those having been oppressed those having been oppressed
in release (or forgiveness) in release (or forgiveness)


to proclaim 
the acceptable year 
of the Lord 

Isaiah 61:2a

to proclaim to call
the acceptable year the acceptable year
of the Lord of the Lord

Note the repetition of words in this short section:

I note that there is a pattern of "sending" "proclaiming" "sending" "proclaiming" with the verbs. These two words (apostello and kerysso) are used of the disciples in Luke 9:2. The 70 are sent in 10:13. Luke ends with the pre-ascended Jesus telling the disciples "that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed (kerusso) in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem" (24:47). The book relates the disciples being sent out from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, proclaiming the gospel. In contrast, it seems to me that many believers are more concerned about gathering and hearing than being sent and proclaiming.

Re: aphesis -- Luke uses this word five times. Three of those it part of the phrase "forgiveness of sins" (1:77; 3:3; 24:47). The other two times are in the above quote. The quote suggests that for Luke, forgiveness is more than just saying "sins are forgiven". It includes releasing or freeing people from whatever has captured them, or has oppressed them. This would seem to include those in prison, those in bondage to addictions, those oppressed by abusive situations. How do we, as the people who carry on Jesus' ministry in the world, bring release and freedom to people in such situations? Should our congregations be supporting drug treatment centers, safe-houses, half-way houses, etc.? Should we make special efforts to invite such people to our worship services?

Is the "acceptable year of the Lord" a reference to the jubilee year in Leviticus 25? I'm not sure that Luke intends this connection. This word for "year" (eniautos) occurs frequently in the LXX of Leviticus, but another Gk word for "year" (etos) occurs even more often in chapter 25.

I'm inclined to think that an understanding of the Jubilee year is not necessary for understanding Jesus' mission from this quote.

While these two Greek words can mean a calendar year, which I think they mean in Lv 25; I don't believe that that is the intended meaning in this quote from Isaiah. I don't believe that Jesus is limiting his ministry and the "acceptable year" to a 12 month period.

eniautos can refer to a more general period of time -- a indefinite period of time. With this definition it might be translated "age" (although probably a shorter period than aion), "era," or "time." Jesus is ushering a new era that has a limited time-span -- not as long as aion = "age," "eternity". This "era" may be the short period of time of Jesus' earthly ministry, but more likely, it is the period of time that begins with Jesus' ministry and extends until Jesus' return. There is a point when this "acceptable era" is replaced by something else.

The word for "acceptable" (dektos), as far as I can tell, never occurs in the LXX in reference to the Jubilee. It is usually related to sacrifices that may be acceptable to God or not.

This word occurs only twice in Luke. Its other occurrence is at 4:24 when Jesus declares that a prophet is not acceptable in the prophet's hometown. We have the irony in this chapter of God accepting a new era (or a new era of God's acceptance of the people?) and the people unwilling to accept Jesus.

dektos is a noun related to dechomai which is frequently translated "welcome" or "receive" (9:5, 48; 10:8, 10; 18:17). Can we call this new era a time of God's welcome

However, Pilgrim notes that the word for "release" (aphesis used twice in v. 18) is used as a technical term for the Year of Jubilee ("Year of Release" Lev. 25-27) or for the Sabbath Year (Dt 15:1; Ex 23:11), so that it has the social and economic meaning of release of debts. In Luke/Acts, apart from the Isaiah quote, it is usually translated "forgiveness."

Pilgrim concludes:

Therefore, in both the ministry of Jesus and in the apostolic preaching, the word "release" is used specifically for the bondage of sin and evil which is removed through the forgiving power of Jesus. Still, its presence in the Old Testament quote from Isaiah may suggest that it retains something of its connection with the Jubilee hope of social and economic release. [p. 68]


Since "captive" and "oppressed" only occur in this passage in the NT, we can't do much of a word study on the terms to see what Luke may have meant by them -- whether literal or figurative meanings.

Luke uses "blind" in a figurative sense in 6:39 -- "blind leading the blind," but every other time it has a literal meaning (7:21, 22; 14:13, 21; 18:35).

Luke always uses "poor" in a literal sense (6:20, 7:22; 14:13, 21; 16:20, 22; 18:22; 19:8; 21:3).

The places where both "poor" and "blind" occur are in 14:13 & 21. In both of these instances, the poor and blind along with others are invited to a great dinner. Here the blind don't see again, the lame don't walk again, the poor don't become rich; but they are given the status of being guests in the kingdom of God. Perhaps the basic content of the good news is that such people are important to God -- (and if they are important to God, they should be important to us who are God's children).


The infilling of the Holy Spirit resulted in concrete acts of what we have called "social ministry." What if we used this passage as criteria for determining "Spirit-filled"? Being "spiritual" does not mean escaping the world, but a radical engagement with the poor and oppressed of the world.


Does Luke intend a literal meaning of these words? Green (The Gospel of Luke, NICNT) writes

Who are the poor? Numerous attempts have been made to find here a referent to the "spiritually poor" or, more recently, reflecting the concerns of a materialist-oriented interpretative method, to the economically poor. Both of these definitions of the "poor" are inadequately grounded in ancient Mediterranean culture and the social world of Luke-Acts. In that culture, one's status in a community was not so much a function of economic realities, but depended on a number of elements, including education, gender, family heritage, religious purity, vocation, economics, and so on. Thus, lack of subsistence might account for one's designation as "poor," but so might other disadvantaged conditions, and "poor" would serve as a cipher for those of low status, for those excluded according to normal canons of status honor in Mediterranean world. Hence, although "poor" is hardly devoid of economic significance, for Luke this wider meaning of diminished status honor is paramount.

It is thus evident that Jesus' mission is directed to the poor -- defined not merely in subjective, spiritual or personal, economic terms, but in the holistic sense of those who are for any of a number of socio-religious reasons relegated to positions outside the boundaries of God's people. By directing his good news to these people, Jesus indicates his refusal to recognize those socially determined boundaries, asserting instead that even these "outsiders" are the objects of divine grace. Others may regard such people as beyond the pale of salvation, but God has opened a way for them to belong to God's family. [pp. 210-211]

As I was typing the above paragraphs, the thought occurs to me that we use the words, "a poor excuse for a human being," as a phrase that designates somebody as being beyond some boundaries of socially proper or acceptable behaviors -- and the phrase has nothing to do with one's economic status. It is to such "poor" people that Jesus directs the good news.


John Stendahl in an article in Christian Century (January 7-14, 1998, p. 13) presents this analogy:

When the Emancipation Proclamation was issued in the midst of the Civil War, the slaves who lived within the realm of the Confederacy remained in bondage. Many did not know about the proclamation when it went into effect. Its authority was denied and nullified by local and regional power. Yet Lincoln, in both his words and his claim to authority over the whole of the split and rebellious Union, contended that the proclamation was nonetheless true and real. And so this flawed and partial emancipation became the herald of a fuller freedom, a fulfillment yet unreached.


The following comments about the word "today" come from a past sermon.

Jesus' quote from Isaiah contains the same kind of good news and bad news for us. He is talking about social and economic justice for the poor and oppressed. The good news: You can start now. You can start today. The bad news: You'll never finish. A commitment to justice for all people -- in fact, for all of creation -- is a never-ending struggle.

Today is an important word for Luke. It occurs 12 times in Luke and only 9 times in the other three gospels combined. It occurs in such familiar passages as: "Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you." "Today you will be with me in paradise." And twice in the Zacchaeus story: "Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay in your house today." And, "Today, salvation has come to this house." And in our text: "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing."

For Luke today is a moment of radical change.

The shepherds come and see the savior born in Bethlehem. They return rejoicing and praising God. They had been changed.

After Jesus' visit with Zacchaeus, he is changed. He says: "Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount."

We can suppose that the eternal life of the thief on the cross was radically changed by Jesus' words. He is promised eternity in paradise.

In our Gospel Lesson, there is a change in the people who heard Jesus. At first they are proud of their hometown boy. They boast to one another about knowing his parents. But the more Jesus talked about God's grace -- even for non-Jews, another reaction came forth from the people. Luke tells us, "All the people in the synagogue were filled with rage." They try to kill Jesus by throwing him over a cliff.

Today is a time of change brought about through an encounter with Jesus. The change may involve attitude -- rejoicing and praising God; or, wanting to kill Jesus. The change may involve financial priorities -- giving rather than getting. The change may involve finding comfort and hope in the midst of despair and death.

However, we often avoid the changes of today. Some try to continue to live the past. "Remember the good, old days." They may remember all the good times way back when. They may remember and talk about all the things they used to do. What are they doing to make today just as glorious?

Or they may look back at the rotten past and blame all their troubles on their hated history. What are they doing today to change that past?

History is important. We constantly need to look back and learn from our mistakes and successes. But we can't live in the past. We live today. It has been suggested that the greatest threats to congregations today are past successes that no longer work well in the present. (We tend to drop past failures, but what worked for us back then, we may hold onto past their usefulness.

At the same time, I heard a speaker state that congregations that forget their past and traditions are like people with amnesia or Alzheimer -- they don't know who they are.

On the other hand, we can also avoid changes of today by dreaming of the ideal tomorrow. Someday the prisons will be empty. Someday the oppressed will be set free. Someday poverty will be ended. Someday all people will have heard the gospel. God will do all that someday -- so we don't have to do anything today to help the oppressed out of their plights.

Someday I'll loose weight. Someday I'll quit smoking. Someday I'll start exercising. Someday I'll take a college course. And we do nothing today to help make that future come true.

For Jesus' listeners, and for us, the word today is terrifying. On one hand, Jesus is not who they expected. "Isn't this Joseph's son?" they ask. If today is the day of God's great salvation, what's this Jesus doing here telling it to us? If today is the great day, where are all the miracles? If today is such an extraordinary day, why don't I see some extraordinary things happening? Jesus, the boy raised in that town by Mary and Joseph, simply spoke to the people. No flashing lights. No voices from heaven. Jesus saying a few words in the synagogue. "Immanuel" -- God with us -- is Jesus coming in a few words.

Yesterday can look glorious. Tomorrow can look so glamorous. But today is so ordinary. So many of us get into a routine, a rut. Today is just another day. Was Jesus just another home-town boy? Were his words just another teacher's words? The great, saving event of God comes in common, ordinary ways. Sometimes we may even miss them. Today is an extraordinary day -- God is with you today.

Today is a terrifying word because it calls you to action now. "I don't know what to do?" You might complain. "I don't want to make a decision now," you rationalize. The call of today shakes you out of your complacency. Just as "the Spirit of the Lord" was upon Jesus, so that same Spirit is upon each of you. You will make some wrong decisions, God promises to forgive those -- and who knows how the Spirit will use your mistakes! You will make some right decisions and you know that the Spirit will use those. You will become a better person, a better believer, and this world will be a better place for some people.

We are to be radical community on earth. We are called and empowered to work for the release of people who are bound -- the rehabilitation of prisoners, the freeing of people wrapped in their shells of self-doubt and self-pity.

We are called and empowered to work on behalf of the poor and oppressed. How can we help the poor in our county? How can we help the elderly? How can we help single parents? What about the oppressed around the world? Those in Central America? Those in Namibia? Those in the new nations that used to be part of the Soviet Union?

"Those are idealistic and impossible dreams," you can say. I would agree with you. But that is why that word today becomes so frightening. Jesus is saying that the impossible is happening today. The good news is: You can start now. You can be part of those miracles today. The bad news is: You'll never finish. If you answer the call to start -- it is a lifetime commitment. There will be great, wonderful moments along the way, but there will always be more that needs to be done.

Brian Stoffregen
Faith Lutheran Church, 1000 D St., Marysville, CA 95901