~ Luke 4:14-21 ~
As you may have noticed over time, Dawn is not one to shy away from adding her own commentary whether as the liturgist or, as today, the scripture reader. Not that I never silently cringe just a bit when she does, but can you imagine how we would all feel if, after reading a scripture, she announced to us all that this scripture lesson is the fulfillment of herself, that, yes, these words are about her personal destiny – come true today!
Well, that seems to be sort of what we see in this story about Jesus going to the local synagogue. It was the synagogue of his family in his home town, the synagogue he’d grown up in. And, as we do here in signing up liturgists and scripture readers from week to week, so it seems they did at that little synagogue in Nazareth. Jesus must have responded to the email, and so, there he was, ready to do his part.
The scripture selection must have been already assigned, because, as it says, they handed him the Isaiah scroll. It was a text they’d probably heard many times before because it was one that spoke to their hopes and aspirations for a better existence, a better world. Good news for the poor, release of the captives, recovery of sight for the blind, the oppressed set free. Now these weren’t spiritual metaphors for personal salvation. They represented the hard realities of the political, physical world in which they lived. Isaiah’s inspirational words reflected the hopes and aspirations of a people who lived under the oppressive economic and political thumb of the Romans and the religious leaders of the country who were complicit in their plight. They all lived in what scholars of the ancient world call a Domination System. It was a hard life. Jesus’ family and friends and neighbors gathered at that little synagogue were the people who lived on the margins of society.
In addition, along with these good-news-to-the-poor and release-to-the-captives and recovery-of-sight-to-the-blind and setting-the-oppressed-free sentiments, this prophet’s promise included the proclamation of “the year of God’s favor.” Again, everyone gathered knew precisely what this meant. Everyone knew that Isaiah’s words were built on the imagery described in Leviticus 25 – the “year of Jubilee.” Jubilee was to happen every 50 years in Israel. Every 50 years Israel was commanded to declare a “year of liberty,” which involved several expressions of “release” or “rest.” It was to be a special year of Sabbath rest.
Some of these ‘releases’ to be exercised were leaving the ground fallow for a whole year. Canceling debts and any Israelite who had become an indentured servant was to be set free. Ancestral lands that had to be sold out of financial necessity in the prior 49 years would be returned to the original families. The reason for this was the recognition that all of the land belonged to God. So it was understood that those who profited by others’ misfortunes should not keep the land in perpetuity. Of course, this meant that every fifty years the whole society would undergo considerable economic upheavals. And that was the point. The law was designed to prevent the accumulation of wealth in any one person’s hands. Rather, once in a lifetime, the entire economy would be given a new start. Think of it as a complete ‘reset’ to the default settings on your computer.
It does seem quite incredible, doesn’t it? Think about what that might look like in today’s economy, even to just a small degree. A report came out this past week from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland that the top 26 billionaires in the world own $1.4 trillion, as much as 3.8 billion other people. Could a Jubilee-type practice help redistribute some of that massive income gap? Or, more simply, how about forgiving student loans? Could Jubilee be applied to cancelling the massive debt that many poor countries of the world owe which keeps them in perpetual poverty? Indeed, there was a move a few years ago to implement such a debt-forgiveness policy for poor nations. It was called Jubilee. Jubilee, applied to ancient Israel’s economy and our present-day economy, would be quite incredible, indeed.
Well, turns out it was too incredible. Israel never implemented the year of Jubilee. There is no historical or archaeological evidence that Jubilee was ever observed. At the time that Isaiah’s prophecy was written, Israel had never observed Jubilee. By the time of Jesus, conditions were oppressively dire. And the prospect of our current world system ever entertaining such a practice? Well, forget about it!
All of this was on Jesus’ mind before he arrived at the synagogue that Sabbath morning in Nazareth. He had, after all, spent considerable time in the wilderness thinking about all this (when he wasn’t be harassed by the devil, that is). And, he had been trying out his message as he traveled around the surrounding country, going to various synagogues. Evidently his message tested well because it says he “was praised by everyone.”
Now, it seems to have been common practice in those 1st century synagogues, for the person who did the scripture reading to make a few comments about the reading. So, the fact that Jesus might have something to say after reading these inspiring words from Isaiah was not surprising. But you get the sense that maybe his reputation had already preceded him, for it says that “the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him.” They were prepared, it seems, for something quite out of the norm. Everyone got quiet; you could hear a pin drop (And then someone’s cellphone rang and everyone jumped out of their skin!). Out of the silence, Jesus says: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Murmurs and gasps! “How audacious,” they are thinking, “How audacious, is that?”
Well, they didn’t really say “audacious.” I needed a provocative word for my sermon title and thought it worked really well. The text actually goes on to say that they were amazed at his words and spoke well of him. But that’s in next week’s lectionary text and, besides, things turned rather quickly to the point that these same folks ended up wanting to kill him. But that’s next week.
In the meantime, let’s stay with this word “audacious” for a while. How dare Jesus say that he is the fulfillment of these promises from Isaiah? Who does he think he is? Well, I suppose we could get into the speculative argument as to whether Jesus knew he was the Son of God. Did he preternaturally know everything that was going to happen? What did he know and when did he know it?
But let’s set that aside that angle for now. I think we could safely say that at minimum Jesus was a highly spiritually infused person. He took his relationship with God seriously, to say the least. And in that seriousness, Jesus’ calling was to work out God’s purpose. And that purpose was God’s justice. And God’s justice was economic and political justice.
Jesus could not have preached a spirituality divorced from political and economic justice. For Jesus to align himself with God’s justice meant explicitly to align himself with the poor and oppressed. I cannot say it strong enough: Jesus aligned himself with the poor and oppressed of his society and against the rich and powerful.
Jesus’ call, personally, was to live out God’s purpose. In that spirit he could say, “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” This was his message, this was his ministry…this was who he was!
Now, I admit I shrink back from such dedication, such intense purpose. I suppose you might as well. Such dedication of purpose is, well, really hard to do. There is no way we can match such intensity in our own individual or collective lives. Yet, we are called to follow this person, who literally gave his all for God’s purpose. In some way, some small way, are call is to also align ourselves with God’s purpose, with God’s agenda.
On this Sunday we welcome new members to our body. A wonderful recognition of those who have chosen to join with us in this enterprise called Noe Valley Ministry Presbyterian Church. In doing so, we are all reminded of our callings, individually and collectively. May we dare to continue to follow the one who has the audacity to say “today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” In doing so, may it be said of us, “how audacious!” Amen.