It is sometimes argued by people who think that Jesus had no interest in violence that when he applied Isaiah 61:1-2 to himself in the synagogue in Nazareth, he deliberately stopped short of proclaiming judgment against Israel:
And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour….” (Lk. 4:17–19)
Jesus did not go on to quote the next few words from Isaiah 61:2: “…and the day of vengeance of our God”. See! He’s a good guy, opposed to violence!
But there is a very good reason for the omission, and it is not that Jesus had nothing to say about a coming violent judgment against Israel. The setting for Isaiah 61 is the exilic period. Jerusalem has already been destroyed in an act of violent punishment for the sins of Israel. The city is in ruins, only a few of its former inhabitants remain, languishing in poverty, mourning among the ruins. The prophet announces to them the good news that YHWH will restore Zion; this wretched remnant will become “oaks of righteousness”, and they “shall build up the ancient ruins; they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations”.
The “day of vengeance” that Isaiah proclaims as part of this promise of restoration is a day of judgment against the enemies of Israel (cf. Is. 34:8), against Babylon. On the evidence of the Gospels, Jesus was not interested in a future judgment of Israel’s enemies—that prospect only comes into view when the good news of the coming kingdom of God is proclaimed across the Greek-Roman world. His eschatological focus was entirely on the coming day of God’s wrath against his own people, the immediate horizon of the disastrous revolt against Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.
So he begins his prophetic ministry in Nazareth by claiming the authority to announce good news to the “poor” in Israel and the hope of restoration. But this in no way contradicts the persistent message of coming violent and terminal judgment against the nation as a nation that we hear from Jesus and others throughout Luke’s Gospel. In particular, notice that Jesus will later speak of the period of the war as “days of vengeance, to fulfil all that is written” (Lk. 21:22). Not only that, Jesus is described as the one who will judge Israel: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Lk. 3:17).
- This child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (2:34);
- You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits in keeping with repentance…. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire (3:7, 9);
- His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire (3:17);
- But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. “Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry. “Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep (6:24–25)
- Judge not, and you will not be judged; condemn not, and you will not be condemned; forgive, and you will be forgiven (6:37);
- But the one who hears and does not do them is like a man who built a house on the ground without a foundation. When the stream broke against it, immediately it fell, and the ruin of that house was great (6:49);
- I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more bearable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades (10:12–15);
- …the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be required of this generation (11:50–51);
- Do you think that I have come to give peace [in the land]? No, I tell you, but rather division (12:51);
- Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish (13:2–5);
- And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down’ (13:8–9);
- In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out (13:28);
- But as for these enemies of mine, who did not want me to reign over them, bring them here and slaughter them before me (19:27);
- For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you (19:43–44);
- He will come and destroy those tenants and give the vineyard to others (20:16);
- Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him (20:18);
- But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. …for these are days of vengeance, to fulfil all that is written.… For there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people (Luke 21:20–23);
- For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren and the wombs that never bore and the breasts that never nursed!’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us’ (23:29–30; cf. Hos. 10:8).
Conclusion? The Jesus of the Gospels is not the Jesus of popular piety, whether of the left or of the right or of some mushy, self-indulgent evangelical middle. He certainly led his followers down a path of non-violence in pursuit of the coming rule of God, but the old covenant narrative ends not with the crucifixion but with the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, and Jesus as prophet and judge was implicated in that violent outcome.