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The Rev. Dr. John H. Pavelko

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 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

Luke 4:14-21


The Meaning of a Word

By definition the word today presents a sense of immediacy. There are seven Hebrew words in the Old Testament and three Greek words that are used to convey the same idea. They all bring to the attention of the reader the notion of imminence of the event or activity. The notion of delay or postponement is absent by the very definition of the word.

When a weatherman tells us that we will have rain today, we grab an umbrella or rain jacket. If a friend says that she will drop by for a visit, today, we make sure that we have a pot of coffee ready and a maybe a dessert. We don't expect our friend to arrive tomorrow or the next day, we expect the visit, today.

The age of electronics has exaggerated are perspective of the word. Today not only means before tomorrow but it now means before lunch. When we send out an email in the morning we expect an answer by noon. Today has an implied definition of NOW; without delay. Friends tell me that at work they will often receive a telephone call from a colleague asking for an answer to an email that they have not even had the opportunity to open.

This sense of urgency or immediacy is much different from the past when most correspondence had to be in written form and took several days before the letter was even delivered. In those days we would patiently allow the other person time to think about a reply and several more days to actually compose a response. We were once thrilled to receive an answer to a letter within the month. Such a slow deliberate response has changed forever.

This drive for immediacy has undoubtedly effected our view of God. We expect God to promptly answer our before the sun starts to fade into the west. When God chooses to delay his response, we become despondent wondering why God has abandoned us. We lament over his apparent deafness to our pleas. Our confusion grows deeper when we read passages such as verse 21 that conveys the immediate action by God. It seems so contrary to our experience. We wonder why Jesus would say “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your presence” when the things to which he is referring do not take place. He himself did not organize any mass break outs from the local prisons. Nor did he secure the parole of any prisoners. During his ministry scores of blind people never regained their sight. Medical supply companies still do a brisk business in crutches and wheelchairs. So what did Jesus mean when he said, “Today, this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

Two basic shifts in my thinking have helped me to understand this passages and others like it. The first shift requires moving from an absolute literalism to a symbolic understanding of the passage. There is a propensity among some Christians to insist that every passage of Scripture must be interpreted with extreme literalness. If Genesis states that God created the earth in six days then he must have created it in six, 24-hour days. If Jesus fasted in the wilderness for 40 days than he did not have any food or water for 40 days. If Jesus fed the 5000 than he fed exactly 5000 not 4999 not 5001 but 5000. Such a method of interpretation uses the rules of our culture to judge the literary style of an ancient culture. This simply does Scripture a disservice.

We must interpret Scripture using the rules for the time period in which it was written. An oral culture simply did not require the absolute standard of perfection that is demanded by our culture. For his culture, Jesus could say the word today and mean that the activity is beginning at that moment and continuing on into the future. Also, the Old Testament passage does not require that every prisoner be set free from jail. Nor does it demand that every slave be set free. Nor does it insist that every blind person see. We know that many were healed but we simply do not have any records of how many were not healed. That does not negate the truth of his words.

I do want to issue a word of caution. Interpreting Scripture must be done with great care. While the words “the poor.” “captives,” “prisoners,” “the blind,” and “the oppressed” have a figurative meaning they also had a literal meaning that cannot be lost. In one sermon I may refer to the “poor” as those in spiritual poverty or the “captive” as those who are enslaved to their sinful desires, but we should not forget that those words also have a literal definition, especially in Luke. The physician displays a great deal of interest in Jesus' interaction with those who suffered from economic hardship. He records passages that the other three gospel writers leave out. Many of those passages are about someone making an economic sacrifice to care for another person who is in poverty. We should also avoid assuming that the miracle stories and the healing stories may not have happened. They are not myths created by the active imagination of the early disciples. Unless we can prove otherwise, we should consider them actual events. As I said earlier, interpreting Scripture requires great care and thorough study to prevent distorting its message. However, I think that there are similar instances in Scripture in which Jesus himself or another writer is using language that should be considered more symbolic than literal.

The second shift that has helped me to understand is to move from a passive mode to an active mode in my approach to applying Scripture. Frequently, when we approach Scripture we prefer to remain in a passive mode. We prefer to think of God giving to us our salvation. This is good Protestant theology. Both John Calvin and Martin Luther agreed upon that one basic principle. Men and women could do nothing do gain their salvation. We carry this into the healing stories in which the person may approach God but God does all the action. However, I am suggesting that salvation is also active. There comes a point when each of us must live out in our lives what God has done for us in Christ. There comes a point when we do not allow the standards of secular society to imprison us but we live as free women and men. We cease to walk in the darkness of unbelief and open our eyes and see the light of truth. We no longer live as slaves to the desires of the flesh but make rational decisions upon what we will spend our money and how much we will spend.

Jesus is saying that the moment he begins preaching those who were captive to the power of money were set free. Those who were blind to the truth are given new eyes to see, and those who were imprisoned by the culture's values were released. The power to dominate and control God's people and force them into subservience was vanquished. It was then up to God's people to live the salvation that had already been one for them.

This basic truth has had a powerful influence upon me by preventing me from wallowing in my depression because certain events do not transpire according to my wishes. My feelings are not controlled by my daily events. Jesus has released me from the emotional dungeon of despair. I can live in freedom because I know that I have been released from the cravings of envy and greed. I do not have to have the latest electronic gadget in order to be happy. I do not have to drive a new car to feel important. The Scriptures have been fulfilled in our hearing but we must be willing to live them out.

We see Jesus take this approach in his interaction with people. In the story of the woman caught in adultery Jesus allows any man who has not sinned to cast the first stone. Knowing their own sinfulness, all the men leave. Jesus then tells the woman that he will not condemn her either. She may go but she is not to sin again. In those words Jesus is telling her that she has been given her freedom. She may be poor. She may be hungry but she is not enslaved to using her body to solicit income. When Jesus told the rich ruler to sell all that he had and give it to the poor, he was offering the man liberation from the entanglements of his earthly possessions.

God has sent his Son to fulfill the message of Isaiah each and every day. His message is not a dull, duty driven religion but a life giving faith that could be experienced by anyone at anytime.

Are you ready to allow the Scriptures to be fulfilled in your hearing?

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