In today’s Gospel story, Jesus gives his inaugural address in his home synagogue, in Nazareth, where he grew up. He knows these folks; they know him; many have known him since he was a child.
Jesus has been living in Capernaum, getting to know the people there so he could select and recruit disciples. He has now been travelling around, preaching and teaching and healing. He is getting well-known in the area, and when he’s near Nazareth, he is invited to preach in his home synagogue.
The lectionary divides the story of this episode in two parts. The first half is sort of a triumph for Jesus. Our text leaves out the first response to Jesus, which was at first very positive. The CEB says, “Everyone was raving about Jesus.” They were very impressed with him, and that he was one of them. Next week, we’ll see that it turns out badly after the folks have had a few minutes to think about what he has said. But at first, it’s a great moment.
We don’t know if Jesus reads the passage from Isaiah as his choice or if it happened to be the lectionary text for the day. We do know that this Isaiah text is the theme for Jesus in Luke. Remember the songs we read and talked about in Advent and just before: Hannah, Zechariah, and Mary all sang about God lifting up the oppressed, giving sight to the blind, and so forth.
This is what Jesus is about, from the beginning to the end in Luke. Jesus’ focus is on making sure that the poor have enough, the prisoners are set free, and the blind recover their sight. Those who are poor, imprisoned, and blind receive this as very good news. The imprisoned here does not refer to those who have committed murder, but about those who have been sent to prison for debt, or for stealing a loaf of bread to feel their families.
Jesus probably gave a sermon on the meaning of this text, a longer message than what we have here in Luke. At the end of his sermon, Jesus goes beyond quoting Isaiah and reminding the folks about God’s vision. He goes beyond quoting what other rabbis have said. Jesus says, “This vision is fulfilled today, as I speak.” The intent is to say, “This vision is fulfilled in me!”
One way of interpreting this text is to ask ourselves if we are poor, oppressed, blind. Most of us in this room are none of the above. A few of us live close to the poverty line, but most of us are comfortable, financially. We are not oppressed; even if our candidate lost the election, we still have the freedom to campaign and vote again in two or four years. Many of us have vision problems, accommodated by glasses, large print materials, a few minutes of surgery, and so forth. Those who are totally blind in our culture manage to live a full life, unlike the blind in Jesus’ day, who were considered defective and forced to beg.
Mike and I saw the movie “Les Miserables” on Friday. I was struck by the portrayal of the extreme poverty and misery of 19th century France. Fantine had a job; her young daughter worked essentially as a slave in a hotel. When co-workers caused Fantine to lose her job, she was forced lower and lower into poverty. She sold her hair; she sold her teeth; she became a prostitute. She had to pay the owners of the hotel to keep her daughter there, with a roof over her head, no matter how terrible the conditions were. She died, essentially of her poverty.
Charles Dickens wrote of similar conditions in 19th London in many of his novels. Harriet Beecher Stowe chronicled the life of slaves in the 19th century in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Upton Sinclair wrote of similar conditions in turn-of-the-20th-century Chicago in his novel, The Jungle. Country-Western songs often highlight the challenges of living in poverty. Elvis Presley’s In the Ghetto, Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues, and Tennessee Ernie Ford’s Sixteen Tons all speak about the tragedy of living in poverty. A lot of rap and hip-hop music comes from the conditions of living in the poverty-stricken parts of our country. The Occupy Wall Street movement arose out of the same issues.
Those who live in poverty find it hard to get a job, hard to find housing they can afford, hard to purchase nutritious food, hard to get medical care. There are always people ready to exploit the needy, enticing them to sell drugs, join gangs, become angry and violent, and get killed or sent to prison.
What difference has it made that Jesus says, “This scripture has been fulfilled!?” The part we often miss is that Jesus called people, men and women, to be his disciples and help him fulfill the promise of Isaiah. We see, in Paul’s letters and in the Acts of the Apostles, that the early church continued this mission, feeding and clothing the hungry, healing the blind and disabled, reaching into all classes of society to create change.
As the spiritual descendants of the first apostles and disciples, we are called to do the same. Jesus calls and sends us to do what we can to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, free those who have been unjustly imprisoned, and tell the good news to those who need to hear it.
This is my text; I had it read at my ordination, and at my installation as pastor. If I die tomorrow, tell the preacher to use this text. These are issues I am passionate about. Healthy, growing congregations are passionate about responding to this text.
This is what we at Hope should be about. Our mission statement makes that clear: we are called to know Christ and to make him known. If we will truly know Christ, we must remember his purpose, so clearly stated in his inaugural address in Nazareth.
We do a lot to know Christ and to make him known. I suspect there will be more ways for us to serve in the future. As we inaugurate our 41st year as a congregation, we can ask ourselves, what is God calling us to do at Hope? How, today, is God sending us 21st century disciples out to reach the poor and oppressed, the hungry, the needy? It should be an interesting year.
Please pray with me. God of promise, you call us into adventures we are not sure we want to take on. You promise to fulfill your commitment to the hungry, the blind, the oppressed. Guide us into the future, and send us out in your name, to do your ministry. Amen