Skip to content

Reflections on the Gospel, week before January 27, 2013

Luke 4:16-30

16 When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’
20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ 22All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ 23He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ 24And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. 25But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; 26yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. 27There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ 28When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. 29They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. 30But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

What I am Learning:

It is important to notice that Jesus participated in his faith community. He was a child of the People of Israel. His teachings are not those of an outsider who is criticizing a group he despises. He is a faithful Hebrew person who drew his criticisms of his people and his leaders from the very heart the law and the prophets.

A challenge for us is that we are so far removed from how those teachings were largely understood in the first century. A great historian, Jarslav Pelikan pointed out that by the end of the first century the Palestinian Jewish perspective in the time of Jesus was largely forgotten. Scholars are working hard to help us reclaim an approximation of that context. Sometimes what we learn is deeply challenging to the common view of Jesus and what he was up to. This text is one of those. Jesus used this quote from Isaiah to frame his ministry.

Let's focus on the quote from Isaiah 61.

18 ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.

This verse is interesting. It does not say that "the Spirit of the Lord is upon me and he anointed me to to bring good news to the poor."  To bring good news to the poor, it seems is a necessary and indivisible part of what the Spirit of the Lord calls us to do. In the first century most of the farmland had been taken away from the common people, 10% were abjectly poor, and 75% were just plain poor. The system was rigged to make the poor poorer and rich richer.

Jesus' job as a messiah includes good news for people who are poor - that things can and will change so that all have enough.

The church has tended to spiritualize this sentence to mean "the poor will be able to go to heaven when they die."

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

These are probably political prisoners held by the Romans and their client kings. John the Baptist was a political prisoner. These were people who spoke out against the Roman system and sought to change it. Jesus' ministry will include the task of setting these people free from prison.

The church has tended to spiritualize this text to mean that Jesus seeks to free people from their naughtiness.

and recovery of sight to the blind,

This is one that probably has several meanings in the first century. They thought that what we see or perceive depends on what is in our heart. Jesus will not only heal those who are physically blind, but those whose hearts are so blinded by the way things are that they cannot see God's inbreaking reign.

to let the oppressed go free,

This is a reference to the slavery of the People of Israel by the Babylonians that we call the Exile. In Jesus' day it meant the exile at home - the occupation of Palestine by the Romans so that they could exploit the people and resources there.

19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’

This is perhaps the most disturbing of all for us. The year of the Lord's favor is a reference to Leviticus 25 in which a pattern of economic behavior was set forth. The idea was that every 7 years there would be a sabbatical year for the land, people and animals. Every 49th year, every family would have its land returned to it and all debts would be forgiven.

Jesus' own people had their land taken away because of tax debt. Jesus is saying that this is wrong and that his ministry includes correcting this situation.

The church has often skipped over these words or simply inserted our common understanding of the messiah as the one who finally makes God into a forgiving God.

Douglas John Hall says that the reason God cares for the poor is that God cares for the real condition of human beings: personal, economic, relational, etc. Jesus is saying that his job as the messiah is to join God in that concern - and therefore our job as disciples is to join Jesus in this concern.

This does not mean that we do not care for the inner/spiritual dimension of life. Jesus is bringing sight to our blind hearts. Prayer, Bible Study, spiritual disciplines and practices and worship are all means of this graceful and grace-filled healing. But so is joining Christ in addressing the ways that our society continues to be rigged in favor of some.

On this commemoration of Martin Luther King, Jr. we do not celebrate a famous man. We celebrate a follower of Jesus upon whom the Spirit of the Lord courageously worked for the poor, the captives, the blind and the blind of heart, and economic justice for all.

This Spirit does not only upon the famous, although we are grateful for their kind of leadership. This Spirit is upon us.

1 thought on “Reflections on the Gospel, week before January 27, 2013

Comments are closed.