May only truth be spoken here, and may only truth be heard, in the name of God, Creator, Liberator, and Sustainer. Amen.
The story of Jesus’ Sabbath visit to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, the latter portion of which we have just heard in our Gospel reading for today, is a dominant theme in the Gospel according to Luke. The Gospel writer uses it to introduce Jesus’ mission and his message.
Some years ago, Walter Pilgrim of Pacific Lutheran University in Takoma, Washington, referred to it as Jesus’ Inaugural Address. We know that previously Jesus had been baptized by John and was then tried and tested in the wilderness. Now ready for his life’s work, Luke tells us that he returned to Galilee in the power of the Spirit and began to teach and preach. That set the stage for the dramatic account of Jesus’ visit to Nazareth.
It is very easy to visualize the scene. This is Jesus’ home town. Everybody knows he is the son of Joseph, the local carpenter. This is the synagogue in which he had learned to worship, pray, sing the psalms, and hear the Scriptures recited and read. Word of his return and his astonishing teaching had spread throughout the community and there was a full house that day. The people honor Jesus by asking him to read the Scripture. We are told that he receives the scroll and reads from the prophet Isaiah.
The Spirit of the Lord God 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.
With rapt attention the people wait for his interpretation.
He begins by saying, “Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Hold on a minute. Now what did he just say? And the story begins to take an ominous turn. Although they first speak well of him, within a short time, their mood changes. They become enraged and in a flash they become a lynch mob, chase him down, and try to hurl him off a cliff.
Obviously his words, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” are not what they had expected. They perhaps had hoped for a moving discourse about the prophet Isaiah and the exile to which he had spoken. They also perhaps were looking for Jesus to perform some of the miraculous works he had done at Capernaum. But his claim to possess the spirit and to be the one through whom the prophetic words were to be fulfilled, then and there, became an offense and the cause for mob action.
How dare he? Who does he think he is? Pilgrim goes on to point out that is exactly the question and the answer towards which we are driven in this entire gospel. Using the words of the prophet Isaiah, the Gospel writer expresses who Jesus is and the purpose of his life and ministry. He would have us see that Jesus is indeed the spirit-anointed one to proclaim good news to the poor. And that is what this Gospel is all about: good news.
At the heart of this good news as lived out in the words, deeds, death, and resurrection of Jesus is the message of God’s unconditional love and mercy for humanity, all of humanity. Throughout Luke’s Gospel, we see Jesus putting this all embracing forgiving and inviting love into action. He welcomes publicans and sinners, eats and drinks with them, and invites them to follow him. Now many good and pious folk did not understand how he could do this. They called him a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of sinners. The Jesus of Luke’s Gospel counters their criticism by telling those three familiar parables of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost or prodigal son, all of which speak to God’s great joy when the lost are found. There are many other familiar stories, including the healing of Simon’s mother in law, the casting out of demons, the cleansing of lepers, and others who came to him for cure. Real people, trapped in their lives, sick in mind and body, some without hope or love, encounter the liberating good news of a God who accepts them as they are, seeks their welfare, wipes away their tears, and gives them a chance for new life in the person of Jesus.
Do we know this God of mercy who through his son pours out his love for us on Calvary’s cross? To know in the biblical sense of that word is to experience personally, to get in touch with the reality itself. To know in this personal way, we must first know the truth about ourselves, our inner selves, our real motives, our hidden lives. It means to lay ourselves open before God who knows us better than we know ourselves. It means to stop offering excuses, stop blaming others for what we do or don’t do, to stop crediting circumstances for what is inappropriate and unacceptable. It is then we can hear God’s word of forgiveness, God’s good news that we can begin again, and God’s promise that we can live daily in the assurance of God’s power and love. To know this is to be in touch with the liberating good news that can make us whole.
But let us hear, once again, what precedes our Gospel lesson for today. Listen again, to the words from the prophet Isaiah, which delineate Jesus’ mission.
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me because he has anointed me to preach good news to he 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.
Who are the poor, the captive, the blind, and the oppressed? We know Isaiah was speaking to the remnant of the Babylonian captivity. He was announcing to them the liberating news that their captivity was over and their freedom was at hand. But how do these words apply to Jesus mission? It would be easy to forget the confused, chaotic, and visible social context in which Isaiah spoke and to reinterpret these words in a purely religious way. And this, in fact, is what largely has been done. In Matthew, the poor are the poor in spirit; the captives and the oppressed are those burdened by sin and guilt; and the blind are those who are spiritually ignorant. Some would rather have this more safe and comfortable portrait of Jesus and not the politically and socially conscious one proclaimed in Luke’s Gospel.
There are other indicators about the mission of Jesus in this particular Gospel. In the very first chapter Mary, his mother, sings the Magnificat in which she praises a God who has chosen the lowly and humbles the great. This God has put down the mighty from their seats and exalted those of low degree. This God has filled the hungry with good things and the rich has sent empty away. Surely Mary’s God is the God of the poor and the lowly.
Another indicator can be heard in Luke’s Sermon on the Mount. Again, those blessed by God in Matthew are the poor in spirit and those who hunger and thirst do so for righteousness. The blessed in Luke are simply the poor, those who are hungry and those who weep now. In addition, Luke includes the words of condemnation spoken by Jesus against the rich, the full, and those who laugh now. We hear the message of God’s favor toward the poor and the powerless and God’s word of warning to the affluent and the powerful. In addition to the sinners, the sick, and the outcast to whom Jesus expressed love and acceptance, we can add a long list of other people who lived on the margins of his society and who became special recipients of his ministry—despised Samaritans; hated tax collectors; the common folk, villagers, and peasants who were harassed and helpless like sheep without a shepherd; and the seldom-mentioned women and children—all of them people living at the edges of the community but invited into fellowship with him. What we see and hear in Luke’s Gospel is that this Jesus of Nazareth is, indeed, the liberator of the poor, the advocate of the powerless, and the friend of all who suffer. Certainly those of us who call ourselves Christians, followers after Christ are called to embrace this social dimension of his ministry.
We, too, are called to identify with the cause of the needy and to share in his mission of love and mercy for the sick, especially those with preventable illness and those whose disorders alienate them from the community, and also the imprisoned and the oppressed, the weak, and the poor. How this gets lived out personally is something each of us must struggle with and answer for our self. But I can give you two examples.
The first comes from the Gospel itself. If you recall Zacchaeus, the short of stature, rich tax collector had a life transforming experience when he was called down out of the sycamore tree and Jesus went to his house for dinner. Zacchaeus said, I will give one half of my property to the poor, and if I have cheated anyone, which he probably had, I will pay them back four times the amount.
The second example is a contemporary situation. A successful pediatrician, whom I know as an active layman in his congregation and in his diocese, treats children with neurological disorders such as autism, epilepsy, and severe brain injury. For the past 15 years he has volunteered his medical and his psychiatric services once a week at a community health center in a poor, predominantly black and Latino Boston neighborhood so that similarly afflicted children who do not normally find their way to the Boston hospitals where he practices are afforded the same first-class care as suburban children who can and do come. The care is first rate because the center is directed by a watchful and caring neighborhood-based staff and board. He had to learn quickly a broken kind of Spanish that would allow him to communicate with parents of many of his patients, and over the years he has become a trusted friend, confidante, and extended family member to many who would never have received the care he can provide. It has been a life-changing encounter for them and a life-changing spiritual encounter for him.
Well might we ask as followers after Christ that we, too, might be anointed with the power of the Spirit; that we might, in some tangible way, help to heal the sick, such as those affected by HIV/AIDS, here at home and on the continent of Africa, where hundreds of thousands are dying and leaving a generation of orphans. Well might we ask to be anointed with the power of the Spirit that we might bind up some who are broken hearted for lack of liberty and justice; that we might proclaim freedom to some captive and that we might bring good news to some who are poor. And thus we might live into the mission and the ministry of this Jesus of Nazareth, so vividly portrayed and so marvelously revealed as Liberator in the good news according to Luke. Amen.