3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time: ‘Jesus Unrolled the Scroll’

SCRIPTURES & ART: This week, Jesus declares his identity and mission

James Tissot (1836-1902), “Jesus Unrolls the Book in the Synagogue”
James Tissot (1836-1902), “Jesus Unrolls the Book in the Synagogue” (photo: Public Domain)

For the past three Sundays, Jesus has been progressively revealed — by the Magi, by God at his Baptism in the Jordan, and by Jesus’ own first “sign,” changing water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana. Today, as we settle into six more weeks of Ordinary Time, Jesus speaks of his mission of freedom and liberation.

Jesus’ mission does not come out of the blue, nor is it “his way.” It’s been part of God’s plan for a long time, arguably from as soon as man first sinned (see Genesis 3:15). That is why Jesus “credentials” himself by reading this text from Isaiah (61:1-2 and 58:6) and applying it to himself. 

The Sunday Gospels do not give us the context of where a particular passage (pericope) fits in the overall Gospel. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is about to begin his three years of public preaching. He has been baptized by John. He has fasted and been tempted in the desert. That is the context in which “Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee” (4:14), as today’s Gospel tells us.

John’s Baptism was a “baptism of repentance” (Acts 19:4). The temptation in the desert was an extended reflection on sin and its perverting grip upon humanity. Jesus clearly titles himself a Messiah. He selects the quotation from Isaiah (“the Spirit of the Lord is upon me”) then explicitly applies it to himself (“Today this Scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing”). He makes clear the liberation he promises is not a political liberation but freedom from man’s greatest enemy, his greatest un-freedom: sin. 

Sin is poverty, not in an economic sense but in the sense of being deprived of God’s grace and friendship. Sin is captivity, which is why Israel’s enslavement in Egypt is a sign of humanity’s enslavement to sin and God’s leading Israel to freedom through the Exodus a prefigurement of humanity being lead to freedom through Christ’s Cross. Sin is blindness, spiritual blindness that so distorts our perception that we call evil good and good evil. It is oppression, for sin frustrates man from being what God created and wants him to be: fully alive. It was St. Irenaeus, after all, who reminded us that gloria Dei vivens homo, “the glory of God is man fully alive.”

Because we are removed from the religious milieu in which Jesus moved and because — unfortunately — the Old Testament is too often terra incognita for Catholics, we don’t truly sense the audacious declaration Jesus is making in today’s Gospel. His listeners get it, which is why in next Sunday’s Gospel they will even already try to kill him. But it’s not just a theological disagreement about Jesus’ identity. 

A deeper, more sinister force lies deep beneath the ostensible theological dispute. It is that peculiar and perverted power of evil, one that attracts us to it while making it hard for us to do “the good we want to do” (see Romans 7:19). The perverted part is, in doing evil, we freely choose and embrace something death-dealing. It’s what the Devil wants for us: death (see John 8:44).

The 19th-century French artist James (Jacques) Tissot captures today’s Gospel in his gouache watercolor, “Jésus dans la synagogue déroule le livre” [Jesus unrolls the book in the synagogue]. “Gouache” is a a kind of watercolor that is opaque, usually using some kind of resin or binding agent, as opposed to being see-through. The painting is in the Brooklyn Museum. 

Readers of this series know that Tissot experienced a reconversion to his Catholic faith and dedicated his post-1885 work to religious themes. (Tissot died in 1902.) He made three journeys to the Holy Land in the 1880s and 1890s to study the landscape, art and customs of the region in order to make his paintings as realistic as possible. With that realism, Tissot ran up against the artistic (impressionist) and intellectual (secularist) currents of his day. His 365 paintings of the “Life of Christ” enjoyed acclaim in his day and were bought by the Brooklyn Museum. Death interrupted a series of paintings he was working on of Old Testament themes.

I chose Tissot’s painting because it faithfully reflects what the scene of Jesus reading in the synagogue would have looked like. Jesus is dressed in prayer shawl, as are all the men gathered around him. There are at least 10 men, because a Jewish synagogue service requires a minyin, a minimum of 10 males who have been bar mitzvah-ed, i.e., become “sons of the law.” Bar mitzvah is the moment when a Jewish male is now bound to observe the prescriptions of the Law (Torah) and is usually marked, among other things, by his reading of Sacred Scripture in public for the first time in synagogue.

Behind Jesus is the Aron Kodesh, the Ark in which the Torah scrolls are kept, with its parochet, or curtain, in front of it. Removal of the scrolls for reading during the service has something of a quasi-exposition character to it. Because the biblical “books” of Jesus’ day are, in fact, scrolls, we see the scroll in front of Jesus in its ceremonial wrappings and with the two rolls which hold it protruding from the top. This is what the Gospel is referring to when it says “he was handed the scroll … unrolled the scroll, and found the passage …”

Jesus, as a pious Son of Israel, would use the rollers, although I understand in his day he would also only touch a Scriptural scroll at the edges. (We cannot see it here, but in reading scrolls, Jews often use a device called a “yad,” a metal pointer with a finger-like appendage at its end, to follow in the text without touching it). 

Jesus stands on a raised platform, called a bimah. This pulpit is usually raised two or three steps high and fenced with a railing. It is in the center of the synagogue, enabling the Scriptural reading to be proclaimed prominently for all to hear.

In Catholic churches, we have a reading from some part of the New Testament apart from the Gospels (usually an epistle of Paul) and pride-of-place goes to the Gospel. Since the introduction of the Novus Ordo in 1969, the Sunday lectionary has been supplemented by the “First Reading” which, for most of the year, is typically from the Old Testament.

In Jewish synagogues, pride-of-place goes to a reading from the Torah, or “Law,” the most sacred part of the Hebrew Bible, corresponding to the Pentateuch or the first five books of the Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy). The custom arose, however, also to include a reading from the prophets (neviim) which, presumably, is what Jesus is doing.

This week, Jesus declares his identity and mission. Next Sunday, we’ll see Nazareth’s reaction.