Gospel for Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (24 January 2016)
Notes by Michael Whelan SM
Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed. ....
Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 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 favor.” 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 1:1-4 & 4:14-21 – NRSV)
Luke is the only one of the three evangelists to explain why he is writing his Gospel: “ ... to set down an orderly account of the events ...” The reference to the “many” who have already done this – or at least attempted to do this – reminds us that there were many accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus. Initially, these accounts were oral. The oral tradition gave birth to written accounts. Mark is almost certainly the earliest of the four recognized Gospels. Matthew and Luke depend heavily on Mark, but they also have another common source – known simply as “Q”, the first letter of the German word meaning “source”. Then both Matthew and Luke have at least one other source which the other does not use. All three synoptic Gospels were probably completed by about the year 80 CE. John’s Gospel comes later – probably closer to 100 CE – and draws on what are almost certainly the memories of the disciple.
By the end of the second century, most of the 27 books of the Christian Scriptures (New Testament) were generally known and accepted. “It is generally admitted from the evidence that, from the beginning of the 3rd
century, the NT was composed essentially of the same books as our present Canon”. (R J Foster, “The New Testament Canon” in A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, edited by Reginald C Fuller et al, Thomas Nelson, 1969, 29.) The Canon of Scripture was closed at the end of the fourth century.
The use of the passive voice – “that have been fulfilled among us” – is very significant: This is God’s work! The disciple must never forget this. We are servants of God’s saving work in Christ, instruments of God’s mercy, participator in the life made available in Christ. If is fatal if we ever come to believe that the work of our redemption depends on us.
The phrase, “among us” reminds us of a phrase Luke will use later – “you must know the kingdom of God is among you” (17:21). The fulfilment of the promise, “I am with you!”, is being emphasized.
It is not entirely clear what the reference to Theophilus means. One scholar writes: “The person to whom a work was dedicated was often the financial patron who sponsored publication. Theophilus is Luke’s ‘intended
reader’ (1:4), whether or not his name has a symbolic resonance (“Lover of God”) or he represents a wider Gentile-Christian readership.” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, The Liturgical Press, 1991, 28.)
Luke tells us that Jesus was “filled with the power of the Spirit”. He makes 19 references to the Holy Spirit in his Gospel. For example: John the Baptist is “filled with the Holy Spirit before his birth” (1:15); the Angel Gabriel tells Mary “the Holy Spirit will come upon you” (1:35); Elizabeth is “filled with the Holy Spirit” (1:41); Zechariah was “filled with the Holy Spirit” (1:67); the Holy Spirit “rests” on Simeon (2:25); John the Baptists tells the people that Jesus “will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (3:16); the Holy Spirit “descended upon” Jesus when he was praying after his baptism (3:22); the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness (4:1); Jesus’ last words to the disciples are: “And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (24:49)
And it is Luke who speaks to us of the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13).
In this context we must read the prophecy from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me ...”
It is important to also notice the place: “When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom.” One scholar writes: “Like his parents (2:42), Jesus is portrayed as a pious Jew who worships in the synagogue regularly (cf. 4:15 and 31). His activity in the synagogue will recur in 4:33, 44; 6:6; 13:10. In Acts, the synagogue will be an important locus for early Christian preaching (13:5, 14; 14:1; 17:10; 18:4, 26; 19:8).” (Luke Timothy Johnson, op cit, 78.) Jesus takes his Jewish heritage very seriously. He is imbued with it, loves it and cares deeply about it. He is intimately aware of the Prophecy of Isaiah and the Psalms.
Luke has already cited Isaiah (40:3-5) in reference to John the Baptist – “A voice cries in the wilderness ....” (3:4) The citation the Gospel today opens window on the heart of Jesus: “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.” By the “power from on high” – the “power” that was upon Mary and the “power” that is to be upon the disciples – he becomes the saw of freedom for all! This is surely one of the most dramatic moments in any of the Gospel texts.
It might help to stimulate our imaginations if we realize that the Greek word for power dynamei (δυνάμει) also gives us the English word “dynamite”!
Jesus means freedom. That was in fact the title of a controversial book in the 1960s by a German scripture scholar, Ernst Käsemann. I found the book helpful, though not everything in it I could agree with. That is not surprising, given the sub-title: A Polemical Survey of the New Testament.
Cardinal Walter Kasper writes: “‘Freedom’, of course, is a dazzling and much misused word. This enables us to understand a little why there has been little talk of freedom in the Church since the apostle Paul, and why it has largely been left to enthusiasts and sectarians. The Church was always terrified of freedom, and so, for the protection of the souls entrusted to it, was all too ready to take it over in order to distribute it in minute doses where it seemed necessary and desirable.” (Walter Kasper, An Introduction to Christian Faith, Paulist Press, 1980, 126.)
We should not leave the topic of freedom to “enthusiasts and sectarians”. Freedom is our birthright! Kasper reminds us: “Salvation is the freedom of our freedom, its redemption and liberation to be itself.” (Ibid.)
The great Jesuit scholar, Jean Daniélou writes of the 4th century bishop, St Gregory of Nyssa: “Freedom is a divine quality, and God could not create us in his image without giving us free will. And it may be noted here that Gregory, following Origen (and, indeed, anticipating St Bernard), stresses free will more than intelligence in his analysis of our likeness to God.” (From “Introduction” to Jean Daniélou and Herbert Musurillo, eds, From Glory to Glory, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1961, 12.)
In Gaudium et Spes we read: “Only in freedom can human beings direct themselves toward goodness. .... For its part, authentic freedom is an exceptional sign of the divine image within human beings.” (#17.)
We might think of freedom as our ability to be who and what we must be and do what we must do. Our freedom either grows or shrinks. It is never static. Freedom from only makes sense in view of freedom for. We forget at our peril that “... man is free, in so far as he has the power of contradicting himself and his essential nature. Man is free even from his freedom; that is, he can surrender his humanity.” (Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (Vol. 2), University of Chicago Press, 1957, 32.)
And where does that leave us? As you are being loved into freedom, be in the world in such a way that God may love others into freedom through you.