Of Scapegoats and Jubilees: Reading Between the Lines in Luke 4:16-30

torah-readingIn Luke 4:16-30 we have a uniquely Lukan story. After his baptism by John, Jesus undergoes 40 days of temptation in the wilderness. He then returns to Galilee full of the Spirit and teaches in the synagogues. Luke 4:16-30 gives us one example of his teaching. In Luke, this sermon is programmatic. It sets the agenda for Jesus’ mission: the restoration of Israel, with a focus on the poor, the marginalized, and the outcast. Here, in his hometown Nazareth, Jesus appropriates the prophet’s words from Isaiah 61: “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.”

A couple things in this text should be noted. First, the text, in Jesus’ mouth, points back to his own reception of the Spirit at his baptism. This is the divine empowerment which enables him to carry out his prophetic task. Second, the gospel (good news) that Jesus brings has a distinctively social and economic texture. The Israel Jesus addresses (his Nazareth audience is surely typical of the subsistence-level peasant population in Galilee) is viewed as one languishing in captivity. Under foreign domination (Rome) and a corrupt temple establishment, ancestral lands had been confiscated and once-free Israelites suffered in poverty as virtual debt-slaves. Many pious Israelites would have seen these woes as the outworking of the covenant curses (see Deuteronomy 28:15ff), brought on by Israel’s sins. The vision of salvation here is thus holistic, dealing not only with personal sins against God but with corporate sins involving systematic oppression.

We can go further and be more specific. The language of Isaiah 61 and Luke 4:16-30 draws on the Old Testament law concerning year of Jubilee. According to Leviticus 25, every 50 years the high priest was to declare a jubilee year, beginning on Yom Kippur (the day of atonement, which occurred on 10 Tishri–in the fall). The Jubilee was like a super-Sabbath year. A trumpet would be blown throughout the land declaring that debts were forgiven, slaves were set free and that any land sold or lost through debt should return to its original Israelite owners. This clearly resonates with Jesus’ citation of Isaiah 61, which refers to the year of Jubilee as the “year of the Lord’s favor.” It should be no surprise that this section of Isaiah came to be the scheduled reading in the synagogue for Yom Kippur, when Jubilee would be declared (this practice may go back to the time of Luke, but the connection between Isaiah 61 and Jubilee/Yom Kippur dates back to at least 11QMelchizedek).

goat_dies-1It is this connection between Jubilee and Yom Kippur that leads us to a further element in this story that requires us to read between the lines. On the Day of Atonement, two goats were to be presented to the high priest (see Leviticus 16). Over these goats a lot was to be cast. One goat would be ritually slaughtered and its blood would be poured out in the Holy of Holies to cleanse the temple. The other goat would not be slaughtered; instead the high priest would ritually lay upon it all the sin and uncleanness of the people. That goat would then be sent out into the wilderness, ridding Israel of its sin. By the time of Jesus, the ritual had developed. The goat would no longer simply be sent out but would be led out to the desert and thrown off a cliff to its death.

Of course, something similar happens to Jesus in Luke 4. The synagogue audience is outraged at his teachings and drives him out of the town to a cliff, where they attempt to throw him to his death. Jesus (miraculously?) avoids them, but the point is clear: Jesus has come preaching the good news of Jubilee, a liberating time of cleansing and atonement. Rather than joyfully accepting this message, the audience treats Jesus as a Yom Kippur scapegoat. The scene is thick with irony–and also with foreshadowing, since at the end of his ministry Jesus will also be led away out of the city (Luke 23:32) to be put to death, the scapegoat bearing the sins of the people.

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