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The Third Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C 2018

Jesus' First Sermon - Part 1


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So, whereas the temple — this is really important — was run by priests, who are part of the tribe of Levi, sons of Aaron, ordained to offer sacrifice, the synagogue was largely a lay movement. You didn’t have to be a priest to read the Scripture in the synagogue. You didn’t have to be a priest to preach in the synagogue, because there isn’t any sacrifice involved in synagogue worship. All there is is doxology (praise of God), scripture reading and preaching. That’s really important because Jesus is a Jewish layman; he is not a priest according to the old covenant. He is not a member of the tribe of Aaron, he’s a member of the tribe of Judah, he’s a descendant of David, and so when he goes into the synagogue — we often don’t think about this — they don’t hand him the book of Isaiah to read because he’s the ordained priest, he’s just a layman.

Now he’s regarded as a Rabbi, which means a teacher of the law, so he’s obviously gotten some esteem and some respect. So they hand the scroll over to him, but it’s in that context that he takes the scroll on that Saturday, on that Sabbath, and he reads it aloud and then after he reads it, he sits down and everyone expects to hear a sermon now, a homily, because that’s what Rabbi’s would do. Another little side note, this is why Jesus is going to get into conflict with the Pharisees so much in the gospels. Have you ever wondered why he’s always bumping heads with the Pharisees? It’s not because the Pharisees were priests. They weren’t priests either; they were laymen who mastered the scriptures and who studied the traditions of the fathers and they ran the show in the synagogues. So if Jesus’ custom was to go about preaching in the synagogues, the first people he’s going to come into conflict with aren’t the priests in the temple of Jerusalem, it’s the Pharisees, the lay people in the synagogues who were used to preaching and teaching tradition of the fathers, then Jesus steps in and he blows them all out of the water.  They’re all like, “wow, we’ve never heard anybody like this guy! He teaches like someone with authority, and not like the scribes and the Pharisees”, who just cite other authorities. Kind of like modern scholars do with footnotes; we just cite other people to justify our ideas. Alright, it’s okay, I love footnotes so I’m not going to be apologetic here.

Alright, that’s a lot of background, but I want to try to bring it to life for you. He’s in the synagogue, he’s there, he’s a layman, he’s a native, he’s a local boy, but he’s been going about preaching and teaching so they give him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and he gets to read the passage. Now, another element about this that you might miss is the fact that this is what we would call “the second reading”. In the Jewish synagogue, there’s a system of two readings: Torah and Haftarah. Torahis always a passage from the five books of Moses: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. That’s the first reading in the Jewish synagogue. The second reading is called haftarahand it’s some reading from another part of the bible, usually one of the prophets. So it’s “law” and “prophets”, that’s how the synagogue readings work, 1st and 2nd reading. What happens here is Jesus is given the 2nd reading to do and it’s, of course, from the prophets. In this case it’s from Isaiah, and so he stands up — the RSV says he takes the book, but there weren’t books at that point, it was a scroll — he opens the scroll to the passage where Isaiah says, “the spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor”, so on and so forth.

Now, this is a quotation from Isaiah 61:1-2. It’s a very important passage, because it’s one of the few passages in Isaiah that explicitly uses the language of “Messiah” or “Anointing”, “Anointed One.” There’s this mysterious figure that God has put his spirit upon and then it says he has “anointed me” to go out and preach good news to the poor. Now in Greek the word for anointed is chriō, we get the word christen from that, or anointing. So someone’s christening is their anointing. Jesus here is taking the words of the prophet Isaiah and applying them to himself. So Isaiah is describing this figure who is anointed by the Spirit, and Jesus is going to say, that’s me, “this is being fulfilled in your hearing.” And it also says that this mysterious anointed one, this Messiah, has a mission; he’s going to proclaim good news to the poor, he’s going proclaim release to the captives, and he’s going to proclaim the “Year of Deliverance” or “The Acceptable Year of the Lord”. I think most of us have some sense of what the good news is, the good news of salvation, the good news of deliverance, but, at least for me, for years, when I read that verse “proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord”, I didn’t know what it meant. I didn’t have any clue. What is “the acceptable year”? Is it like this year God’s like, “it’s going to be a really good year, it’s going to be an acceptable year,” like it was his new year’s resolution or something. No. That’s a technical term for the Jubilee year.

If you go back to the book of Leviticus 25, what God says there is, at the end of a seven times seven year cycle, so you have 49 years — like the Sabbath times the Sabbath — after 49 years, the 50th year will be a Jubilee year. It’s going to be a Jubilee year because in that year all debts are forgiven, all slaves are set free, and any land that has been appropriated, that used to belong to a family but they lost it through debt, will be returned to the original owners. Now, just imagine if you lived in a Jubilee year and all your student debt, or all your house debt, or all your car debt, or all your credit card debt, whatever debt that you might have that’s weighing over your head, imagine if it was all gone, just like that in the Jubilee year. Now that would be an acceptable year, right? It would be a year of joy, a year of deliverance, and so what Jesus is saying here is that, or what Isaiah is saying, is that when the Messiah comes, his coming is somehow going to be coordinated with, conjoined with, a great Jubilee year. A great year of release, when all debts will be forgiven, and people will be set free from bondage; which, if you’ve been in debt, you’ll know, it is bondage. It is a burden, and to be freed from it is a source of great joy.

Okay, so what? The rub really comes when after saying these things Jesus sits down and everyone in the synagogue looks at him and waits for him to start preaching. Which, by the way, it’s customary in our time for homilists to preach standing, but in Jesus’ day it was the opposite. If you were going to preach you would sit down, and most scholars think that what you would do is you would sit in the chair of Moses in the synagogue — we know that they had these. The chair of Moses was a specific chair, it’s like a presider’s chair, in a synagogue, and a Pharisee or a scribe would sit on the seat of Moses and they would teach from the Torah from the seat of Moses as a kind of symbol of the authority of Moses. So it’s funny that we do the opposite; we think that if a person has authority and that they’re going to teach, they need to stand up. In Jesus’ day it was the opposite, if you were going to teach with authority you sat down, which I like, because then you don’t get as tired, but that’s neither here nor there.

Okay, so, while they’re waiting for his homily, what does he say? The one thing that no one had ever said before: Today, in your hearing, this scripture, about the Messiah, and the Jubilee, that we just heard, is fulfilled. So what’s Jesus doing? He’s taking the words of the prophets and he’s applying them to himself. He’s revealing for the first time publicly, in a homily, that he himself is the Messiah, and that the time of the Messiah is now
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