And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
For those who missed the latest Cosmopolitan Magazine (which I assume is just about everyone) it contained the results of a very interesting study by British researchers where Australians have been identified as the worst sinners in the world in terms of the sin of envy.
The survey compared different cultures and countries on how they rated according to the traditional list of the ‘seven deadly sins’ (ie. lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride) and found Australia to rate no.1 in the ‘envy’ department. Apparently the study based its conclusions on hard data, such as comparing the number of sick days taken off work to determine sloth
You’ll be interested to know that according to the same study, the USA is top of the list in terms of gluttony, Iceland landed the no.1 spot for both sloth and pride, and which country do you think was deemed to be the most lustful country in the world? South Korea! (Yep. it surprised me too)
Anyway, I’m not pretending that this has a lot to do with the sermon, but it’s just so fascinating! Are we really the most envious nation in the world? If so, who are we envying? Americans? I don’t think so. I think we’re probably envying each other. That would certainly help explain our ‘tall poppy syndrome’ where we Aussie’s love nothing better than slagging off someone who has been really successful – the real reason for that evidently being because we secretly envy their success.
If this study is true it is a rather tragic reflection on Australian society, as envy has to be the most pathetic of all the so-called ‘deadly sins’. Is this really the great Australia dream. – that we can dream of nothing better than doing as well as the guy next door – or perhaps as well as the guy in the suburb next door (the slightly better suburb, composed of slightly more classy people).
Now, as I say, this doesn’t really relate directly to the sermon, except in so far as both the study and our Gospel reading are about dreams. For if this British study tells us what we are dreaming about, what I see Jesus doing in Luke chapter 4 is telling us what we ought to be dreaming about.
The scene is the synagogue in Jesus’ home town of Nazareth, and the occasion seems to be the official launching of Jesus’ public ministry.
It was a day that ended really badly for Jesus, with numerous members of the synagogue community trying to kill Him, no doubt to the shock and horror of His family! The day began though in a very promising way, with Jesus being invited to be guest preacher at the synagogue service, speaking to the very faith community that he had been brought up in.
Not many details of that service are given to us in Luke 4, but from what we know of early synagogue services, the format would have been not unlike what we are used to. They would have had some singing (unaccompanied though by any organ or stringed instruments). They would have recited the ‘Shema Yisrael’: ‘Hear O Israel, the Lord your God, the Lord is One’ and then they would have had a series of three readings followed by a sermon, which usually focused on the third of the three readings.
And so Jesus ‘stood up to read’ we are told (what was presumably the third of the three readings) ‘And there was handed to him the scroll of the prophet Isaiah’, and He read:
“‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.’ And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and he sat down”.
Presumably this means he sat down to preach, as was then the practice, on the preacher’s chair, which was located at the front and centre of the synagogue. And ‘the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him’ to hear his sermon on the passage.
‘Today’, says Jesus, ‘this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’.
And that was it! The sermon was over. Jesus returned to his pew, presumably having broken the record for the shortest sermon ever preached in that synagogue. And everyone, we are told, was aghast! Indeed, they were so stirred up by what Jesus had said that while some were impressed there were no doubt others there who were already planning to lynch Him!
Why was everyone so shocked? Short sermons are always crowd pleasers, so it wasn’t just the brevity of Jesus’ address that stirred up the congregation in Nazareth that Sabbath morning. There was more going on!
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.
Jesus claimed to fulfil the prophecy of the spirit-filled messenger of God in Isaiah 61 and in so doing He was identifying Himself as the long-awaited Messiah. Is that why everybody so stirred up that they wanted to kill Him, or was there more to it still?
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.
The offense caused by Jesus, I’d suggest, lay partly in what He implied about Himself, but surely of equal importance was the content His announcement about how He was about to turn society upside-down – freeing prisoners, cancelling debts, and lifting up the poor so that they aren’t poor any more. Jesus seemed to be announcing the beginning of some sort of socialist revolution, and if that sounds crazy it will start to look a lot more plausible when we see where Isaiah was getting his inspiration from!
Jesus was quoting the prophet Isaiah that Sabbath morning – a guy who had spoken these words of hope to the people of Israel many centuries earlier after they had been conquered by the Babylonians and dispossessed of their land, but Isaiah himself was also quoting, or, at least, he was drawing his vision for a new age from a Biblical figure that preceded him – from Moses.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, for He has anointed me to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
This is almost certainly a reference to the Jubilee Year of Leviticus 25 – an institution apparently inaugurated by God through Moses wherein every 50 years the entire people of God were supposed to completely redistribute their wealth so that everybody had an equal share!
I won’t read through the legislation as outlined in Leviticus 25 at this point as you are quite capable of doing that yourselves later, but it was fundamentally a process of land reform where the land goes back to its original owners.
When Israel was first settled the land was divided up between the families roughly equally. Over generations of course some families did well with their land and others did poorly. Some would run into debt and end up selling their land and working the land of other people to pay off their debts.
While everybody started out as equals, over time some would end up very wealthy whereas others would end up as impoverished slaves, working the land of the wealthy in order to make them more wealthy still That does not surprise us. It is the pattern we have always been familiar with. What is surprising though is that Israel had a God-given law that limited how long such inequalities could continue, and that limit was 50 years.
After 50 years a trumpet was sounded and all debts were cancelled, all people imprisoned for their debts were released, and all land that had been sold was returned to its original owners. That was the Jubilee year – the ‘acceptable year of the Lord’ – a year when all social inequalities were forcibly removed, and it was indeed, of course, good news to the poor! Does that mean that God is a socialist, or is it rather a reminder of spiritual roots of socialism and of Karl Marx’s religious upbringing and grounding in the Scriptures.
Either way, and however we categories this law, It is an extraordinary piece of legislation, and it is extraordinary to think that such a radical institution was (and is) a part of the Torah – a part of Israel’s basic God-given legal system.
Sadly, it would appear that every time the 50 years came around Israel’s leaders would conveniently forget to actually enact the Jubilee. I guess that should not surprise us. And yet the Year of Jubilee did not therefore just disappear into the Biblical draw of ideas that seemed good at the time. Instead it became a part of the dreamtime of the people of Israel – a part of a larger vision of a day of true justice and equality that one day would come. And so when the prophet Isaiah speaks words of hope to the shattered survivors of the Babylonian conquest of 587 BC he speaks in terms of a Jubilee year – a new era of equality, of justice, of freedom for the captives and of hope for the poor.
And so when Jesus picks up the image of the Jubilee again in the synagogue of Nazareth He is resurrecting that same ancient dream of justice, of freedom and of a truly egalitarian community, and it is understandable that His proclamation upsets a few people.
And yet this truly is the proclamation of Jesus. This is the vision He gives us as He launches His ministry. This is our God-given dream of a world that is truly at peace and full of love. And for us here in Sydney this morning who are caught up in dreaming dreams of envy, such that our whole horizon goes no further than coveting the good fortunes of our neighbour, this is our challenge – to drop that pathetic dream and take on this vision – a dream worth dreaming!
Do we dare to dream a bigger dream? Do we dare to take our eyes off ourselves and lift our horizons to envisage something that goes beyond our own personal accomplishments.
Instead of dreaming of a slightly bigger bank balance, let’s dream of a world without prejudice.
Instead of being obsessed with fears for our own security, let’s dream of a world without fear and without war, where we don’t need to protect ourselves and our precious possessions but where we are truly happy to share.
Instead of wasting our time on naval-gazing and worrying about what other people think of us and how we measure up, let’s lift our gaze to truly focus on the humanity of our sisters and brothers who struggle alongside us and who beckon us to reach to them out in love.
Let us hear that trumpet, dream that dream, and so join with Jesus and the prophets and go all the way back to Moses and his vision of the Jubilee. For this is our hope. This is our Gospel. This is the Good News that we are called upon both to live and to preach.
So let’s keep the faith, live the life, and dream the dream, remembering the words of the great Dom Helder Camara, “When one man dreams it is just a dream, but when we all dream together it is the beginning of a new reality.”
First Preached by Father Dave at Holy Trinity Dulwich Hill, January 2010.