Jesus reads the lesson

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Yesterday I looked at public reading in Nehemiah 8. Today we’re jumping forward to the gospels, and Jesus being invited to read the lesson. At the beginning of his account of Jesus’ ministry, Luke chooses to emphasise and elaborate the story of Jesus preaching at Nazareth. The first part of the story (before it all turns a bit sour) goes like this.

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

Luke 4:16-21 NRSV

Getting on for five hundred years after Ezra’s proclamation of the law, the reading of the scriptures has become a regular feature of the sabbath gathering. Luke portrays Jesus as regularly going to worship on the sabbath, as an observant Jew. We have no clear idea what sort of building is being used as a synagogue, and archaeologists dispute what sort of building counts as one. But Jews gathered for prayer and study in some buildings, whether purpose built or multifunctional, and we may as well call them synagogues as anything else.

Possibly the oldest synagogue in Roman Palestine at Gamla.
Photo by Hanay under CC Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Licence

We don’t know many details of the actual prayers and praises which were used, but it seems probable that some blessings of God, some psalms, and scripture reading were the staple. Almost certainly there was a reading from Torah, and then perhaps, as in this story, from the prophets – nowadays this is the common pattern. People probably also recited the Shema: the portion of Deuteronomy which Jesus quotes as “the first commandment”, which begins “Hear, O Israel, The Lord your God, the Lord is one.” (Deut 6:4  The version in use in today’s synagogues is longer.)

Jesus, whose reputation has already begun to spread as a local boy who seems to have become a celebrity, is invited to read the second reading. His choice is constrained: they give him the scroll of Isaiah. (I imagine it’s quite likely they can’t afford a full set of scrolls, and only have some books.) It’s a reminder that they didn’t have bibles as we know them, only separate scrolls for different books.

Just as in the story of Ezra, reading seems to come in the context of public worship. There are appropriate ritual postures: Jesus stands up to read, and sits down to teach. When we read of Jesus sitting down in the gospels, it’s normally a sign he’s going to teach. It’s why professors in modern universities are still spoken of as having chairs in their subject, and why the principal place where a bishop teaches is called a cathedral: one Latin word for chair is “cathedra”. The reading of the scripture takes place in worship and is accompanied by interpretation or explanation.

Looking at Jesus’ reading and the sermon that follows, we can note a couple of features that will crop up again later. First, as Luke tells the story, Jesus is very selective in his reading. Just as we sometimes get readings that are only a selection from a longer story, chosen to make a point, so Jesus, in the only account we have of him reading in worship, selects a short passage from a longer text, and does so to make his point. He may go on to say some harsh words later, but in this programmatic vision statement, Jesus announces “the year of the Lord’s favour” and conspicuously leaves out the following verse, refusing also to announce “the day of vengeance of our God.”

When we have lectionary readings, they also are selected for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons is, inevitably, that selection is the first step in interpreting the text. In the sermon that Luke presents Jesus preaching immediately after this reading, he preaches a radical message of God choosing to show his favour to outsiders rather than insiders. The shorter reading helps this. No doubt, then as now, there were people grumbling about the reading being too short and selective.

The second point is that Jesus (here and elsewhere) begins a process of interpretation which gets taken up in the church. He interprets the text – part of his Jewish bible, later to become the Christian Old Testament – as being about him, and his mission. “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” This is a matter of some sensitivity. Historically, Christian use of Jewish scripture has often gone hand in hand with Christian abuse of Jewish people.

Christians and Jews today (and others) can share a great deal of scholarship about the historical context and meaning of the scriptures. But when it comes to reading them in worship and devotionally, our different practices and traditions lead us in some very different directions. One of the values of good interfaith dialogue is hearing how each other’s tradition interprets the text. Such conversations can be mutually enlightening.

On the one hand, it is important to listen to those differences, and learn from the different ways we each read what is largely a shared collection of common texts. On the other, it is equally true that Christians inherit a long tradition of reading all scripture in the light of Christ, beginning with Jesus using these scriptures to interpret his actions. That, however, is a matter for the kind of interpretations a preacher might engage with, and takes us a little beyond the needs of the reader.

3 thoughts on “Jesus reads the lesson

  1. Pingback: In the second century church – Liturgica

  2. Pingback: Reading the right books: the rule of faith – Liturgica

  3. Pingback: A gospel rich in stories: Luke – Liturgica

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