Jesus the Iconoclast: Understanding the Reading of the Isaiah Scroll (Luke 4:16-30)

Jesus as the great iconoclast seems to be a recurring theme recently in passages I have read.

I’ve always been perplexed by the story in Luke’s gospel where Jesus reads from the Isaiah scroll and the members of the synagogue then attempt to throw him off a cliff for it.

Interestingly, as I was reading through Luke and stopping to focus on this story, I concurrently came to a chapter in Kenneth Bailey’s brilliant book, ‘Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes’, that deals with this confusing portion of text.

Here’s the relevant section of Luke’s Gospel (bolded material is my own highlights for us to discuss):

16 And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. 17 And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

20 And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21 And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” 22 And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth. And they said, “Is not this Joseph’s son?” 23 And he said to them, “Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, ‘“Physician, heal yourself.” What we have heard you did at Capernaum, do here in your hometown as well.’” 24 And he said, “Truly, I say to you, no prophet is acceptable in his hometown. 25 But in truth, I tell you, there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah, when the heavens were shut up three years and six months, and a great famine came over all the land, 26 and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarephath, in the land of Sidon, to a woman who was a widow. 27 And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed, but only Naaman the Syrian.” 28 When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. 29 And they rose up and drove him out of the town and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff. 30 But passing through their midst, he went away. (Luke 4:16-30)

The most confusing part of the story is in verse 22 (Luke 4:22) where the text indicates that the audience spoke well of Jesus after his reading. Then, mere moments later, the crowd turns against him and tries to kill him. But seemingly, there’s not enough detail to tell why this has happened.

What is going on in this text?

One thing that was immediately clear to me was that Jesus seems to be refusing healings to his hometown crowd. The people ask him to do the healings he has done in Capernaum, but Jesus won’t. Furthermore, Jesus alludes to the well-known stories from the Hebrew scriptures of two foreign gentiles who received healing while many Jews did not. It’s as if Jesus is saying: ‘Sorry, no healings for hire today—that’s not what I’m about. God doesn’t do miracles on demand and sometimes he does them in ways, or to people, that don’t make sense to us.’

Kenneth Bailey’s astute linguistic analysis and contextual insight help fill in the details richly.

First, Bailey notes that Nazareth—the location of this story—was a relatively new ‘settler’ town at the time of Jesus. Jewish settlers from Judea had recently conquered the area and reclaimed it from neighboring gentiles. It was also religiously conservative, later serving as a residence for temple priests from Jerusalem. Such a frontier town would have been incredibly nationalistic and intensely sensitive of the political struggles with foreign powers, since they were on the front-lines.

When Jesus reads from the Isaiah scroll, he does something particularly special—he edits the text as he speaks. Now, this was not entirely without precedent, Rabbinical tradition allowed for the skipping of passages as the books of the Prophets were read; however, Jesus’ edit is particularly bold.

In summary, Isaiah 61, the text of the reading contains a number of passages speaking of a return of great political and economic prosperity for Israel. Jesus, however, omits these sections to challenge the focus of his audience.

  • First, after the phrase “to proclaim good news to the poor,” Jesus omits the sentence “He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted.” The crowd would have seen themselves as the brokenhearted as a result of their military struggles with surrounding nations.
  • Second, Jesus inserts “recovering of sight to the blind” in the text. This implies that the people, including his audience, are blinded and not seeing Jesus or the essence of life with clarity.
  • Third, Jesus removes “and the day of vengeance of our God” from the last passage. Revenge is what Jesus’ audience would have most wanted for their political enemies, yet, Jesus ignores this desire.

Beyond these three edits to the text, Jesus completely leaves out the rest of Isaiah 61 which talks of Israel building up its ruined cities, reclaiming its honor, and achieving wealth and prominence among the nations.

As Bailey notes, Isaiah 61 was a beloved passage for this settler community attempting to achieve prosperity in their reclaimed land; however, Jesus edits out their favorite parts of the passage.

So what do we make of Luke 4:22, where it says that the audience spoke well of Jesus?

Bailey notes that the Greek literally translates as “they witnessed him.” In other words, the text does not indicate whether the crowd witnessed for him or against him. In reality, it’s not essential to know the true translation, but it’s quite possible that the intended reading of Luke 4:22 is “And all witnessed against him, and were amazed at the words of mercy that came out of his mouth, and they said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’

As Bailey further notes, the crowd must have been thinking something like:

“What is the matter with this boy? He has quoted one of our favorite texts, but has omitted some of its most important verses. In the process he has turned a text of judgement into a text of mercy. This is outrageous! The messianic age is a golden age for us and a day of God’s vengeance upon them. How could this boy grow up here and not know this? Doesn’t he remember why this village was founded?”

Furthermore, Jesus then recounts two stories from the scriptures where foreigners were healed and saved by God, while the Israelites themselves went without miraculous assistance.

Jesus essentially refuses the people in their hopes for him to work some miracles and show special favor to his hometown, and they throw him out and try to kill him the offense is so great. Don’t we sometimes feel like this when Jesus breaks our expectations of how He should act?

Sometimes, even though we’re close to Jesus, healing and recovery are refused us while miracles are extended to others. Just like the settlers in the frontier town of Nazareth, we often want a god who fits our agenda. It’s really very little different from fashioning a golden calf. And so, in one breath, Jesus announces himself as the Messiah/Savior while in the second he challenges his audience’s notion of what a Savior God is like.

By this point in my life I realize that Jesus’ ways are mysterious and that God is not a tribal deity by whom I can extract blessings with the right sacrifice. In fact, I feel I’ve always understood Him to be greater than that. But nonetheless, the notion that at every turn, Jesus is shifting my understanding of who He is, is one that I see throughout the Bible and throughout my life. Blessed is the man who understands that this is our Savior and is willing to learn from Him at each new, unexpected, or challenging revelation.