by Craig M. Watts. Originally published at The Yoke, reposted with permission.
Clarity brings trouble.
Few ministers would bother preaching a second sermon if they got the reaction Jesus received after his first one in his hometown synagogue. Many preachers have had people respond to a message with anger but not with attempts on their lives. Jesus roused passions with his preaching. And some of those passions were deadly.
Many preachers – and not only preachers! – have found that life can be smoother if you are not too clear about what you are saying. Words that sound meaningful and important will more likely be praised if their relevance is not altogether evident. Clarity brings trouble. This is particularly true for the preacher who makes it clear to his or her hearers that they are not the supreme focus of God’s blessings. In fact, they may be bypassed as the needs of others become God’s primary focus.
When Jesus stepped into the synagogue in Nazareth and was handed a scroll of Isaiah, what scholars today would call Second Isaiah, he opened it and read, “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” (Luke 4:18-19; Isaiah 61:1-2a). And then he declared, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
What happened next is somewhat confusing. Initially, it seems as though the people in the synagogue were pleased with what they heard. “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’” (vs.22). Perhaps they believed Jesus presented himself better than they would have expected. But in addition it could also be that they initially thought Jesus selected a passage that reinforced their sense of privilege before God.
As Jesus read the words of the prophet the people who listened saw the passage as a statement about themselves. They were the poor who were to receive good news, the captives to be released, the oppressed to be freed, the ones to experience the Jubilee of God. And so they were pleased with Jesus’ selection of scripture. Perhaps what they didn’t notice at first was that Jesus cut short his reading of Isaiah just before the words, “and the day of vengeance of our God” (Isaiah 1:2b), words that might apply to their enemies. Jesus omitted as well, “Strangers will shepherd your flocks; foreigners will work your fields and vineyard. You will feed on the wealth of nations, and in their riches you will boast” (vss. 5, 7).
So, “All spoke well of him” …until Jesus again opened his mouth and clarified his intention.
It was news of a reversal of fortunes..,
Jesus referenced the good work he did in Capernaum, a place with a large non-Jewish population, “strangers” that Jesus did not exclude. He then proceeded to point to two stories in the Hebrew scriptures in which God healed and helped outsiders even when those who assumed themselves to be the focus of God’s favor were not receiving comparable help. Jesus referred to the prophet Elijah being sent by God during a famine to a non-Jewish widow at Zarephath in Sidon who helped the prophet and in turn was wondrously blessed by him while others in Israel were not being equally blessed. Jesus also pointed to Naaman the Syrian who was healed by the prophet Elisha though other lepers in Israel were not being healed. In doing this Jesus made it clear that the preferential option of God was not automatically to the benefit of those who see themselves as the spiritual insiders, the “chosen” people.
When Jesus declared, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing,” he was claiming the words of Isaiah as a statement of his mission. That mission had nothing to do with bolstering the esteem or power of a select few who saw themselves as the rightful recipients of God’s special favor. Instead he placed the beleaguered, marginalized, suffering and needy as the focus of his efforts.
Jesus says God’s plan and God’s mission for him, as One anointed by the Holy Spirit as both prophet and Messiah, would not be to fulfill the hopes and dreams of one people to the exclusion of others. Rather he would include the excluded. He would bring healing and hope to those who were regarded by the spiritual insiders as unworthy of regard, reaching out to those who were not among the privileged, spiritually or materially. While Jesus of Matthew’s Gospel says he was sent only to the household of Israel (15:24), Jesus in Luke’s Gospel appears to tell a different story, and it was not one well received in Nazareth.
Commentators have noted that the significance of this passage is that it is a paradigm not only of the mission of Jesus but that of the church. The mission of the church is not to be determined by the hopes and dreams of any one nation nor is it limited to the interests of any one religion. The ministry of Jesus and the rightful ministry of the church is not to protect or bolster the privileged and add to their advantages but to care for those who are most vulnerable, those who are impoverished, exploited, and afflicted in body and spirit.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.” The good news Jesus brought to the poor did not come in mere words nor was the news primarily about an afterlife salvation, though his parable of the rich man and Lazarus suggests such a promise (Luke 16:19-31). The “good news to the poor” was news of the kingdom of God. It was news of a reversal of fortunes in which the first shall be last and the last shall be first (Luke 13:30). It was news of greatness no longer being determined by power and position but by the practice of servanthood (Luke 22:25-27)
…we must pursue his ends by all means available.
The good news of Jesus to the poor came as he spoke words of blessing for the poor and the opposite for the rich (Luke 6:20, 24). The good news involved the entire reconfiguration of position and privilege being disrupted as justice, mercy and faithfulness are given priority (Luke 11:42; Matthew 23:23). The good news to the poor was expressed as Jesus told people to prefer the poor and less advantaged over the rich and well placed as guests (Luke 14:12-14). He proclaimed good news to the poor as he called those who were wealthy to disinvest and distribute their riches to the poor (Luke 12:33-34; 18:22-25; 19:1-10).
As Jesus read further in Isaiah of being sent “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” his mission to the impaired and disenfranchised is underlined. In referencing “the year of the Lord’s favor” Jesus – and Isaiah before him – pointed to the year of Jubilee in which slaves were released, debts forgiven, and property redistributed, among other things (Leviticus 25:1-55). Certainly, Jesus healed the spiritually blind, imprisoned and oppressed. But to spiritualize and interiorize the mission of Jesus – and the church by extension – can be done only by ignoring that Jesus taught his disciples to put into practice what he taught them to pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10).
As followers of Jesus our mission is to extend his mission. If what we say, do, and support is not good news to the poor, leading to healing, to liberation, and to support for the oppressed then we are following an agenda disconnected from Jesus. If we embrace the mission of Jesus with its focus on the least advantaged and most beleaguered among us then we must pursue his ends by all means available. Surely, there is no direct line from the teaching of Jesus and words of the Bible to present day practices and public policies. But these teachings and words do point in some directions and away from others.
Many in the churches in America seem far more concerned about advancing Christian privilege in the public square than they are in pursuing the Jesus agenda laid out in Nazareth. There is a misguided preoccupation among some Christian leaders with the symbolic expressions of religion in such forms as Ten Commandment monuments, the word “God” in the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, the motto “in God we trust” printed on currency, “Merry Christmas” being said in stores and orchestrated prayer in public schools.
The government is not the church…
The more substantive issues that are front and center for many conservative Christian leaders have nothing to do with the poor, blind, imprisoned and oppressed. Rather the “liberty” to discriminate against LGBTQ people and enacting a legal ban on abortion are the dominate concerns. Conservative Christians often feel embattled and insist that there is an assault on Christianity in America when in fact Christians are not being attacked so much as they are being forced to adjust to social changes that less hospitable to Christian privilege.
As I was writing this piece the U.S. Congress was debating healthcare, specifically debating how to get rid of the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. The alternatives that were proposed were going to lead to 20 million or more Americans losing their healthcare insurance, according to the Congressional Budget Office, inevitably leading to an increase in deaths due to lack of medical care. Most of those in Congress who sought to abolish Obamacare regard themselves as Christians, as do most who voted for them. Yet their actions would lead to consequences that would be anything but “good news to the poor” nor would their actions increase the chances of the blind being healed. Why would anyone claiming to follow Jesus support such action?
I don’t say this as a defense of Obamacare. I don’t believe it is the best possible approach to healthcare. However, to support repealing it without offering a replacement that would guarantee help for at least as many people as are being covered under the program currently in place is not reflective of loyalty to Jesus and his agenda. The Kansas U.S. Rep. Roger Marshall made the ludicrous claim that Jesus would be in sympathy with his opposition to the expansion of Medicaid because Jesus said, “The poor will always be with us.” Followers of Jesus don’t support policies and practices that are bad news for the poor, hindering healing or fostering oppression whether in church, the workplace, or the government.
The government is not the church and the mission we as disciples have is not identical with the function of the government. However, when some Christians argue that the government should not be involved in caring for the poor, sick and marginalized and that such care should be entirely in the hands of the church and charitable private organizations they are allowing their political philosophy to blind them to the ends we as followers of Jesus should pursue by every means available.
Just in the area of food aid, the Christian organization Bread for the World has pointed out that over 95% of the aid comes, not from churches, but the government. It is not realistic to believe that churches can provide twenty time more than they currently do. But those who want the government out of the business of helping the needy either believe churches are able to do that much more or they are fine with 95% of the aid being cut off, a heartless option.
Yet there are Christians who would claim that cutting off aid to the poor is actually an act of compassion! That would turn the meaning of compassion on its head. Yet White House’s budget director Mick Mulvaney claimed that compassion was a motive for cutting out programs such as Meals on Wheels from the budget offered by the Trump administration earlier this year. Is this “good news for the poor”? Sadly, the outcry from most American church leaders was far too muted.
Much concern has been voiced over the decline in church participation and the growth of the religious “nones.” But so long as Christians -and church leaders in particular- go about with little evidence of being guided by the Nazareth agenda of Jesus in the things they proclaim, practices they encourage and public policies they promote then the decline is well deserved. Far preferable would be to align our agenda with that of Jesus.
Craig M. Watts is the author of over two hundred articles and essays. They have appeared in such periodicals as Cross Currents, Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Word and World, Encounter and more. He periodically writes blog articles for the Red Letter Christian site. He is the author of two books, Bowing Toward Babylon: The Nationalistic Subversion of Christian Worship in America and Disciple of Peace: Alexander Campbell on Pacifism, Violence and the State. He has served as minister of Royal Palm Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-national congregation in Coral Springs, Florida since 2000.