“All their eyes were fixed on him”

This phrase leaped out at me from the gospel reading this weekend. Jesus has come to his home town of Nazareth, after having made a name for himself in the area, and goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath. He rises to read, and is handed the scroll of Isaiah, unrolls it and looks for a particular passage.

(Was that the portion for the day? or did he ignore the lectionary, and choose his own text?)

He proclaims a passage that promises glad tidings, liberty, sight for the blind, rescue for the oppressed, and “a year acceptable to the LORD.” (And either Jesus deliberately omitted the clauses in that passage about vengeance, or he was working with a different text than has come down to us.)

He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the attendant, and sat back down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.

This immediately reminded me of the phrase in the martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity: when “the people besought that they should be brought forward, that when the sword pierced through their bodies their eyes might be joined thereto as witnesses to the slaughter.” Especially knowing, as we do, that this crowd will be so infuriated by his preaching (in which he points out the perfectly true facts that according to the book of Kings, the LORD had sent Elijah and Elisha to help suffering foreigners rather than suffering Israelites) that they will rise up in a body, drive him out of town, and try to throw him over a cliff.

The eyes are so significant here that it’s startling to me that Jesus says “Today this passage is fulfilled in your hearing,”, rather than “in your sight.”

It made me notice the contrast in the first reading, from Nehemiah. After Ezra holds up the Torah “so that all the people might see it”,

Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God, and all the people, their hands raised high, answered, “Amen, amen!” Then they knelt down and bowed before the LORD, their faces to the ground.

(emphasis mine)

Unlike the crowd who listened to, adulated, disparaged, and finally attempted to lynch Jesus, this crowd was moved to tears and lamentation. The priests had to tell them “No, no, don’t cry! Rejoice, because this day is holy to the LORD! Go party!”

Both crowds were clearly charged with expectation. Is it coincidental that the one which succumbed to scandal and violence is the one whose eyes were joined? Maybe you can’t see the accusative gesture if you aren’t looking.

(We aren’t told of an accusative gesture, but can’t you imagine it? What happens when a speaker starts saying things that scandalize the crowd? People start looking at each other, right? Rolling their eyes. Looking for signs of like-mindedness, that the people around agree with them. Shaking their heads and frowning in disapproval. We look for justification for our response in each other’s eyes, and that not only emboldens us to further express our own response, but can actually aggravate our own response.)

Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth also sounds like it is written to a crowd in a state of mimetic turmoil: forming into factions with different gifts, each faction defining itself over against (and superior to) all the others. “No way!” says Paul. “We receive our identity from Christ, not from the gifts we have; and so we all have the same identity. It’s not like we have those gifts based on our own merit, either: we received them from Christ, too, to use them in service to each other for the benefit of all, not to look good on our resumes or jockey for position. Get with the program, folks: the program is Christ.”

Let the words of my mouth be acceptable,
the thoughts of my heart before you,
LORD, my rock and my redeemer.

(We didn’t hear that in the lectionary, but it’s the final verse of the psalm we heard and sang parts of, Psalm 19.)

Also check out the lectionary reflections for this week at Preaching Peace and the translation with notes over at Left Behind and Loving It.

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3 Responses to “All their eyes were fixed on him”

  1. abramkj says:

    Love these reflections. I just preached on this passage yesterday at a church where all the other readings were done, too–some fascinating connections. Isn’t there a line in Psalm 19, too, about God’s law giving light to the eyes?

    My read of their waiting for Jesus when he sits down was that it could be a neutral posture (not to argue with anything you’re saying here, though)–that was expected synagogue posture: stand for reading, sit for exposition, so perhaps they’re just waiting to see how he’ll exposit, and the air isn’t really charged yet, so to speak?

    • Thanks! Yep, it’s verse 9 of the psalm (which was included in the portion we sang):

      The precepts of the LORD are right,
      rejoicing the heart.
      The command of the LORD is clear,
      enlightening the eye.

      That’s interesting about the expected posture, and jibes with something I learned a few months ago about the expected level of what we today would call rabbinical debate in the synagogue: ie, it was expected that there would be a lively and critical discussion, and the dynamics of that would happen best if all were seated, including the one who had just presented his ideas.

      I think the air must have been charged, though: first, because why mention that everyone was looking at him if the original readers/hearers would have taken that for granted? But more importantly because of the dynamics of the situation. It’s clear that Jesus has already made a name for himself in the region, so this is akin to Billy Graham or Brian McLaren coming back home to the little church in the little off-the-beaten-track village where he grew up. How could the air not be charged?

      • abramkj says:

        Good points–it does seem to be a pretty charged verb. BDAG notes it’s also used in Acts 3:4; 6:15; 11:6; 13:9, all situations where the look is an expectant one in some way.

        What I really wish we knew: was Isaiah already appointed for that day? We know Isaiah could all fit on one scroll. Did Jesus request the Isaiah scroll? Did the attendant pick it and then Jesus picked up at chapter 61? Was Jesus going off-lectionary (if the lectionary was even fixed yet then)? All questions I wish we had more conclusive information about.

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