Today we hear the beginning of the Gospel of Luke, plus part one of the famous two part story of Jesus’ visit to his hometown synagogue. Jesus has just walked through Galilee, proclaiming the reign of God, when he arrives in Nazareth and goes directly to the synagogue and opens the scroll of the Hebrew scriptures to do a reading. The first question is: What does Jesus read from? He does not read from Genesis, about the creation of the world. He does not read from Exodus, about the Ten Commandments. He does not praise God and read from the Psalms. He does not read any story about the great King David. Jesus turns to the prophets, and reads from the greatest prophet, Isaiah, chapter 61.
We might think that for Jesus’ first public sermon in his hometown he would talk about God and prayer, but he does not. Instead, from the get-go, Jesus talks about social justice, the poor, prisoners, and the oppressed. This tells us a lot about Jesus and what the spiritual life means for him and what it must mean for us. As we will hear next week, the congregation will immediately balk at this non-spiritual talk. “Hey, you’re mixing religion and politics,” they’ll say. “Why are you talking about these controversial issues in the religious sanctuary?” For Jesus, the spiritual life begins with God’s mandate to make justice a reality for the poor and oppressed, so he announces that the Spirit of the Lord is upon him and he adopts Isaiah, chapter 61, as his mission statement, which the following basic steps.
First, Jesus announces that he has come to bring good news to the poor. In other words, Jesus has not come to bring good news to the rich. In fact, some saints and theologians conclude that if Jesus has good news for the poor, he has bad news for the rich. They have to give up their riches and become poor, and the poor have to become holy. Nobody cared for the poor back then and few do now, for the two billion people suffering in destitution, poverty and misery today, but Jesus says not only does he care about the poor, but God cares for the poor, that God loves them, that God does not want people to suffer poverty or injustice, that God wants justice for them, and that God’s reign of justice is coming quickly.
Next, Jesus says he has come to bring liberty to prisoners. He does not want people to be imprisoned. What would he say to our country, which holds over two million people behind bars today? He would want us to release prisoners and create justice for everyone, so that people do not turn to crime, drugs or violence. Does this mean he would release prisoners on death row, or the 75,000 prisoners we hold in Iraq or the immigrant prisoners in Guantanamo Bay? I think so. Jesus knows a better way to healing for people, and toward a more just society.
Next, Jesus says he has come to bring vision to the blind. He wants the blind to see, and he wants them to see him and he wants them to have the vision of God and God’s reign of justice. Then, he says he has come to let the oppressed go free, that God does not want us to be oppressed or to oppress others and that all oppression must end.
Finally, Jesus announces that he is proclaiming an “acceptable year for the Lord,” the Jubilee year, outlined in chapter 25 of the book of Leviticus, where God said to Moses that every 49 years, all property and possessions are to be redistributed equally among everyone, all slaves and prisoners released, and all debts canceled. This is the most radical vision of the world in the bible, and Jesus claims it for his first public statement! What does that mean for us? All land stolen from Native Americans by white people should be returned; all the Iraqi oil fields that we have taken should be returned; the entire third world debt should be immediately lifted; and the rich need to relinquish their land and share it with the poor of the world.
This is totally political and revolutionary. From the start, Jesus aligns himself with the prophets and sets the course for his life. These are the things that Jesus works for, the things for which he will get killed.
After he reads this mission statement, he sits down and everyone is looking at him and then he says on the most daring, dramatic and provocative lines in the Gospel: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Jesus says he fulfills scripture, the prophecy of Isaiah!
So what do we learn from this? First, I think the Gospel says we are all poor, all imprisoned, all blind, all oppressed, and all in need of the jubilee year, and that Jesus has come for us, that Jesus is saving us, and this is good news for all of us.
Second, as his followers, the Spirit of the Lord is anointing each one of us and sending us into the world to continue the mission of Jesus, to pursue the vision of Isaiah. Each one of us is supposed to bring good news to the poor, liberty to prisoners, vision to the blind, freedom to the oppressed, and to announce the jubilee year. This is our mission, our life work. We can ask ourselves, “How well are we pursuing the Gospel mission of Jesus?”
Finally, Jesus expects us to take the Word of God as seriously as he does, to try to fulfill the Gospel, to make the Gospel come true in our lives, so we can ask ourselves, “How are we too fulfilling the scripture?” As we follow Jesus, and take up this great mission, we too can say, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me and anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” One day, we too will fulfill the scriptures and make the Gospel come true in our own lives.