EPIPHANY 3, C
Last week we took a detour to the Gospel of John to look at the wedding at Cana. This week we are back in Luke, and just to be clear, let me review what has happened in Luke up to this point, because the context of this in Luke is very important to understanding today’s reading.
We’ve heard the birth narrative that begins the Lukan Gospel and includes the episode of the 12 year old Jesus staying behind in Jerusalem to study in the temple. Then comes John the Baptist and the baptism of Jesus, which includes a genealogy of Jesus traced back to Adam.
After the baptism comes the 40 days in the wilderness, being tempted by the devil. What we heard this morning comes immediately after Jesus returns from the wilderness, “filled with the power of the Spirit.” He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. He has not yet gathered any disciples.
Now he shows up in his home town (and next week we’ll hear what happens to him there), but this week we only hear the first part. Jesus reads from the prophet Isaiah:
“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, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
Then Jesus rolls up the scroll, sits down, and after a pregnant pause, says to the congregation, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” WOW! What a claim that is.
Jesus essentially says that he is here to fulfill what Isaiah said. This is a declaration of his mission and purpose in life. He has come to do the very things Isaiah listed and he claims that the spirit of the Lord is upon him and has anointed him to do these things.
First, there is the literal meaning of Isaiah’s statements. This would mean that Jesus is literally going to preach good news to the poor. OK. I guess that would be that God values them just as much as God values the wealthy and the mighty.
Also he will proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind. Well we know he not only proclaimed it but also was able to actually heal blind people and restore their sight. I’m not sure though about release to the captives. Jesus does not actually free any slaves, does he?
How about letting the oppressed go free? Of course, there was the hope that the Messiah would get rid of the Romans who were oppressing the Jews, but Jesus certainly doesn’t do that. He does, however, caste out demons, certainly a freeing of a person sorely oppressed.
Think for a moment about how often we hear the words, “Fear not,” or “Don’t be afraid” in the Bible. I believe Jesus came to free us from the oppression of fear and worry too. If we can really trust God to be always with us, we can let go of our fears and worries.
People who have escaped addiction to alcohol or drugs through 12-step programs, have done so largely by turning their lives over to their higher power, after admitting that they are not in control of their lives. And to be freed from addiction is certainly a release from captivity and from terrible oppression. So too we can be freed from fear.
To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor is to proclaim a Jubilee year, which was a time when slaves were freed and when land reverted to the owners who lost it since the last Jubilee. Jesus may have proclaimed a year of Jubilee, but it was not, unfortunately, observed. Think what that would have meant to the three families who then owned most of the farmland in Palestine. They would have had to return the land to the tenants.
We can also understand the statements of Isaiah in metaphorical terms. Jesus certainly tries to heal the blindness of everyone, not just those who are physically blind. And we are all captives to one extent or another, maybe especially captives to our own sin. By showing us new ways to live, Jesus sets us free.
Do notice what is not in this mission statement. There is no mention of dying for all humanity. There is no mention of death or resurrection or the cross or atonement. In Luke’s gospel, the story is all about social justice and about Jesus coming to gentiles as well as Jews. Thus the genealogy back to Adam instead of back to David as it was in Matthew.
What is implicit in this Mission statement, as Luke presents it, is that Jesus is coming to serve, and especially coming to serve the people who are on the outside, who are marginalized, who are the least among the society. This must have been quite a shock to his audience, once they thought about it. No matter how you slice it, it turns the known culture and its values upside down.
Why didn’t Jesus come to serve the righteous? Why didn’t Jesus come to serve the temple priests? Or the wealthy merchants? These were the ones with greatest honor in their society. It does remind me somewhat of our own culture, where even those at the bottom of the heap respect the wealthy and still believe they can become that. It’s somehow insulting to them to suggest otherwise.
We will see next week how Jesus further insults his audience, but let’s just consider his mission statement.
The main point is that it is all about service, and it’s directed towards the bottom of society. I don’t read this as an effort to put those who are wealthy at the bottom of the heap, but rather as corrective action, to create a more just and equitable society. Jesus shows us over and over that the poor and the downtrodden are just as important as the upper layers of society in the eyes of God.
This is not an easy message to accept, even in our time and in our culture. The messages of this culture are about competing and winning, about getting ahead and doing whatever is necessary to make that happen, about keeping up with the neighbors or with the movies stars, about looking good instead of being good.
In a culture that promotes hierarchy, in a church that is based on hierarchy, in school systems that promote the meritocracy, it’s so easy to forget that we are all equally valuable in God’s kingdom; that in God’s eyes each of us is worth exactly the same. It’s similar to the shock children sometimes encounter when they realize that their parents love all their children, even the ones who are “bad.” We can just hear the whining, “That’s not fair!”
The easiest way to come to understanding and hopefully acceptance of such a mission statement as Luke gives us is to remember that all people are children of God, and we’re all in this together. Jesus may preach to the margins of society, but his lessons are good for all of us, maybe especially for those who are not on the margins. And the good news for the poor is good news for all of us! AMEN