Text Study for Luke 4:14-21 (Part One)

3 Epiphany C 2021

Friends, there is still time for you to be part of my online Bible study of Paul’s Letter to Philemon. The first session takes place from seven to eight p.m. Central Standard Time tonight and continues for another five weeks after that. If you are interested, send me a message and I’ll make sure you get a Zoom invitation. Looking forward to it!

The first thing to note is that the Revised Common Lectionary divides one scene into two texts, spread out over two weeks. Given the attendance habits of most mainline Christians in the United States, this schedule is problematic on its face, since it is likely that at least some of the listeners will hear only the first part or the second part and not both. So, a challenge to the preacher is to discern how much of each half to include or assume in the message. I have no wisdom in that regard, having wrestled with the question and failed in the execution at least a dozen times in my parish ministry.

Photo by Artem Beliaikin on Pexels.com

At the very least, this week we need to remind our folks that no matter how much we might like the pretty words in the first half of the scene, things are not going to turn out well by the end. That result is going to present all sorts of anti-Jewish landmines for the preacher next week. We’ll attend to some of those issues as we go along in our study together.

First, however, let’s attend to the context of this scene. We have come from the Baptism of Jesus, two weeks ago, through the Genealogy (which is important but never read in worship) and the Testing in the Wilderness (which will show up on the first Sunday in Lent). It should be clear that the stretch beginning with the Baptism pushes us to meditate on what it means for Jesus to be “the Son of God.” That’s the declaration at the baptism. That’s the punchline of the Genealogy. And that’s the point of contention in the testing: “If you are the Son of God…” I wonder if the Nazareth scene has a “Son of Nazareth or Son of God” undercurrent. More on that perhaps later.

We get a textually brief interlude in Luke 4:14-15, but I think we should assume that some time transpired. Enough time must have passed for Jesus to do some big stuff and for the word to get around. In addition, we get the word that Jesus himself taught in their synagogues, being “glorified” by all.

Just a note on that translation – being “glorified.” The NRSV reads that Jesus “was praised by everyone.” I’m sure that’s an accurate rendering. However, I think it misses a connection the Lukan author wants to make verbally. The word for glory in Greek, “doxa,” shows up with regularity in the Lukan account. People in this account regularly “glorify” God. The angels sing, “Glory to God in the highest” in Luke 2:14. The shepherds go home from meeting the baby, “glorifying” God on the way. They are also “praising” God, but that’s a different verb.

I think it’s a good translation principle to follow the verbal tactics of the document you’re translating. If the Lukan author uses the same word, we should do so in our translation. It’s not just about the isolated word. It’s about the rhetoric the author is developing and deploying. Unlike the writer of John’s gospel, the Lukan author doesn’t have a poem or discourse that simply says Jesus in God in the flesh. However, in repeated ways, the Lukan author shows us this reality. Jesus is “glorified by all” just as God is glorified by all.

The Lukan author has an additional verbal parallel to the experience of the shepherds in the verb for “returned.” It’s a relatively common verb, but the parallelism is interesting. The shepherds have, against all sociological odds, witnessed the newborn Messiah. They return with words of glory and praise based upon all they have seen and heard. Jesus returns in the power of the Spirit to Galilee after his successful testing. In response to what people hear in his teaching in “their” synagogues, everyone glorifies Jesus. I emphasize this, in part, because I think the Lukan author is creating a strong contrast with the response that Jesus will eventually get from the home folks in Nazareth. “Glorification” is not the end result of that encounter.

This a small bite of the text and barely gets us into the reading, but these editorial transitions in the Lukan account deserve some close scrutiny. In between the stretches of narrative, we can perhaps hear the voice of the Lukan narrator making some points with the assumed audience for the account. And as another audience, we can ask ourselves how we are doing on the points being made. When I hear Jesus’ teaching and witness his actions, how do I respond? Does “glorification” of Jesus describe my reaction to the Lukan account?

No, it doesn’t – at least not without some tutoring from the text. The Lukan account continues the process of spreading the report about Jesus by reporting to me and all my colleague listeners. This challenges me as a preacher. Do I share the message in such a way that it leaves people talking about it all week at work, before class, in the coffee shop, at the dinner table, over a beer? I haven’t hit that mark very often in forty years. Do I hear the message in such a way that I just have to tell somebody, or I’ll burst? Once in a while, but mostly I’m immunized against such impacts.

I don’t think it’s helpful to say something like, “You should be more excited!” Nobody gets “should-ed” into enthusiasm about anything. But it might be helpful for a preacher to note that for at least some people at some point, this was pretty riveting stuff. And we might be led to wonder just what it was that they found so newsworthy.

When something appears to grab another person’s attention, we can’t help but wonder what’s so interesting. We’ve all done some version of the social psychology experiment where we just stand in place looking up intently at something. It takes only minutes for other people to stand next to us and begin looking up in order to discern what’s so compelling. Someone will certainly ask, “What are you looking at?” It only heightens the curiosity when we don’t answer.

If we can generate that sort of interest by looking intently at nothing, what might happen it people saw us looking intently – excitedly – at something?

Another note from this text reminds us that Jesus engaged in regular synagogue attendance. When he returned to Nazareth, where he had been raised, “he entered, according to his ‘eiothos’ on the Sabbath, into the synagogue, and he stood up to read” (Luke 4:16, my translation and emphasis). The word often translated as custom really means something like “habitual practice” or “customary behavior.” This was not a strategic policy or tactical move. Regular synagogue worship was part of who Jesus was.

Regular Christian worship has been a challenging practical conundrum for many of us over the last two years. I am grateful for the herculean efforts many congregations have offered in order to make worship services available online in a variety of formats. This has been exhausting and frustrating for worship leaders and preachers. And it has led some of us to get out of the habit of regular, weekly worship.

I have been able to re-engage, in a limited fashion, in weekly, in-person worship (although Covid variants continue to make that a complicated process). I’m not one of those preachers who came into the pastor biz because I’m so in love with worship services. I’m not. I’ve often joked that the Holy Spirit called me into ordained ministry because paying me to show up was the only way to get me in worship on a regular basis.

But I have experienced, as I have at other times in life, how much my Christian habits slip and slide without the anchor of regular worship attendance. For me, it’s not so much the instruction or the study or the proclamation or the sacraments. I have no trouble engaging at a deep level with the Word on my own. But that’s not enough. In fact, being a sort of Robinson Crusoe Christian is bad for my faith practices, no matter how much my introverted psyche likes the solitude.

Again, I don’t think anyone can be “should-ed” into a joyful and nurturing discipline of regular weekly worship. But it can’t hurt to point out that Jesus found that weekly sustenance important for his spiritual grounding. And that was the place where he could engage God’s people in the vital dialogue that makes faith matter.

Perhaps this regular practice became more important to Jesus during a time of testing in the wilderness. He was on his own with the devil, and it was quite a tussle. When he came back to the world, it may be that synagogue worship and the community of the faithful felt fresh, new, and invigorating in ways that they hadn’t for a while.

That’s part of my experience in returning to in-person worship. What has changed is not so much the worship as me. I wonder if that’s the case for others as well.

Next time, we’ll look at the text for Jesus’ Nazareth sermon.


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