Reading scripture

27 January 2013
Third Sunday after Epiphany
Epiphany 3C (RCL)
Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10
Psalm 19
1 Corinthians 12:12-31a
Luke 4:14-21

The first thing to notice is that the RCL leaves out all the names of the Levites and lay friends of Ezra who interpret the scripture reading. Pity the lectors when we used the BCP lectionary, who had to pronounce all those names!

The second thing to notice is that it is the people who ask Ezra to read the Torah (the Penteteuch? we’re not sure what shape the scriptures took at the time). At any rate, Ezra reads for six hours, and presumably they maintain their attention the whole time. And after Ezra is done reading whatever portions he read, the elders stay behind in Jerusalem and promulgate the regulations for the feast of booths, and the people read the Torah for all seven days of the feast. Whatever they read on that first day made them realize they had not been keeping the law as written (or interpreted), but Ezra tells them to rejoice and feast. The reading of scripture establishes a community and a covenant.

We also get a story of Jesus reading scripture in Luke’s reading for today. We will get the next few verses next week, when things take a drastic turn, with the townspeople trying to throw Jesus off a cliff. Mark doesn’t relate the story of the rejection at Nazareth until near the end of the Galilean ministry; Luke moves it right up to the beginning, perhaps to set the tone for what comes in the rest of the Gospel.

But in the reading for this Sunday, all we get is Jesus’ short sermon on what he has read. Luke has Jesus quote Isaiah 61 and 58 (a bit out of order, so not a direct reading from Isaiah). Luke’s quotation comes for the LXX, so this wouldn’t in fact be what Jesus would have read in a synagogue (he would have read the Hebrew instead). But exciting bit comes when he sits down (to teach), and says, “Today this reading has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus’ reading inaugurates the restoration which God has promised.

There is a certain amount of irony here. Here we are, reading Luke’s Gospel, and reading an account of Jesus reading Isaiah, and then announcing, “Today, this reading has been fulfilled in your hearing.” I think Luke was conscious of the irony. He expects us to understand that today, this reading has been fulfilled in our hearing. Our reading of the Gospel fulfills God’s promise of restoration. How?

In Mark’s Gospel, when Jesus casts out the demon at his first visit to the synagogue, Mark has the people remark, “What is this? A new teaching with authority.” It is a teaching which has the power to bring about what it teaches. Luke is making the same claim for his own Gospel. When we read it, we can sit down and say, “Today, this reading has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

All the healings, the teachings, the transfiguration — all of it — comes true in our reading of the Gospel. That makes a pretty powerful claim for our reading. But where do we read the Gospel? Gathered in the same community for which Luke wrote it; the misfits, the powerless, the blind, the demon-possessed, at least if we are reading it the way Luke intended. So, this reading should question our act of reading. Is that what our community looks like? If not, why not? Powerful stuff.

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