The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, Solemn Mass, by the Reverend Dr. Peter R. Powell

Luke 4:21-32

Jesus as Elijah

We continue in the Gospel this morning the reading from last week. Jesus is in the synagogue in Nazareth, his home town, and last week he read from Isaiah 61, then this morning he tells them what the reading means. 

Today’s Gospel begins with the response to Jesus’s teaching.  It seems to me that in the response to Jesus’s preaching the congregation reacts that he sounds nice and isn’t it wonderful that Joseph’s little boy can sound so good.  Then they immediately turn on him and say we’ve heard you can do healing acts, let’s see some!  Jesus responds by talking about Elijah’s healing of gentiles and however or whatever he says, he so offends the Nazarenes that they threaten him to toss him off a cliff.

For at least the last 50 years most scholars have concluded that Luke is setting us up to see that God’s chosen people, the Jews, have rejected his Son as Messiah[1].  For scholars throughout this time the only sense to be made of the rejection of Jesus, even in Nazareth, is pointing to the replacement of Judaism by Christianity.  There are some serious problems with this understanding and therefore various scholars have reached the same conclusion from different and in some cases contradictory ways.  I won’t further belabor this point.

So, it should be no surprise that I am not following the scholarly consensus on what today’s Gospel and last week’s as its introduction, mean.  There are things we are convinced we know about the bible that just aren’t true.  For instance if you’ve thought at all about who in the Gospels represents Elijah, and I understand this is not a live or burning question for most of us, you would say that John the Baptist functions in this role.  However there is very little support in the Gospels for seeing John the Baptist as the Elijah figure.  I am persuaded, following at least one scholar[2] that the figure spoken about in the Isaiah 61 passage we read last week, is Elijah and Jesus is comparing himself to Elijah and the good citizens of Nazareth as the people who confronted Elijah.  The argument proving this would delay us this morning so I’ll save it for coffee hour.  I invite you instead to accept that this reading has many advantages not least that it doesn’t portray Christianity as the replacement of Judaism.

Just to catch you up quickly, being compared with the Israelites in the time of Elijah is not a flattering thing.  No one would be flattered to be one of those who rejected Elijah and his message of justice, since by the time of Jesus, Elijah was a revered prophet of ancient and blessed memory.  Jesus is saying that the way you’re treating me is the same as the way Elijah was treated and this won’t work out well for you.

The advantage to me in viewing the text this way is that it speaks to our condition today.  We treat any thought that Jesus might be creative and acting in our world today as a fairy tale and spend our efforts trying to box the gospel in by observing scrupulously the ordinances we often read into it.  We as an American society, believe firmly that believing ought to give us a tangible benefit.  Witness the success of the Prosperity Gospel.  Many believe that by worshiping in a certain way, mouthing certain words, and tithing to churches that spend lavishly on their clergy, parishioners will be blessed with wealth.  In other words saying pious things are more important than doing acts of kindness to, for instance, the poor and homeless.

Others of course believe that this is absurd.  They believe on the other hand that not only is there no prosperity Gospel there is no gospel hope at all.  If there were a God how would he permit so many really nice and ethical people to suffer?  As you’ve doubtless noticed this is a major theme of mine, the whole question of theodicy or why is there evil in the world.  I wrestle with this constantly.

So imagine we are transposed to Nazareth and we’re sitting in the congregation in the synagogue, or realize that this reading is for you and me today at St. Mary’s, or for those who will caucus on Monday night: Jesus reads to us that:

"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 favor."

I’ve listened carefully to the positions of all of the candidates, and I recognize that I’m treading on dangerous ground, and with the exception of one, no one is taking the verses Jesus’s quoted in Nazareth, seriously.  Most believe that since that one candidate is in his secular fashion listening to Isaiah 61, and by extension is Elijah, the implied “me” in the passage, he has no chance of being elected.

I hasten to add that I realize that this is a Presidential primary and election.  We are not electing a bishop or rector and it is unfair and unrealistic to expect the candidates to meet a Christian definition of ethics.  However, it also seems to me, as Christians, we should think about the gospel when we decide who to vote for.

We as the electorate have preferred to define Christianity by faith statements without content or change in behavior.  Or we have defined Christianity by our ability and commitment to be practical and realistic.  Unfortunately the Gospel is not realistic today, it was not realistic when Jesus preached from Isaiah 61, it was not realistic when Isaiah 61 was written, perhaps 500 or 600 years before Christ, and it was not realistic when Elijah prophesied 800 years before Christ.   We are called to live an unrealistic vision.  We are called to live as if it were realistic.  We are to make it real.  Our first concern is following the proclamation of Christ Jesus.  Whether the U.S. is called to do this is a different question and a political question.  The challenge for those who work to be faithful is to lead a gospel life in a challenging time when most see it as unrealistic.

This text is meant to show that Jesus, and Luke, was realistic about how costly the gospel is.  Jesus almost didn’t make it to the crucifixion.  He was almost eliminated in the 4th chapter.  He kept on preaching.  I can, and perhaps you can, see why we would rather read this chapter as showing the superiority of Christianity to Judaism because it removes the challenge.  However, if we see ourselves as sitting in Nazareth as those who were there, then the Gospel is not meant to feed our notions of success but instead to challenge our faithfulness to what is important to God.


[1] Recently this is the position of Jeffery S. Siker, “”First to the Gentiles”: A Literary Analysis of Luke 4:16-30.” Journal of Biblical Literature, 111/1 (1992) pp. 73-90.  See also Fitzmyer’s Anchor Bible commentary.

[2] John C. Poirier, “Jesus as Elijianic Figure in Luke 4:16-30.”  The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 71/2 (2009) pp. 349-363.