Tilting the Eyebrow

Dr Lukebanner3Adventures with Dr. Luke

Introduction “The Kairos Moment

“16And he came to Nazareth where he had been brought up and, as he was accustomed to do, he entered the synagogue on the day of the Sabbath and stood up to read. 17And a scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him, and having opened the scroll he found the place where it was written: 18“A Spirit of the Lord is upon me; hence he has anointed me to announce good tidings to the destitute, he has sent me out to proclaim release to captives and sight to the blind, to send the downtrodden forth in liberty, 19To proclaim the Lord’s acceptable year.” 20And, having closed the scroll and returning it to the attendant, he sat; and the eyes of everyone in the synagogue were gazing at him. 21And he began by saying to them, “Today, in your ears, this scripture has been fulfilled.”[1] Luke 4:16-21

The title of our series is Adventures with Dr. Luke – and if it has a sort of Indiana Jones theme to it that is not as far off as you might think for we are talking about matters which explore antiquity on THEIR terms not ours and we must get that through our heads from the very beginning. It does not matter YET how you wish to re-apply a parable or understanding of a Gospel narrative until you have immersed yourself as much as possible in the native Middle Eastern reality it took place in. Anything beyond that is fantasy at best, madness at the worst.

Here we sit roughly 2,000 years from the actual events and telling of the stories – which had a rich context which was understood – and we are largely in the dark. Like the fun scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark  where they realize the Nazi’s don’t have all the information about the height of the staff for the headpiece – Indy looks at Sallah (John Rhys-Davies) and they start laughing “They are digging in the WRONG place.”

The history of various methods of scriptural interpretation can often be summed up as people “digging in the wrong place” and what is the common error?  Trying to be more spiritual or intellectual than God – making things way too complicated and getting away from the earthy, native, historical way in which these actions of Jesus were carefully recorded by Dr. Luke and how the parables are entrenched in a Middle Eastern understanding and world View- an organic peasant communal  view.

So here we are separated by three simple but profound things: Time, language, and cultural understanding. In order to better understand and explore the texts we will have to be willing to gather tools like any good archaeologist to bridge this gap as much as possible.

But there is one last obstacle: ourselves.  Soren Kierkegaard said:

“The bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand, we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world? Herein lies the real place of Christian scholarship. Christian scholarship is the Church’s prodigious invention to defend itself against the Bible, to ensure that we can continue to be good Christians without the Bible coming too close. Oh, priceless scholarship, what would we do without you? Dreadful it is to fall into the hands of the living God. Yes it is even dreadful to be alone with the New Testament.”

I can tell you this from first-hand experience – if you are willing to adopt a true explorer’s attitude – one that says “I am going to follow the texts wherever they go come what may” – them you are ready to do what is called “Exegesis” or real exploration of the texts – and you may be able to discover things that the world’s top scholars may miss – seriously.  It happens.

There are two ways of approaching scripture: “Esogesis” and “Exegesis” – Who knows what these things refer to?

Why is eisogesis (“to read INTO”) so dangerous?

Should we expect to agree with everything that scripture reveals right away?

Let us turn from this general discussion and see exactly how all of this immediately plays out in our short passage from Luke 4.

Read Luke 4:16-29

Now notice how many language (word meaning), culture and historical questions are raised by this passage:

  • What was this “custom” of entering the synagogue and doing a reading? And who got to do this, just anyone?
  • “Isaiah was handed to him, and having opened the scroll he found the place…” Was there a regular series of readings and this happened to be the reading that day or was it always on this day?
  • Did Jesus get to choose what He read from Isaiah or was he obligated to reread the whole of it?
  • Why are all eyes on Jesus after He reads this passage and quietly sits down? Was something else supposed to happen? Is something missing? What is going on? Are they waiting/expecgting Him to speak again or comment?
  • What does He mean by “in your ears?” Is “Today a special day? Is this a different kind of “time (as Greek has two words for it)?
  • What is Jesus’ relationship to the synagogue and to scripture? How does the synagogue work?
  • What kind of Rabbi is Jesus compared with other “Rabbis” of the time?

These are just obvious questions off the top of my head. If we do a verse by verse textual study we might uncover a great deal more.

To which I really need to bring up a CRUCIAL POINT. If you don’t remember anything else from tonight, remember this: Whenever you hit a bible difficulty the tendency will be to avoid it. You must do exactly the opposite.  Go counter-intuitive and dig deeper at exactly that point and you will find it will pay off richly.

Looking ahead

While we will unpack texts using language and historical tools, since our overall concern will be dominated by the parables we will really get a heavy education in Middle eastern peasant culture and in Hebrew poetry to help us unpack the wealth these “theological clusters” have waiting for us. Then we can ask how they translate into action in the here and now – that will be really interesting- and a great challenge – and no doubt uncomfortable at times but let us remember we walk in freedom and grace and within the love of God.

In the parable of the Good Samaritan we will learn that had he left the man with the Inn Keeper and not returned it would have been a death sentence (aha!) He must return and pay for all services rendered in person – and this is what defines being a true neighbor – this personal interest that is involved.

It is maybe not what we wish to hear – but this is also the God who gives the grace and love to do such things.

The Cultural Problem.

“To understand the theology of parables, therefore, we must recapture the culture that informs the text. The culture of the synoptic parables is that of first-century Palestine.’ Palestinian Christians saw their own culture reflected in the parables and could thereby understand the teller/author’s intent directly. But when the cultural base of the Church ceased to be Palestinian the parables inevitably became stories about foreigners.”[2]

In chapter one (which we shall avoid like Robin Williams does in Dead Poets Society when he has his students rip out the pages of Mr. Prichart’s Introduction!! Rip!  Rip! Kenneth Bailey covers all the various critics and their theories which essentially mishandle the parables in one form or the other. They are not without some value but we will not waste a minute here on them (you can do as you wish on your own dime).  What Bailey goes one to do afterwards is to “attempt to show that each parable has a “cluster” of theological motifs that together press the listener to make a single response. (p.29)

Bailey himself spent over 35 years in Beirut living with, interviewing, studying with and immersing himself in peasant culture to discuss and work with both scholars and the people themselves in his research. It is remarkable one-of-a-kind work recognized world-wide.

Without such work we would tromp in the Middle Eastern scene of Jesus like Modern Westerners – insisting on our private meanings, possibly making every narrative a personal existential story of alienation or work or romance-related angst. Um…no. As real as that may be for us; and as relateable later as we recontextualize both understood narratives and parables – we would only do violence to the texts and mangle them horribly.

Types of analysis

  • Textual study – 4:18-19

[Note: David Bently Hart’s text from Luke 4:16-29 is here in BOLD then commentaries are introduiced in brackets bridging various language, historical, cultural and contextual gaps as needed. They are by no means exhaustive – just a start. One can talke this file and add to it with your own notes from other commentaries; your own rflections and quotes from other autors and cross-references.]

16 And he came to Nazareth where he had been brought up and, as he was accustomed to do, he entered the synagogue [“the little village only possessed a single synagogue. Synagogues had sprung up throughout Judaea since the return from the exile. They were rooms of which the end pointed towards Jerusalem (the Kibleh, or consecrated direction, of Jewish worship (Daniel 6:10), as Mecca is of Mohammedan). The men sat on one side; the veiled women behind a lattice on the other. The chief furniture was the Ark (tebhah) of painted wood, generally shrouded by a curtain, and containing the Thorah (Pentateuch), and rolls (megilloth) of the Prophets. On one side was a bema for the reader and preacher, and there were “chief seats” (Mark 12:39) for the Ruler of the Synagogue, and the elders (zekanim). The servants of the synagogue were the clerk (chazzan), verger (sheliach) and deacons (parnasim, ‘shepherds’ – The Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges.] on the day of the Sabbath and stood up to read. 17 And a scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him, and having opened the scroll he found the place where it was written:

18“A Spirit of the Lord is upon me;

hence he has anointed me to announce good tidings to the destitute [“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.”[3]


he has sent me

out to proclaim release to captives

and sight to the blind,

to send the downtrodden forth in liberty,

19To proclaim the Lord’s acceptable year.”

[“the citation from Isaiah, which is itself a mixed-text. The bulk of 4: 18– 19 derives from Isa 61: 1– 2, but two departures from this passage are of particular interest. First, Isa 61: 2b, “and the day of vengeance of our God,” has been omitted from Luke 4: 19, probably to suppress what would have been taken as a negative aspect of the Isaianic message. Second, language from Isa 58: 6, literally, “to send forth the oppressed in release,” has been added at the end of Luke 4: 18, thus to draw special attention to the word “release” as a characteristic activity of Jesus’ ministry.” [4]]


20 And, having closed the scroll and returning it to the attendant, he sat; and the eyes of everyone in the synagogue were gazing [“The Greek word so rendered is noticeable as being used twelve times by St. Luke, (chiefly in the Acts), and twice by St. Paul (2Corinthians 3:72Corinthians 3:13), and by no other writer of the New Testament. It had been used by Aristotle in his scientific writings, and was probably a half-technical word which St. Luke’s studies as a physician had brought into his vocabulary, and which St. Paul learnt, as it were, from him.”- Ellicott.


This is ironic as the two times Paul uses the word it is specifically about hiding the glory of God from the people by veiling Moses’ face.  Here we have Jesus – God in the flesh come to fulfill the messianic calling and their gaze is full ON – yet they do not recognize him as we shall see.] at him [“This conveys to us the idea of falling back to a place of comparative obscurity among the congregation. To the Jew it implied just the opposite. The chair near the place from which the lesson was read was the pulpit of the Rabbi, and to sit down in that chair (as in Matthew 5:1Matthew 23:2) was an assumption by our Lord, apparently for the first time in that synagogue, of the preacher’s function. This led to the eager, fixed gaze of wonder which the next clause speaks of.”- Ellicott.   ] . 21And he began by saying to them, “Today, in your ears, this scripture has been fulfilled.” [So the attendant gives Jesus the daily reading from Isaiah, but Jesus alters the reading. He withholds part of the Isaiah passage and adds another pieces from another chapter then says that a prophecy has been accomplished (I would assert not when they understand these words – but literally when the words curl into their ear canals. This is a “kairos” moment – an “appomiuted time” as opposed to mere “chromos” time wjhich is just chonology or regular time. It is a moment packed with supreme meaning. ]  22And all professed their admiration for him and were amazed at the words of grace coming out of his mouth, and they said, “Is this man not Joseph’s son?” 23And he said to them, “Surely you will quote me this parable: ‘Physician, heal yourself’; the things we heard were happening in Capernaum[“The reference here to some things done before this time in Capernaum, would incline us to think that after Christ’s temptations he first went to Cana of Galilee, where he wrought his first miracle, John 2:1, turning the water into wine, then to Capernaum, where he staid not many days, John 2:12, then to Nazareth; but hearing that John was cast into prison, he removed from Nazareth to Capernaum, out of the jurisdiction of Herod, under the milder government of Philip his brother.” Poole’s commentary], do them here as well, in your native country.”[ Benson rightly says “You will soon ask, why my love does not begin at home? why I do not work miracles here, rather than at Capernaum? “ Nor is it any new thing for a messenger of God to be despised in his own country. So were both Elijah and Elisha, and thereby driven to work miracles among heathen, rather than in Israel. And he said, Verily, no prophet is accepted in his own country — That is, in his own neighbourhood. It generally holds, that a teacher sent from God is not so acceptable to his neighbours as he is to strangers. The meanness of his family, or lowness of his circumstances, brings his office into contempt: nor can they suffer that he, who was before equal with or below themselves, should now bear a superior character.” ]  24And he said, “Amen, I tell you, no prophet is accepted in his own country. 25And I tell you in truth, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the sky was sealed up for over three years and six months, as a great famine took place over all the land, [“And Elijah the Tishbite, who was of the inhabitants of Gilead, said unto Ahab, As the LORD God of Israel liveth, before whom I stand, there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word.” 1 Kings 17:1. ] 26And to none of them was Elijah sent except to a widowed woman of Sarepta in Sidon [Sidon is near Tyre by the sea in Palestine – a Gentile city actually not far from Azotus. Jesus remarks that after three and a half years of famine relief came not to the Fathers in Israel who expected it but to a widow in Sidon- in a Gentile town when Elijah came and the miracle of the endless oil and flour happened (as well as resurrection of her son).] . 27And there were many lepers in Israel during the time of Elisha the prophet, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” 28And all in the synagogue were filled with rage when they heard these things, 29And rising up they drove him outside the city, and led him to the edge [literally “the “eyebrow”] of the mountain on which their city was built so as to throw him down; 30But he passed through their midst and went away.[5] (the townspeople of Nazareth got to see a miracle of sorts – just the exact opposite of what they wished: when they wanted to kill the Son of God he miraculously walked through them.  What he had spoken was also fulfilled that day – a prophet was not welcome in his hometown and no miracles of healing would be performed in Nazareth due to unbelief.

  • For further study: What was the actual situation that Jesus referred to concerning Elijah and Elisha and how might that reflect on Nazareth directly?
  • When Jesus mixes the Word of God and edits (as it were) remember that He is the Word of God incarnate. What is the relationship between Living Word and the Word of God as scripture that is “living and active”?
  • How are we like the people of the synagogue when Jesus speaks His words to us? How do we resist or attempt to deflect His harder sayimngs?


[1] The New Testament: A Translation (Kindle Locations 2874-2881). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.

[2] Kenneth E. Bailey. Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes: A Literary-Cultural Approach to the Parables in Luke (Combined edition) p. 27


[3] Green, Joel B.. The Gospel of Luke (Kindle Locations 6623-6627). Eerdmans Publishing Co – A. Kindle Edition.


[4] Green, Joel B.. The Gospel of Luke (Kindle Locations 6603-6608). Eerdmans Publishing Co – A. Kindle Edition.


[5] The New Testament: A Translation (Kindle Locations 2885-2892). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.


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