“To fulfill” is one of those verbs that becomes more troublesome the more I think about it. I’m fairly certain that it does not mean “to supersede,” for one interpretation of a text to rule all others entirely null, yet I would want to maintain that an event that “fulfills” Scripture genuinely adds something new, doing more than merely recapitulating more mundane processes of interpretation and certainly not merely making a text more solipsistic than otherwise it might have been.
Probably such concerns weren’t at the top of the list when the text of Luke was coming into its canonical form, but nonetheless the little details at the start of the story, the note that Jesus was being praised or glorified by everyone, lends some help to the person seeking fulfilment, or at least some sense of what that word might mean. Whatever happens in the synagogue, it’s on top of, over against, in some relationship with the broad-based acclaim that Jesus is already enjoying in Galilee. When Jesus says “this is fulfilled,” it’s not out of nowhere but serves as a follow-up to the teaching that he’s already been doing.
The text of Isaiah, of course, is central–it’s what gets fulfilled, and the public reading and the fulfilment are always linked. As my own seminary professors and no doubt many before them have noted, Isaiah’s oracle promises liberation, both from political forces and from the failure of the body. But what still puzzles me is what particular event Jesus seems to be naming when he says that things have been fulfilled. The problem is that, at least between the beginning of the synagogue scene and his declaration of fulfilment, nothing appears to happen. So the “in,” I take it, isn’t synonymous with “during.” If the event doesn’t happen simultaneously with the declaration, perhaps the fulfilment is “in” the hearing in some other sense.
Taking that tack, one possibility that offers itself is that Jesus, reading from Isaiah, in the synagogue, is a moment that neither Jesus-teaching, nor Isaiah-read, nor synagogue-gathered, can claim to be on its own. Running that direction, this moment is one that fits remarkably well with the season of Epiphany: when these elements come together, something divine becomes known to those gathered there, and to those reading of the gathering, that wasn’t on the horizon before. In the heard proclamation of Isaiah’s oracle, in the hearing of the Messiah announcing the words of the prophet, fulfilment is there. Jesus steals nothing from Isaiah’s moment, does not nullify the hope that exiles experience in Babylon, but certainly this moment adds, enhances, makes full what was seeking its own heart. What the words of Isaiah did on the banks of the Kebar is glorious and liberating; what Jesus speaks near the shores of the Sea of Galilee, and what the sound of Isaiah’s words animates, and what the gathered hear, make even more of it.
For the Christian, some two millennia after the synagogue moment, this culmination of Jesus’s early Galilean ministry stretches forward into our own story. We remember the later words of Jesus, those remembered in John when he promises greater things beyond his own work or those in Matthew when he tells his own disciples to make their own, or in Acts when he sends the faithful to the ends of the earth. We confess that our own witness to the Gospel does not merely recount what Isaiah or even Jesus said but becomes another moment in the grand fulfilment, not a radical break like that of Jesus but a reshaping of that fulfilment for another moment, another stronghold of darkness, another human being seeking out salvation. Because Jesus fulfilled, we can bear that fullness to all who would believe.
May the appearance of Jesus animate our own faithful witness.