Sunday, July 24, 2016

Blessed are those who mourn

In the Jewish lectionary, many of the beautiful prophecies of Isaiah are read in the weeks of later summer and early autumn. There is some question about how long ago the readings were fixed to their dates and places in the lectionary, and about variations in exactly what was read that long ago. But there is a possibility that Jesus' sermon in the synagogue of Nazareth took place in late summer or early autumn, the week when either the Torah portion Ki Tavo or Nitzavim was read. In current Jewish lectionaries, those weeks both contain readings from Isaiah that are neighboring to what Jesus read in his sermon, either immediately before or close after the passage that he read.

So it's possible that Jesus chose that time to read in the synagogue, when he read these words of Isaiah:
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives, and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (Isaiah 61:1-2, see also Luke 4:18-19)
Jesus read that in his sermon at the synagogue in Nazareth. Jesus' Sermon on the Mount seems nearly a continuation of that, on another day in another place. Not only does the Sermon on the Mount continue the theme of proclaiming good news, but its beginning has a reference to the same verse of Isaiah on which he stopped reading in the synagogue:
to comfort all who mourn (Isaiah 61:2)
"Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." (Matthew 5:4)
The question of timing intrigues me, since Jesus in the New Testament was a regular at the synagogues, and his life and teachings were in tune with the Jewish festival calendar and the regular cycle of readings. I'll briefly consider what else was the theme of the Jewish lectionary on those two Sabbaths:
  • The Ki Tavo Torah portion focuses on the blessings for keeping faith with God, or the curses for failing to keep faith with God. It also discusses whether the people have eyes to see, ears to hear, and a heart to understand, which are themes that Jesus takes up again in his own teachings.
  • The Nitzavim reading from Isaiah is said to be the seventh and final in a series of readings of consolation or comfort, all taken from Isaiah, in the weeks preceding the Feast of Trumpets and then the Day of Atonement. The focus is on God's redemption, and on how God shares in suffering.

Jesus' teachings seem to be woven together with the weekly readings to make his point. And so here I will continue with what Isaiah said about blessing for those who mourn:
... to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion -- to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair. ... Instead of their shame, my people will receive a double portion, and instead of disgrace, they will rejoice in their inheritance; and so they will inherit a double portion in the land, and everlasting joy will be theirs. ... In my faithfulness I will reward them and make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants will be known among the nations and their offspring among the peoples. All who see them will acknowledge that they are a people the Lord has blessed. (Isaiah 61, various)

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