Jesus begins his ministry!
In Luke 4:14-30, Jesus seems to have gained some popularity: Everyone is praising him. Then there’s a shift. Jesus reads the scroll in the temple and suddenly he is no longer popular. Jesus proclaimed (based on scripture from Isaiah) that God’s love and grace isn’t just for the chosen people. It isn’t limited to those who worship regularly, offer the correct sacrifices or even have the correct pedigree. Like John from last week’s blog, Jesus is declaring that God is for everyone.
Jesus is preaching is his home town. People who had watched him grow up and had known him since he was a child are listening. They’ve all heard the scroll before. It’s like coming to church and hearing a scripture that you heard last year on the same Sunday. There’s nothing new here.
Except that Jesus changed the scripture from Isaiah 61 just slightly. If you had been in the synagogue but weren’t paying attention you might not have noticed. But the changes were significant.
First and foremost in Jesus’ proclamation is the poor. In order for us to understand this passage, we need to understand what Jesus meant by poor. We hear the word poor and think of economic status but that isn’t what Jesus is referring to. In Jesus’ time, the poor were anyone who was socially vulnerable: “religiously, economically, politically, and domestically. People who are maimed, lame, blind, and the like are “poor,” regardless of how much land they might own.” A widow might have land to live on, she might have stashes of gold but she would always be a “poor widow” because she doesn’t have a husband. Jesus begins his mission by proclaiming good news to anyone who is outside the social structures and anyone who is vulnerable. (See Malina, B. J., & Rohrbaugh, R. L. (2003). Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Second Edition, p. 400). Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press. for more about this).We see throughout Jesus ministry his particular attention to those who are excluded for some reason.
Jesus continues identifying his mission by moving on to proclaiming a release for captives. In Jesus’ time it was not uncommon for people who owed debts to be put in jail in order to extort money from their families. The year of the Lord’s favour, also called the year of the Jubilee, refers to an ancient law found in Leviticus 25. Every 50th year all debts would be cancelled. If land had been sold to pay debts the original owners could return and reclaim their land. This was the ideal. Whether this was actually practiced is up for dispute but Jesus has taken the ancient law to heart.
The idea that debts would be cancelled would literally mean release from prison. This would be good news for those who have debts and who are in jail because of their debts. The debts owed would not be for luxury goods but for basic survival—the taxes that couldn’t be paid because the crop failed or the cow died or the primary earner in the family got sick. Jesus came to bring practical good news to the prisoners and release the people in jail because of debt or other injustice. In 1998 the World Council of Churches picked up on this passage and proclaimed a Jubilee year. During that year, they advocated for cancelling the debts of the poorest countries and changing policies for the World Bank and International Monetary Fund so that there was the possibility these countries could find their way out of debt, sustain their people and create viable economies.
Jesus started his ministry by identifying the people he was sent to by grounding his mission in the theology and law he had been taught since was a child. Perhaps some of the people listening had even taught him. And then he makes a pointed dig at the people who are listening. They are inside the temple. Some of them benefit from the current system. If you were allowed in the temple you were automatically an insider. If you were not an insider, you could not get in the door. Jesus says that he brings, “recovery of sight to the blind.” Blindness may refer to physical blindness but it also means to not understand. Jesus is bringing understanding to those who do not understand—particularly those who do not understand the purpose of his mission. Jesus spent a lot of time teaching and challenging those who upheld the system—the tax collectors, the temple authorities, the wealthy. These are the people inside the temple and the people listening to him speak. They got it. They understand that he’s taking them on in a direct challenge and they are not happy about it.
Then Jesus goes one step further and proclaims that he is the fulfilment of the scripture. He is the one who will bring about this change. Now his listeners are really unhappy. Jesus has overstepped his boundary. He is a local boy and uneducated. Who is he to speak for God and to put himself in so high a position. Then Jesus references two stories from the Hebrew scriptures which would be known by his listeners.
The first is Elijah and the widow. We heard this story before Christmas. In this story, the prophet Elijah is sent to a widow and asks to be fed. The widow responds that she has nothing but a bit of oil and flour and that she and her son are about to starve. Elijah tells her that the food will not run out. This widow was an outsider and yet the prophet was sent to her. Jesus also references the story of Naaman the Syrian who was a commander of enemy forces. The story goes that he suffered with leprosy and that the prophet Elisha cured him. Again, we see a prophet interacting with someone who is outside the community.
Jesus is speaking to the insiders and reminding them of the history in which God’s love, grace and healing goes to the outsiders. It’s an uncomfortable idea that God’s message is for the outsiders. When we take this passage all together Jesus was offering a radical message of good news to people who are on the outside. He offers the good news to people that don’t hear much good news. Jesus offers good news to people who just can’t seem to get a break in life.
If you have always been told by the temple authorities that you are unwelcome or an outsider because of disease, family structure, inability to make correct sacrifices then a message of good news for you would be a surprise. Jesus is turning the world upside down with his message. He is erasing the boundaries of the conventional religious structure and opening God’s grace and love to a broader group of people. He is claiming an authority from God which he is not entitled to under the social structure in which he lives.
Jesus offers an important message to all of us. If we feel like an outsider, like we don’t belong, Jesus tells us that we are welcome and the message of God’s love and grace is for us. If we feel like we are part of the established culture, like we are loved and that we belong, Jesus’ message for us is to broaden the circle a bit more and stretch the boundaries. We are loved. Love is abundant. There is more than enough for everyone.
Jesus was very practical in his ministry. He welcomed people. He fed people. He challenged the structures that kept people outside. He challenged the structures that oppressed and harmed. The good news that Jesus brings doesn’t belong just to the insiders but to those most marginalized and vulnerable in our society.