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He sat down

He sat down

Fr Benedict Ramsden was excellent this Sunday (Facebook video, from approx 35 mins) on the subject of Christian Unity, and my reflections on the Gospel don’t really amount to a sermon. But there is the kernel of what I might have said if I were up there in that pulpit, so it just about falls into the category of Were I to have preached.

The Gospel was the familiar passage in Luke 4.14-21:

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 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.’

The words that struck me while hearing it read were “and sat down”. I had never noticed them before. In my imagination, Jesus was continuing to stand in front of everyone to declaim ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled!’ It is yet another example of how I only partially listen to or inattentively read scriptures, and often miss nuances and occasionally miss glaringly obvious statements. Our brains make assumptions and fill gaps while our eyes and ears skip over to the next phrase.

I was curious about the custom of reading scripture in synagogue. As far as I can tell, Jesus was doing what was expected of him. As was customary he went to synagogue on the sabbath, and I thought perhaps he was invited to read as a son returning to visit his home town.

As is often the case, my enquiries circled back on themselves: the passage itself is considered important evidence of early synagogue liturgical practice. However, I did find an interesting article on the tradition in the first century. According to this:

In the earliest period, the [Torah] readings were spread over approximately three and a half years, differing slightly from town to town. Also, synagogues did not have a single leader who preached every week, like a rabbi or pastor does today.

Instead, one adult member of the congregation (or an educated visitor) would be invited to read the Torah portion. He would then choose a prophetic passage that fit the Torah reading, and would give a brief meditation on how the passages relate to each other. The prophetic reading was called the haftarah (HAHF-tah-rah), meaning “completion.”

This is what we see Jesus doing in Luke 4:17-18 when stands up in his hometown synagogue and reads from the Isaiah scroll. Most likely Jesus also had read the Torah portion, but Luke doesn’t mention it.

Jesus took care with the scroll and his actions were deliberate, mirroring each other: he stood up, was given, unrolled, read, rolled, gave, sat down.

He sat down. It was customary for rabbis to teach from a seated position. In the next chapter of Luke, we read of Jesus sitting down in a boat to teach (Luke 5.3). Luke then records him standing to give the Sermon on the Plain, but according to Matthew Jesus delivered his Sermon on the Mount “after he sat down [and] his disciples came to him.” (Matthew 5.1).

So were all eyes on him because he was expected to teach? Or for his choice of prophetic passage – had he deviated from the expected passage that was read to interpret the day’s portion of Torah? Note that he “was given” the scroll of Isaiah. Either he could have asked for it previously, or the synagogue attendant had chosen it for him, or (given that the agent of the action isn’t mentioned) the sentence is an example of the divine passive voice and God had chosen it for him. So Jesus may or may not have chosen Isaiah in particular. But he could have chosen the passage, or mix of passages – Luke has mashed up parts of Isaiah 61.1, 58.6, 61.2. Or were all eyes on him because of his manner? Because he was so deliberate? Or perhaps he imbued his reading with meaning and emphasis so it was already clear he was talking about himself. It was not just a passage from the Prophet, it was prophecy.

The point that I might make,* based on the way this strikes me, is that Jesus sat down in order to make his point. Instead of standing over the other people in the synagogue, he lowers himself to their level. For me, he is paralleling the Incarnation, in which he emptied himself and descended to take our humanity fully upon himself, to be on the same level as our poor, blind, captive and oppressed humanity, to be God with us. He sat down among the people of his home town, whether they accepted him or not.

Isaiah 61.1 speaks of being anointed for the task and being sent. The Incarnation is the fulfillment of this scripture. Sitting down among the people is a symbolic or sacramental action that makes it real. I put a few more words in Jesus’ mouth: ‘Today, as I sit down and take my place among you, has this scripture been fulfilled in your hearing.’

Sermons often treat Luke 4.14-21 as the inauguration of the ministry of Jesus, as he describes what sort of Messiah he will be. He will be a prophetic Messiah, yes, for his people and to his people, for us and to us. Luke’s quotation also has echoes of the Magnificat. I loved this recent tweet:

Every discussion of “biblical womanhood” should include the fact that in Luke 1, two pregnant women celebrate their new motherhood by passionately discussing the coming overthrow of every earthly empire.

Jesus was his mother’s son, learning from her while still in the womb and growing up with her teaching. This is the stuff of Incarnation. So Jesus will also be an incarnate Messiah. He was anointed and sent to be born as one of us, learning as one of us, identified with us, among us on our level.

He sat down.

What then does this mean for us now? Hear the beginning of the Psalter: “Happy are those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or take the path that sinners tread, or sit in the seat of scoffers” (Psalm 1.1). Jesus sat down among people who responded to his teaching by scoffing at him and worse (Luke 4.22,28-29).

Let us consider some of Paul’s teaching: “in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us; we entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5.19-21). Starting at the end, we might say that Jesus started his mission “to be sin” as he sat down among the scoffers, so that there might be a beautiful reversal and we “become the righteousness of God”. What does that ask of us? Reading backwards, Paul begs his readers, then and now, to “be reconciled to God”, and to bear that “message of reconciliation” to others.

Will we also sit down?

* My point begs the question: where and how would I make it? Declaiming from that pulpit, or standing facing the congregation on the level, or sitting down with them?